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Thread: Cognition of Serial Music

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    Default Cognition of Serial Music

    There has been a good deal of debate over the years as to the way in which serial music is understood by a listener and how this is important. Many have questioned the audibility of serial processes, such as Lehrdahl, but to me and many others this is a non-issue unless such the hearing of the process behind the music is the intent (and I have yet to come across a single piece in which it is).

    There's an interesting interview with Milton Babbitt here in which he responds to a few listeners who had just heard his piece "Occasional Variations" for synthesizer, and I think his remarks are quite enlightening as to how a composer expects an audience of non-musicians (or at least people who are not trained in serial technique) to respond to his/her work.

    https://archive.org/details/SOM_1984_11_15

    (Skip right to part 2 to get to the questions following the piece; the piece itself is at the end of part 1.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    Many have questioned the audibility of serial processes, such as Lehrdahl, but to me and many others this is a non-issue unless such the hearing of the process behind the music is the intent (and I have yet to come across a single piece in which it is).
    I too doubt that serial composers expect the listener to hear the technical process. Maybe the Boulez's of this world can, but expect? Naaaah

    Meanwhile:

    Babbitt was fairly easy to follow...except for a few animated spots where he started to veer off into complex syntax. I guess that's because he was into a Q&A session.

    I once attend a lecture by him around 1973/74 and it was an auditorium filled with well-learned, highly talented musicians and most us never got past his opening statements. After the 1st couple of minutes, the rest of the hour lecture was hopeless to comprehend.
    "Music in any generation is not what the public thinks of it but what the musicians make of it"....Virgil Thomson

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    There has been a good deal of debate over the years as to the way in which serial music is understood by a listener and how this is important. Many have questioned the audibility of serial processes, such as Lehrdahl, but to me and many others this is a non-issue unless such the hearing of the process behind the music is the intent (and I have yet to come across a single piece in which it is).
    When you say "serial music," does this include Schoenberg's 12-tone works? I say this because Schoenberg was a thematic composer, and used the row thematically; and I assume that Schoenberg wanted us to hear his music as thematic, such as the Piano Concerto.

    I can cite Mahlerian and others as saying in past posts that they hear the Schoenberg Piano Concerto as recognizably thematic, although I hope I will not have to search and dig up that information for quotation.

    If they admit this, then this query will serve as a clarification, and will more precisely define exactly what Mahlerian is referring to in his post.

    Also, I think some clarification is called for by the use of the phrase "hearing the process behind the music." Is this meant to imply that "hearing serial rows" is in some cases "difficult or impossible," as Lehrdahl has stated in his treatise on intelligibility in serial music, or that hearing such structural elements is "irrelevant" or a "non-issue," as Mahlerian has stated?

    After all, it's harder to remember 12 things than it is to remember 7 things.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    There's an interesting interview with Milton Babbitt here in which he responds to a few listeners who had just heard his piece "Occasional Variations" for synthesizer, and I think his remarks are quite enlightening as to how a composer expects an audience of non-musicians (or at least people who are not trained in serial technique) to respond to his/her work.
    What a condescending schmuck (Babbitt). Just the way he repeated the first questioner's name made me shudder. "John, John…" I listened to his alleged attempt at an answer to the first question and found the man's manner of expressing himself and the vague generalities he spouted tiresome. I would have left the room at that point rather than having to listen to more of it.

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    Must say I found Babbitt to be quite poor here. He seemed to be throwing around a lot of contemporary buzz words with very little content behind it.

    As far as the feasibility of hearing 12-tone processes goes: my experience is that if you are familiar with a serial piece that uses a distinctive melodic row you can pick out whether it is appearing in prime form, retrograde, inversion or retrograde inversion. It isn't that difficult particularly to remember the first few notes of a melody. The better I know a piece the better I am acquainted with the row. Honestly, like most music I am often more closely attending to other parameters like volume, timbre, register alongside pitch. I think this is a pretty similar model to tonal music. When I first hear a tonal work I often don't utterly grasp every detail of the harmony and counterpoint.

    I don't see it really matters what you think of the technique. The only judgement that is really worth making is whether you enjoy/get something out of the music. I would say there are quite a few serial pieces that I find very moving. So that music is worthwhile, whether or not I can follow the row forms as I listen.

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    Quote Originally Posted by EdwardBast View Post
    What a condescending schmuck (Babbitt). Just the way he repeated the first questioner's name made me shudder. "John, John…" I listened to his alleged attempt at an answer to the first question and found the man's manner of expressing himself and the vague generalities he spouted tiresome. I would have left the room at that point rather than having to listen to more of it.
    By all reports I've heard, Babbitt was a quite congenial man who wasn't intentionally condescending at all. His manner was often very jokey (like the names of many of his pieces), and he was a stickler for precise use of terminology, which is why he puts scare quotes around a lot of the more familiar words he uses to try to explain things (and which could come off as obtuse), but he doesn't ever imply "you're too stupid to get this" or "I want to impress you with my knowledge of things you couldn't understand."

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    Scare quoting commonly used words is often a bad sign... He was understandable, and I didn't find him condescending. Yet he wasn't as clear as he might be. He seems not to have been a very eloquent speaker.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Che2007 View Post
    He seems not to have been a very eloquent speaker.
    I still think (I don't actually know) that he was being "cautious" with this particular audience when it came to his choice of words as his normal theory verbiage can be as dense as his music. That's why I mentioned his "real" syntax peeked through those moments when he got a little revved up.
    "Music in any generation is not what the public thinks of it but what the musicians make of it"....Virgil Thomson

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mahlerian View Post
    By all reports I've heard, Babbitt was a quite congenial man who wasn't intentionally condescending at all. His manner was often very jokey (like the names of many of his pieces)
    Yes, I've heard that too. Back in the very early 80's he was a guest composer at a 2-week summertime Indiana University composer forum. I attended only the previous 2-week one with Lukas Foss. Some of my fellow composers that were at the Foss forum stayed for the Babbitt and said the same thing Mahlerian; namely, he was great to hang out with, but Lordy look out when it was lecture time. LOL!
    "Music in any generation is not what the public thinks of it but what the musicians make of it"....Virgil Thomson

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    Speaking generally about the approaches:

    Tonality is based on immediately perceivable sound phenomena, and is responded to reflexively compared to serial music. Simple 7-note tonality is much easier to comprehend than serial structures.

    In serialism, the 'tonality' has to be completely determined by the row, and how that row relates to vertical combinations. Plus, serialism always uses all 12 notes all the time. Granted, there can be hexachords and divisions of the row which share content, and thus create 'arrays' of harmonic sonorities, but these are strategies, or determined ways of creating harmonic structures we perceive as meaningful. In tonality, these general factors are implicit and reflexive, more visceral than cerebral.

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