Monday, 13 March 2017


Order and flexibility, the transition from serialism to total serialism

Webern’s lectures on 12 note music make a number of bold statements, for the purpose of this blog the following are selected to provide a route into the discussion regarding order and flexibility.

·         12 note music is an inevitable outcome of progressive developments in Western music.

·         12 note music is a method that creates comprehensibility through repetition and order.

·         Comprehensibility requires the control of foreground and background material (gestalt).

·         The overtone series is the basis for the progression to new music; it generates consonance and dissonance, cadences, and is responsible for the eventual development of key change, the weakening of the tonic which results in the liberation of music from the tonic.

Webern’s overriding concern (as it seems to me) is order, an order where gravity and the gluing together of material to create a coherent and strong structure is the substance of art. We have a century of developments after Webern to see how this argument plays out, and in order to take a constructive view on flexibility in music it is necessary to touch on the next musical stage, serial composition up to the period around the 1950’s. While I have inbuilt reservations about composers discussing their own works it is fascinating to read through Boulez’s (changing) views regarding order and structure, and his essays aid our understanding of the different ways of perceiving “flexibility”, so it is to his texts and interviews that this blog turns.

Before engaging with Boulez’s own music it is worth noting his views on Webern in his early essays. The first view concerns Webern’s “technical perfection” and “formal purity”, which he senses acts as a barrier to wider public recognition. This is a concern that Webern addresses in his own lectures. This problem of accessibility in Boulez’s view arises as a result of the newness or “novelty” of the language. He argues that the means of expression makes Webern a significant figure in the development of music.  It is quite clear that Boulez identifies with Webern in this matter: 

I consider that methodical investigation and the search for a coherent system are an indispensable basis for all creation, more so than the actual attainments which are the source or the consequence of this investigation. I hope it will not he said that such a step leads to aridity, that it kills all fantasy and since it is difficult to avoid the fateful word all inspiration.

Boulez also writes about the severance of new music from the earlier tonal period, citing Stravinsky for rhythm and the 12 note composers for their weakening of tonality. He considers this severance as a historical necessity arising out of serialism, and as such continues the processes outlined in the Webern essays.

When writing about his own music Boulez makes use of a number of terms that are of different degrees of intuitive comprehensibility, the following link to Peter Tannenbaum’s work on Boulez has as an appendix a list of some 80+ of these terms which the reader might find of some interest.


Despite the necessity to adapt to the terms which Boulez uses the main arguments are relatively straightforward when we filter out the principal notion of control and freedom.

Like Webern Boulez holds to the idea of comprehensibility being rooted in every part of the composition being necessary; the play between foreground/background materials for Webern is present in Boulez’s idea of a purity in the final composition. The idea that components of a composition have to have a function which relates to the composing intention is not new, what is different after Webern is the model for selecting the composing material, and that this has a prescribed system of organisation.

Boulez discovered that the use of precise ordering effects the number of choices available, where this seen as an advantage by some composers it raised questions in Boulez’s mind. Boulez recognises that complete control necessitates a total overview of the work before the process of realisation begins.  He accepts that in attempting to create the situation in which every musical unit has a necessary function an element of surprise is lost. This surprise is primarily the concern of the composer, though one has to assume that Boulez also feels that is an issue for the listener. One may think that there are parallels with the planning in Beethoven’s notebooks, but the essential difference comes down to the difference between prescriptive and flexible variation of material.

Like Webern Boulez considers processes of evolution, but in his case this evolution arises from the composer’s engagement with the music itself. By employing the techniques of composition one learns to identify mannerisms, regularities and characteristics which in their turn enrich the engagement. While there is little that is new in this, it once again echoes Webern’s lectures regarding the choice of material:

Linking up with my last remarks, I should like to say something today about the purely practical application of the new technique. But first I'll answer a question put to me by one of you: "How is free invention possible when one has to remember to adhere to the order of the series for the work?"

Here is Boulez in conversation with UE:

I think that if you have an interesting and productive relationship with the material, the material certainly will compose for you. But you must know how it is composed. And I find it wonderful to think of it such that the material in fact composes with you, and you compose with the material.




Boulez adopts the stance that there is a difference between the exploration of a plan and its realisation, the logic of the music is not music in itself. The composer is seen as a guide who offers a “pathway” through possibilities by selective, informed choice.  If a situation arises where some element of the work is unplanned (an unexpected encounter on the pathway) then it is outside the control of the composer and therefore valueless in that it does not contribute to the whole. One can immediately recognise the gap between e.g. Boulez and Crumb where quotation in the latter composer’s work is an essential factor, and does not arise specifically from the content of the vessel that contains the quotation.

Boulez explores the notion of a ground plan and its limitations, he writes about “chance by automatism”. He considers the construction of music via number systems and pitch permutations and decides that if a composer fails to select his own “pathway” or impose his will on the material then one is failing to compose, instead the result is a generation of kaleidoscopic, potentially meaningless, patterns. He also considers other composers alternatives to the method of sound selection by less rigorous approaches, “Chance by inadvertence”. Here he includes graphic notation and randomized selection (coin tossing, dice etc.), in fact any music that minimizes the composer’s control. Boulez considers that the outcome of these methods fall on the shoulders of the performer rather than the composer. There are of course many methods of ensuring a partnership between composer and performer, but his concern is the “purity” of the work produced.

Though this is a very brief outline of a stage in Boulez’s thinking about structure, it serves to illustrate the situation that brings this composer to consider alternatives to complete control, alternatives that were of interest to his one-time friend John Cage, mobile form.

The recurrent theme of writings by Boulez and about Boulez is intellectual rigour, and his criticisms of less-rigorous or non-rigorous approaches could be read as weakness in the structure or musical argument of that music. This leads to the question, does flexibility as in the inclusion of quotation in music as in the music of Ives and later George Crumb signify that is a weaker composition?  

For those who wish to read more about the thought processes that lead to Boulez’s aesthetics I would strongly recommend the following link to a thesis by David Walters: