Help me understand atonal music
July 23, 2009 2:38 PM   Subscribe

I've been trying to branch out my musical tastes, and have started recently to listen to atonal and serialist music (Boulez, Schoenberg, Webern). There is something about it that I like, but I'm not quite sure what it is, and I feel like if I knew more about the music in question I could better appreciate it.

I have a fair amount of knowledge about music theory, but really only from texts on traditional harmony (including Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony). While the music isn't structured around harmony, there must be other structures because it sounds better than when I randomly smash keys on my piano. What should I be listening for? Repeated motifs? Rhythms?

I imagine that each artist might be fairly idiosyncratic with regard to how they structure their own music. If that's the case I'm more interested in Boulez and Schoenberg, as I like both of them far more than I like Webern.

More generally, if you are someone who listens serialism or atonal music, what do you like about it and how do you process it?
posted by Frankieist to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, goodness, I want to answer this, and I can answer this, but it would take a long time and I'm sick and I just can't. If you don't get a suitable answer out of this question, send me a memail and I'll return it when I can clearly put thoughts together.
posted by nosila at 2:48 PM on July 23, 2009

This and the accompanying anthology is the standard set of introductory texts for twentieth-century music history. I think these might have the right combination of analysis and context to satisfy you. These aren't going to be anyone's favorite books ever, but they will definitely clue you in on the "other structures" at work, as well as how the movements and composers fit together. I found a real appreciation for this type of music after my twentieth century history class, but I also had a great professor. In general I think context is more important for this genre than for traditional harmony, so seek out analytical texts. Album liner notes can be surprisingly helpful as well.
posted by pekala at 2:59 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

From what I can tell, you're asking about the basic ideas behind the structure of this sort of music, so what the hell, here is the wikipedia entry for serialism.

As a non-musican (unless childhood piano lessons count!), all I can say is that I enjoy listening to it because it sounds interesting and some pieces sorta allow me to zen out. It was interesting to learn about the planning/thought that goes into the music, but that was something I didn't really know much about until I started pestering my composer bf with questions.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 3:10 PM on July 23, 2009

My son is among the regular contributors to NewMusicBox. You might find some good info there.

Wild, wacky stuff.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:26 PM on July 23, 2009

You might enjoy reading The Rest is Noise - it's more history than music theory but it has a lot of good information on the composers you're interested in and reading it definitely made me want to listen to more music.
posted by pombe at 4:58 PM on July 23, 2009

Webern and Schoenberg developed the principles of serialism and twelve-tone music. Boulez was one of its most dogmatic supporters. The microtransformations and -permutations of the predetermined tone-rows are often too fast for the human ear to follow - yet it yields a strange effect of coherence. There are of course still ordering principles. When looking for literature or on Wikipedia, have a look for the 2nd Viennese school (Webern, Schoenberg) and the misleadingly termed "Darmstadt school" (Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, Nono, ...)
posted by yoHighness at 5:09 PM on July 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

i would also recommend 'the rest is noise' as a starting point to learn more about the rich history surrounding this music.

also, it helped me tremendously to wean myself onto listening to atonal music. had i started with webern (i had to listen to him for a class in college and absolutely hated it), i would have given up immediately. performing an almost atonal piece helped me ease into it, and allowed my curiosity to drive myself through some of the less mellifluous aspects of modern music (it was schoenberg's friede auf erden, which is technically tonal (kind of a shift from d minor to d major with some variations on that theme). at the time, i just liked singing the line 'flaming swords of justice (Flammenschwerter für das Recht)' on a high a).

i with late romantic/early modern and worked my way up from there, so to speak. stravinsky, richard strauss, mahler, and then edged my way into more esoteric things like schoenberg.
posted by chicago2penn at 5:47 PM on July 23, 2009

I have an extensive background in music theory and an excellent ear, including perfect pitch (which is pretty essential to make much sense of twelve-tone music), and while I enjoy listening to a lot of a serial music, I pretty much need a score to really analyse what is going on. So I wouldn't get your hopes too high if you are hoping for the music to eventually make semantic sense the way that Mozart does.

This doesn't mean you can't learn about it and enjoy it. As an entry point to atonal music, I highly recommend Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck, which is freely atonal rather than twelve-tone, but is rather accessible musically, has a lot of repeating themes and structures, and has a gripping plot. Actually, the second thing I would recommend is Berg's violin concerto, for similar reasons.

In general what 12-toners like Webern and Schoenberg are manipulating and referencing, more than anything else, is intervals. If you can get to the point of hearing that the pitch texture of the music is very major-sixthy, or minor-secondy, you'll have made a big step towards perceiving the logic of the music.

I also second The Rest Is Noise for an excellent overview of 20th century music, though there isn't a lot of analysis in it.
posted by dfan at 7:44 PM on July 23, 2009

I performed Lutoslawski and Etler on a recital 2 days ago. Here's how I think about it:
Structure, shmucture. (normal) People don't dig Mozart because it's in sonata form, they like it because of what's expressed. The structure is there in atonality, of course (and particularly out the wazoo in serialism), but it's not the point. It's the container.

Because there is so much structure, atonal pieces often start to resemble trigonometry problems to both the performer and the listener (this is bad).

Because of all that, listening to a truly good performance of an atonal piece can give you a purer look into the musician's heart. Any idiot can phrase Mozart and have it come out sounding like pretty standard no-minor-chords classical FM radio. But a lot of atonal music is ABOUT the shape of the phrases, and the performer has to dig deep to make an emotional statement -- there's no "default" path.

For most performers, no default path = no path. Great performers invent their own path and convince you that it was obvious all along. That's what I listen for.
posted by range at 10:20 PM on July 23, 2009

Shell out $33 dollars for this, and mail me a copy.

...atonal pieces often start to resemble trigonometry problems to both the performer and the listener (this is bad).

I don't find this to be the case with Webern, I can hear some of the inversions and retrogrades without any special effort.

You might like Captain Beefheart.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:52 PM on July 23, 2009

Not an answer but I really, really love the Glenn Gould/Yehudi Menuhin recording of the Shoenberg Violin Sonata. Also, there's a video that used to be available where the two discuss the piece. Gould loves it, Menuhin hates it, but they both play it with a lot of fire.
posted by sully75 at 4:22 AM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I actually have a degree in music theory, but I AM NOT YOUR MUSIC THEORIST. George Perle, who died a few months ago, has written some of the best texts on serialism and its wicked stepchildren. Perhaps start with The Listening Composer or Twelve Tone Tonality. Not everyone agrees with Perle, but that's like saying David Chang isn't a good chef.
posted by billtron at 4:57 AM on July 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Twelve Tone Tonality is an interesting book, but be aware that it's about the theory behind Perle's personal music, not anyone else's. If you're interested in the more general theory of Schoenberg et al you want Serial Composition and Atonality.
posted by dfan at 5:40 AM on July 24, 2009

dfan's got it, especially in terms of how to listen.

I just wanted to add that Schoenberg's personal breakthrough begat three essential schools of atonal composition, each of which provides a different listening experience.

The first is free atonality, which is exactly what it sounds like: music that is composed without any a priori logical constraints other than the standard, equally-tempered twelve notes of Western music and a desire to avoid the establishment of anything approaching a tonal context. Everything Schoenberg wrote in between Op. 11 and Op. 24 inclusive is written in this style. Anything written by Berg or Webern before 1925 is freely atonal as well. Like twelve-tone music, this style treats sequences or sets of notes related by transposition, inversion and retrograde (chronological inversion) as equivalent, semantically speaking. Sets that occur in horizontal configurations often occur vertically, and vice versa. The melodic material (a slippery notion in atonal music) is usually made up of small cells, and when variation on those cells occurs (a difficult thing to hear in the absence of a tonal context), it is often articulated rhythmically. Sometimes the intervals in a cell are different enough from each other that they you can still pick out the cell even when some intervals in it are altered a semi-tone or two.

Twelve-tone music is the second type, was born of the perceived lack of long-term formal articulation strategies in atonal music. A twelve-tone series allowed for a certain melodic and harmonic coherence, and different versions of the prime form could be used to articulate structure in the same way that key centers were once used. Schoenberg was especially fond of techniques such as hexachordal combinatoriality, which involves pairing a row with a particular transformation of another row (usually the form achieved by inverting the original and transposing it up/down a tritone) such that the first six notes of both rows contain all twelve tones (stated another way, the first six tones of the first row appear as the last six tones of the second row and vice versa). This was his way of creating harmonic coherence. You might try listening for this, but probably if you're interested in picking it out a score will serve you better. It's important to note that, in this style, every other aspect of the music was decided by the composer as he composed, such as dynamics and rhythm.

Milton Babbitt was a big proponent of this organizational scheme even as he ventured into serializing other parameters of the music, which method taken to its logical extreme produced total serialism, atonal school number three, a movement that was spearheaded by Boulez and Krenek and other folks in the Sixties. The organizing principle is pretty simple: the successive values of every musical parameter were set in a predetermined order created by the composer. I would argue that there is little point in trying to get a semantic bead on this music because it was designed to have no semantic value to the listener. Serialist composers (and their contemporaries, the composers of chance music, who somewhat ironically produced via random chance that sounded pretty much exactly the same) were trying to erase all traces of the composer's hand in the work, because they believed (over-simplification follows) that any such action would rely on cultural conditioning that was inadmissible in the music of the future. I think it was Ligeti that likened the creative act involved in total serialism to putting a coin in a vending machine and taking out from it whatever the machine produced. The listening experience is similar; you pretty much have no choice but to let it wash over you, content that you're listening to the inevitable playing out of a few pre-decided rules.

There are some unique realizations of these three approaches (Stravinsky's serialism is a very different breed, for example), but I'd say that covers the lion's share of the atonal tradition that Schoenberg began. I found my listening of these pieces enhanced by knowing the context in which they were created, so I hope this helps!

Oh, and concerning listening, the ability to hear an arbitrary sequence of notes as a sonority that you could identify as readily as you could a minor or major chord is essential in making sense of atonal music, but as dfan says, this isn't really something that even someone with perfect pitch can do too well on the fly, so I wouldn't sweat it. If you want to try, Ear Training for Twentieth Century Music by Michael Friedmann has a lot of exercises for developing exactly that ability. I've done some of these exercises, and while it's possible to learn to identify arbitrary pitch class sets, there are so many unique ones that it's difficult to really prepare yourself in advance for any atonal piece you might want to listen to.

(If you're going to pick up a book about the analysis of atonal music, I want to second Serial Composition and Atonality by George Perle, which I find to be a better written, more listener-oriented text than Allen Forte's The Structure of Atonal Music, which is another unfortunately standard text and the product of one of the most fanatic and overwrought bean-platers of all time).
posted by invitapriore at 1:22 PM on July 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

One other thing I wanted to make sure to do in this thread was to shill for one of my favorite pieces of all time, Ravel's Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarme. It's written for the same ensemble as Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, and the third movement is arguably freely atonal. It's fascinating to hear the very French Ravel's colorful take on Schoenberg's music, and the text is so well set.

(The other two movements are beautiful as well, and the way in which the tonal context projected by the music becomes more and more tenuous as it goes on is really satisfying.)
posted by invitapriore at 1:42 PM on July 24, 2009

Thanks everyone for your responses, they've been very helpful. I work at a university so I should be able to check out all of the books that were mentioned.

I've frequently heard Boulez described as a dogmatic serialist, but some of his later works (I'm thinking Sur Incises, Messagesquisse and Anthèmes sound different, maybe slightly more tonal, than most serialist music I've heard, including Boulez's earlier works. I don't know how I feel about serialist music as such, the composition technique just seems too sterile.

What's most interesting to me I suppose are works that flirt with the border between tonality and atonality, such as Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, as well as I guess what some might call post-serialist music, like Boulez's later works. In this regard I think that the article "Tonality in Webern's Cantata I" should be very helpful.
posted by Frankieist at 8:54 AM on July 29, 2009

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