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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin

An unusually frank and revealing answer to these difficult questions was given in 1960 by Ernst Krenek, a composer who won his first fame as the author of Jonny spielt auf, the most popular European opera of the “jazz age.” Over the intervening decades, Krenek's career had gone through some intense vicissitudes, and so had his compositional approach. From having been the darling of a brash materialistic society, Krenek had become a political refugee, unexpectedly committed to twelve-tone composition as a symbol of “the loneliness and alienation of humanity,”36 and regarding it, perhaps reluctantly, as the only morally valid form music could take.

Disquieting Answers

fig. 1-5 Ernst Krenek.

Practically alone among his generation, Krenek was strongly attracted to the reconditeness and the rigors of “total serialism” as preached and practiced by the young composers at Darmstadt—all the more so when he found that they mistrusted his commercially successful past and, practicing some fairly brazen generational politics, rebuffed his friendly overtures during the summers of 1954and 1956, shutting him out and making him feel doubly isolated. (In 1961 Darmstadt witnessed a little scandal when the students and staff of the summer course turned out in force to jeer a work of Krenek's that was being performed at the local opera house.) Personal hostility kept Krenek out of the “Darmstadt school” per se; by the time he got around to it, moreover, the official Darmstadt line was that total serialism was passé. Yet these circumstances made his embrace of total serialism all the more significant, for they showed that its appeal was not just a sectarian or a passing phenomenon but a genuine sign of the times.

Krenek's most rigorously organized serial composition was Sestina (1957) for soprano and ten instruments. The text, by the composer himself, was a meditation on the notorious philosophical problems we are now considering. It was cast in an elaborately organized medieval verse form, Krenek (a part-time musicologist) having noticed the similarity, alluded to above, between the hermeticism of the new music and the trobar clus or “exclusive poetry” of the troubadours. Krenek had learned about the sestina form from R. P. Blackmur, a literary critic on the faculty of Princeton University, who hosted a series of lectures the composer had been invited to deliver on “Recent Advances in Musical Thought and Sound.” Supposedly invented by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel, the sestina consisted of six six-line stanzas in which the end-words of every stanza were the same, but presented each time in a different order.

The six orderings of the end-words were obtained through a process of permutation that, Krenek immediately saw, could be adapted to the permutations of a tone row. The order established in the first stanza (1 2 3 4 5 6) was rearranged in successive stanzas by continually pairing the last with the first, the next-to-last with the second, and the third- from-last with the third: 1 2 3 4 5 6 → 6 1 5 2 4 3 → 3 6 4 1 2 5 → 5 3 2 6 1 4 → 4 5 1 3 6 2 → 2 4 6 5 3 1; and here the process must stop because the next (seventh) permutation would reproduce the first. Instead, the poem ends with a three-line tornada or refrain that uses all six words, two to a line.

Krenek's poem, composed in his native German even though the performances were to take place in New York, ponders the esthetic and existential problems of “total serialism” by adopting a set of relevant terms for permutation at the line-endings: Strom (flow or stream), Mass (measure or measurement), Zufall (chance), Gestalt (shape), Zeit (time), and Zahl (number). The tornada summarized the issues:

Wie ich mit Mass

bezwinge Klang und Zeit,

entflieht Gestalt

im unermessnen Zufall.

Kristall der Zahl

entlässt des Lebens Strom.

As I with measurement

master sound and time,

Shape recedes

in unmeasured chance,

The crystal of number

releases the stream of existence.

To represent musically the endless or cyclic permutation symbolized as well as pondered in the poem, Krenek divided the tone row into its constituent hexachords, which he then modified (or as he put it, “rotated”) numerically as shown in Ex. 1-11, the pitch numbers standing for the end-word numbers displayed above in the sestina scheme. The resulting stream of numbers, further permuted by the usual serial procedures (cancrizans, inversion, retrograde inversion), could then be adapted to the serialization of duration, loudness, and attack, according to a set of algorithms comparable to those that Boulez had employed in Structures. And just as in Structures, as the composer was well aware, the algorithms produced sound sequences that could not be parsed as relationships by a listening ear, only by an inquiring mind.

Disquieting Answers

ex. 1-11 Cyclic permutation in Ernst Krenek, Sestina

Performed and recorded in March 1958 and published shortly afterward, Krenek's Sestina made little impression at first. But in 1959 the composer was invited back to Princeton to participate in a seminar in “advanced musical studies” and gave a paper there entitled “Extents and Limits of Serial Technique,” in which, among other things, he commented on several of his recent works, including Sestina. His remarks, considered overly and even offensively candid by several in attendance, attracted wide attention when they were published (along with several others from the seminar) in a special issue of The Musical Quarterly (April 1960) that was reissued two years later as a book called Problems of Modern Music.

Recalling a statement made by Stockhausen at a Darmstadt lecture—“Boulez's objective is the product; mine is the process”—Krenek endorsed the implied emphasis on the composer (the maker) rather than the audience (the passive receiver) and as much as wrote the latter out of the picture. In describing one of his earlier experiments in total serialism, he asserted that “whatever occurs in this piece at any given point is premeditated and therefore technically predictable”; but immediately qualified the statement with what many regarded as a stunning admission. “While the preparation and the layout of the material as well as the operations performed therein are the consequence of serial premeditation,” he allowed, “the audible results of these procedures were not visualized as the purpose of the procedures. Seen from this angle, the results are incidental.”37 It didn't matter, in other words, what the music sounded like.

After describing the algorithms employed in Sestina, Krenek made an admission even more alarming to those who had thought of total serialism as a means of securing maximum control over the musical material:

If the succession of tones is determined by serial regulation (as is the case in the classical twelve-tone technique) and, in addition to this, the timing of the entrance into the musical process of these tones is also predetermined by serial calculation (as, for example, in the case of the Sestina), it is no longer possible to decide freely (that is, by “inspiration”) which tones should sound simultaneously at any given point. In other words, the so-called harmonic aspect of the piece will be entirely the result of operations performed on premises that have nothing to do with concepts of “harmony,” be it on the assumption of tonality or atonality or anything else. Whatever happens at any given point is a product of the preconceived serial organization, but by the same token it is a chance occurrence because it is as such not anticipated by the mind that invented the mechanism and set it in motion.38

This much had been acknowledged before, if not quite so forthrightly. But Krenek went on to answer the question posed above—“Why is this desirable?”—in equally forthright terms, and this had never been done before. He took as the “text” for his sermon a recent analysis of Structures in Die Reihe that had at last uncovered its algorithms, thus implying that his comments were not merely the personal reflections of an aging and isolated figure but characterized the attitudes of the younger European composers as well. (The author of the analysis, György Ligeti, was a Hungarian composer who had emigrated to Austria at the time of the Hungarian revolt against Communist rule in 1956.) Krenek began by explaining why he had put derisive quotation marks around the word “inspiration” in the passage just quoted:

Actually the composer has come to distrust his inspiration because it is not really as innocent as it was supposed to be, but rather conditioned by a tremendous body of recollection, tradition, training, and experience. In order to avoid the dictations of such ghosts, he prefers to set up an impersonal mechanism which will furnish, according to premeditated patterns, unpredictable situations. Ligeti characterizes this state of affairs very well: “We stand in front of a row of vending machines (“Automaten”) and we can choose freely into which one we want to drop our coin, but at the same time we are forced to choose one of them. One constructs his own prison according to his wishes and is afterwards freely active within those walls—that is: not entirely free, but not totally constrained either. Thus automation does not function as the opposite of free decision: rather free selection and mechanization are united in the process of selecting the mechanism.” In other words, the creative act takes place in an area in which it has so far been entirely unsuspected, namely in setting up the serial statements (selecting the slot machines). What happens afterwards is predetermined by the selection of the mechanism, but not premeditated except as an unconscious result of the predetermined operations. The unexpected happens by necessity. The surprise is built in.39

On one level this looked like the reductio ad absurdum of the modernist attitude in its “zero hour” extremity: better a random or meaningless product than one that bears traces of the past. That truly seemed like pursuing novelty at all costs—specifically, at the exorbitant cost of “recollection, tradition, training, and experience,” the very sources of consciousness, especially artistic consciousness, and of the capacity to act responsibly. The renunciation was so extreme, and so telling, as to attract the attention of contemporary philosophers. Stanley Cavell, a philosopher then on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley (and a trained musician as well) responded almost immediately to Krenek's paper, in a paper of his own read in December 1960 and reworked into a celebrated essay, “Music Discomposed,” that was published in 1965 and widely anthologized thereafter, becoming the subject of commentary and debate in its own right.

Cavell's immediate reaction to Krenek's position was an impulse to mock it: “This is not serious, but it is meant,”40 was his much-repeated quip. Reading more widely in the professional arts literature of the day, he was forced to acknowledge the position as “symptomatic” of a “dissonant and unresolved emotion”41 that was felt not just in music but in all the contemporary arts. He recognized the language, or jargon, of existentialism: “It is scarcely unusual,” he observed, “for an awareness of determinism to stir philosophical speculation about the possibilities of freedom and choice and responsibility.” But there was a big, unprecedented difference. “Whereas the more usual motivation has been to preserve responsibility in the face of determinism, these new views wish to preserve choice by foregoing responsibility (for everything but the act of ‘choosing’).”42 It was the ultimate “escape from freedom.” Cavell cast the paradox of total serialism in terms of a familiar antithesis. “In denying tradition,” he observed, “Krenek is a Romantic, but with no respect or hope for the individual's resources; and in the reliance on rules, he is a Classicist, but with no respect or hope for his culture's inventory of conventions.”43 Exposing so fundamental an incoherence, the philosopher thought, would undermine such a music's claim to validity—or at least the validity of the justification now being offered for its existence. “Such philosophizing as Krenek's does not justify it,” Cavell asserts, “and must not be used to protect it against aesthetic assessment.”44 But just as he delivers the intended deathblow, Cavell suddenly and, it seems, unwittingly identifies the source of the music's validity—or rather, identifies the reason why the practice proved so appealing (or consoling) and was so widely taken up by rational musicians in full awareness of the attendant paradoxes.

“What in fact Krenek has come to distrust,” the philosopher alleges, “is the composer's capacity to feel any idea as his own.”45 Cavell calls this “nihilism,”46 for it contradicts what he sees (in an argument that ultimately goes back to Immanuel Kant) as the ultimate value of any work of art: “A work of art does not express some particular intention (as statements do), nor achieve particular goals (the way technological skill and moral action do), but, one may say, celebrates the fact that men can intend their lives at all (if you like, that they are free to choose), and that their actions are coherent and effective at all in the scene of indifferent nature and determined society.”47 Total serialism, “by calling something musically organized (let alone totally organized) on grounds unrelated to any way in which it is, or is meant to be, heard,” must therefore express “contempt for the artistic process”—and by extension, it expresses contempt for (or disbelief in) the “fact” that the artistic process is meant to celebrate. We cannot “intend our lives” any more, such music seems to say. “Nothing we now have to say, no personal utterance, has its meaning conveyed in the conventions and formulas we now share,”48 it dispiritingly implies. Therefore, “taste must be defeated49 as a justification for art or indeed for any human action, since taste in any consensual sense must rest on beliefs that have become untenable.

Cavell decries this nihilistic defeatism. Yet rather than an expression of simple nihilism, or belief in nothing, the renunciation total serialism demanded might rather be seen as expressing existential despair. It was the passionately intense reaction of artists who could no longer believe in the supreme value of the individual self, the “autonomous subject” exalted by romanticism, at a time when a hundred thousand selves just as individual as theirs might vanish at the push of a button. There was no point in having intentions or expressing feelings at a time when the best laid plans seemed so futile, and personal feelings so trivial, in the face of such destructive power. That had to be what Boulez meant when he “decreed” that art had to transcend persons. The authoritarian manner was bravado in the face of impotence.

One took refuge instead in what Ligeti frankly called a “compulsion neurosis”50 —elaborate mechanical methods that put one in touch with something less vulnerable than personal wishes and tastes, or subjective standards of beauty. The contempt that Stanley Cavell discerned in Krenek's pseudo-technical writing is even more evident in Boulez's determination “to strip music of its accumulated dirt and give it the structure it had lacked since the Renaissance.” But it is also evident that the contempt is directed not merely at traditional art, or the traditional audience, but at the whole idea that art is for the sake of people. One's only solace was to strip away all personality, feelings, and expressive intention. That was the “dirt.” And the artist's own personality and feelings were not exempted. After Hiroshima everyone felt like dirt. The only responsible decision left was to face that miserable contingency and find a way of composing that would stamp out the artist's puny person and allow something “realer” to emerge. And what could be realer than number?

The desperate antihumanism of the early atomic age, then, sought its consolation in an ancient prehumanism—something far older than what is usually called “the Renaissance.” Behind that imprecise formulation, as we know, Boulez had the music of the fourteenth-century Ars Nova in mind, and the isorhythmic motets of Machaut and Du Fay. In one of his earliest manifestos, Boulez actually revealed as the source of his inspiration a passage from the foreword to a then recent edition of Du Fay's complete works (the author, Guillaume de Van, was actually a transplanted American, William Carrolle Devan, who had compromised himself by heading the music division of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris during the German occupation):

Isorhythm was the finest expression of the fourteenth-century musical ideal, the arcanum which only the few could penetrate, and which constituted the supreme test of the composer's ability…. The limitations imposed by the rigid dimensions of a plan which determined beforehand the tiniest details of rhythmic structure, did not stint the composer's inspiration, for his motets give the impression of free, spontaneous compositions, while in fact the isorhythmic canon is strictly observed.51

But while Boulez called this elite arcanum “the most rational attitude to rhythm in our Western music,” and cited it as “precedent for modern research,”52 it rested on a Platonic (and before Plato, a Pythagorean) faith in number as the ultimate and imperishable reality, as memorably expressed in the ninth-century Scholia enchiriadis, the textbook that stands at the very wellspring of the continuous tradition of music theory in the west. “Notes pass quickly away,” the book proclaimed; “numbers, however, though stained by the corporeal touch of pitches and motions, remain.”53


(36) Quoted in Edward Rothstein, “Ernst Krenek, 91, a Composer Prolific in Many Modern Styles” (obituary), New York Times, 24 December 1991.

(37) Ernst Krenek, “Extents and Limits of Serial Techniques,” in Problems of Modern Music: The Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies, ed. Paul Henry Lang (New York: Norton, 1962), p. 83.

(38) Ibid., p. 90.

(39) Ibid., pp. 90–91.

(40) Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed,” in Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 195.

(41) Ibid., p. 187.

(42) Ibid., pp. 194–95.

(43) Ibid., p. 196.

(44) Ibid., p. 196.

(45) Ibid.

(46) Ibid., p. 202.

(47) Ibid., p. 198.

(48) Ibid., p. 201.

(49) Ibid., p. 206.

(50) György Ligeti, “Pierre Boulez: Entscheidung und Automatik in der Structure Ia,” Die Reihe IV (1958): 60.

(51) Quoted in Boulez, “Stravinsky Remains,” in Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship, p. 109.

(52) Stocktakings, p. 109.

(53) Scolica enchiriadis (ca. 850 ce), trans. Lawrence Rosenwald, in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (2nd ed., Belmont, CA: Thomson/Schirmer, 2007), p. 34.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 13 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001012.xml