A Composer's Journal Entry March 21, 2007 by Laurie Conrad.
Recommended Books on 12 Tone Music & Some Discussion with Mark Gould: A Composerís Journal March 21, 2007
Received an e-mail from composer Mark Gould, who lives near Portsmouth, in Hampshire, England. He sent a fine list of books on 12 tone music, and we then began a discussion on our compositional techniques. He wrote:
Mark: "A book I think everyone who writes twelve-tone music should read is 'Schoenberg's Serial Odyssey', by Ethan Haimo, It's about how the whole serial idea began, and includes some brilliant descriptions of how Schoenberg devised all the main techniques used in twelve-note composition. Interestingly, Schoenberg himself described his use of the twelve notes as a concept of 'higher overtones'.
Let me put those two books down properly:
Twelve-Tone Tonality (2nd Edition) [The First is just as good a read, and in some ways the Second ed. is spoiled by the extra material] University of California Los Angeles Press
# ISBN-10: 0520201426
# ISBN-13: 978-0520201422
Schoenberg's Serial Odyssey Oxford University Press
# ISBN-10: 0193152606
# ISBN-13: 978-0193152601
I have also read the Joseph Rufer original Book called 'Composition with Twelve Notes Related only to One Another', which was my 'bible' from 1982 for a number of years (I was 13 when I came across 12-tone music) If you are interested in how tonality works, then I can also recommend a book by Erno Lendvai: Erno Lendvai The Symmetries of Music # Publisher: Kodaly Institute (Sep 1997) # Language English # ISBN-10: 9637295100 # ISBN-13: 978-9637295102 This book was an eye opener in some areas of tonality, and strangely corresponds to some of the ideas in the Perle book (if you can spot them)."
Mark also wrote: "My only published writing is an article in Perspectives of New Music, on microtonality, which is another of my passions. I studied Acoustics at Southampton University, and have always had a strong interest in the acoustical phenomena of music. As for recordings of my own work as a composer - I have none. Performances also come rarely too, but the most recent was in December last year, when my 13th Quartet was performed. I am hoping to get a recording of it made this year as part of my portfolio submission for the Fellowship of Trinity College, London.
As for my own twelve note technique, I use many different techniques, but most of them are hard to describe without technical discussion. At its simplest, I start with the row, and play it and its transformations many times to myself, to hear the innate harmonies, the melodic possibilities, and then when composing, to place each note tellingly, carefully.
A couple of my techniques, in more detail:
Partitioning Techniques: following Berg's ideas and usage, I often make the basis of my row a set of three four note chords, derived from taking every third note from the row. Then I also use those partitions of every other note, which leads to two six note partitions, and every fourth note and every sixth note, leading to four three note chords and six two note chords. If we number the notes of a row from 0 to 11, these partitions look like this:
every 3rd note: 0 3 6 9 // 1 4 7 10 // 2 5 8 11
every 2nd note 0 2 4 6 8 10 // 1 3 5 7 9 11
every 4th note: 0 4 8 // 1 5 9 // 2 6 10 // 3 7 11
every 6th note 0 6 // 1 7 // 2 8 // 3 9 // 4 10 // 5 11
I often overlap these different divisions, breaking the rules about octave doublings. Quite often the row is presented at the same time as one or more partitioned forms. Musically, I see this in the same way as one might write a melody against a chord in tonal music: sometimes the notes in the melody and harmony are the same. Which chord is used colours the melody, giving it a sonic space, just as a melody placed over a tonic chord has a different sound to one over a dominant chord.
Also, another technique is to find part of a row in one of its transformations. For example, the transposed form of a row might have the first three notes from the basic row in positions 2 6 and 11. We can write these three notes in the principal part, and we can use the remaining notes (in order) from the transposed row as subsidiary texture. Next we could then search for the next group of notes from the basic row to be found in a transformed version. The result of this seemingly complex process is a thematic line composed of a row accompanied by notes from a number of transformed rows. What can be interesting is to find transformations that enable common harmonies across the joins, or transformed harmonies.
I don't use combinatoriality much, preferring to look for interesting correspondences between a row and its transformations. I often write out these correspondences in a 'diagram', which I use to enable me to navigate from the principal row through its transformations, in the manner of modulation. One technique here is to keep using one row over and over, but partitioning out other series from it as I wrote above, which I think is like staying in one 'key' yet presenting different transformations of the row in the main parts. Some works only use a few transformations, akin to simpler tonal works staying only within a small orbit of closely related keys.
I am probably very traditional in my use of rhythm: I think that music should have a pulse of some kind, an inner heartbeat.
Harmonically my favourite chords are either tonally derived or are dissonances that can be analysed tonally. I am always careful in my compositions to construct a harmonic content that is not arbitrarily derived from the series, and am always very careful not to have unplanned changes of dissonance level. In composing with a row, it is easy to fall into the trap of writing arbitrarily: Notes one and two in harp, notes three through six in violas, note seven on horn, and notes eight through twelve on violins. This says nothing about the row, and would have radically different results depending upon the row used. Twelve-note music is very good for training the ear: there are no ready made rules for combining notes, instead you must use your inner and outer ears to sculpt your music from the sonic ether.
I found Markís e-mail very informative and scholarly, and especially admired his final sentence: "there are no ready made rules for combining notes, instead you must use your inner and outer ears to sculpt your music from the sonic ether." Beautifully stated.
My answer to his e-mail:
L.C: Hello Mark! Thank you for your permission to use your name and the information you sent me. I might also use some of these discussions in A Composerís Journal, they might help others to understand the world of twelve tone music...
Since you asked about my own compositional techniques: I also write strict 12 tone music very carefully, choosing each note with great care. Often I would use the same row for years, for everything I wrote - because it often took me that long to truly understand it and all its transpositions, and to explore its endless possibilities. After all, the great composers worked with basically only two (major/minor) modes or scales their entire lives. Prior to that the composers used a limited number of Greek modes. Why is it then that 12 tone composers switch rows with each piece, or even within one piece?
As I got older I also used repeated notes and octave doublings whenever I wished; I also began to construct the row itself more tonally, generally in a French, Impressionist style (my mother was born in France) - the Images I am now revising as quartets, for example. I never partitioned, it didn't seem "12 tone honest" to me. Instead, I write the chords I wish to use into the row itself, in order. But I admit partitioning would make 12 tone composing a lot easier to handle. I have used transpositions in the way you suggest - but again call that "bending the rules". There is nothing bad about bending rules! I also, in pieces for orchestra and choir for example, would use several rows or transpositions simultaneously.
But if we consider Schonberg's initial concept: that each note be a tonality or world or universe unto itself - all these other methods interfere. In that sense octave doublings - if they continue long enough - are perhaps more in the spirit of Schonberg's original ideas. And I must admit that the idea of each note being its own universe is what attracted me to twelve tone music as a system of composition, even before I even heard Schonbergís music.
The way I use 12 tone now is very loose, setting up a sort of inner chaconne or passacaglia. In the last few years I have abandoned it entirely, especially in big pieces for orchestra and choir. However: all the years I spent writing 12 tone has not left my ear or my inner being and still is reflected in all that I write.
Most of my very strict 12 tone writing was restricted to either two line songs (voice & one other instrument) or small chamber groups.
I wish you great luck in all your writing, both music and words - and also with your Fellowship at Trinity College. And thank you for this discussion, which I find most interesting and valuable. I would always be interested in your thoughts - and also in your music.
Laurie Conrad p.s. I have always considered the transpositions modulations, or at the very least a form of sequencing ... ?