Play a sample of total serial music in any college music theory class, and you are bound to hear the response “it sounds like what I would have played when I was in second grade.”
Of course, the intellectual profundity of this music goes far beyond anything any second grader could comprehend. Or does it?
I remember what I was like in second grade. If someone handed me twelve colored pencils and piece of blank paper, all twelve colors would end up on that paper. I simply couldn’t stand to let one of the colors go unused. I felt like the number of colors represented the potential amazingness of my artwork, and to not use one meant to not reach that fullest potential. I was obsessed to the point of being unable to make any aesthetic decision that excluded an available color, even when I recognized the flaw of my own technique.
So, I propose that serialism is more indicative of obsession than it is of genius. Of course, that is not to say that any second grader could compose something on par with Schoenberg. In the same way that a great artist would be able to use twelve colors in a much more significant way than a second grader, so would a great musician be expected to make decidedly better use of a twelve tone row. My contention is not that there is no intelligence in it at all, but that it is inherently a flawed theory based on flawed assumptions. And more importantly, those specific assumptions may be challenged with a more intelligible comeback than “this music is terrible.”
Why didn’t God color his creation with equal parts purple, orange, green, red, brown, pink, yellow, blue, and so on? Perhaps because the flawed theories that so often attract aspiring elementary school artists and twentieth century musicians failed to mislead the divine intelligence that designed our world. Pink petals in springtime and pink streaks above a setting sun delight us for the very reason that they are reserved for such special occasions, yet the omnipresent green of summer delights by the very reason of its prominence.
It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to realize that a landscape made of equal parts pink and green would lessen the joy of seeing either color.
The actual colors chosen are not important – but this realization about ratios is. In another part of the country, the ubiquitous green of foliage is replaced by the ubiquitous orange of desert rocks. Either way, the important thing is that some colors are accentuated, some are downplayed and others are totally lacking throughout a particular landscape – and this allows us to process and appreciate them with pleasure rather than confusion. In the same way, in some songs it may be the C and the G that dominate the musical landscape, while B, E and D are seen in a more limited context and A flat or C sharp can’t be found. Don’t worry, they will be prominent in a different song! Some notes are valuable because they form the foundation of the piece, others are valuable because they provide color, and others are reserved for a different musical landscape altogether. If each note is made to be equal, then each note is made to be equally dull.
Recently I heard this catchy tune by Bo Donaldson. It stood out to me and I was able to remember it and look it up later because of how the lyrics lined up with one particular note — see if you can tell which one I am referring to.
Compare that (admittedly not remotely similar tune) to this piece by Anton Webern (Variations op. 27, no. 3)
Where does the Eb occur in the first song? Here’s a hint – it is memorable. Seemingly it gets unfair treatment, only occurring a couple of times while other notes get to be heard a lot more. The Eb is treated much more fairly in Webern’s piece. Can you pick it out? Therein is the irony – the Eb that is heard less – but is treated artistically – stays in our ears much better.
Now, if you want to spend seven minutes very wisely, check out this video of the Allman Brothers playing In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. There are a lot of colors in their musical palette, but each is still quite sensibly used. Listening to this song is like driving down the highway. The scenes and colors change, but not senselessly. So ought we organize music, at least so long as the goal is to achieve something beautiful. Such is the natural order of things, and, as the old adage goes, it is best not to fix that which is not broken.