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The Ramifications of Post-Modernism in Music

On April 26th, linguist John McWhorter took issue with the 12-tone approach to music and the damage it wrought on modern art music in The New York Times:

He alluded to the political undercurrent of atonal classical music, pointing out the comments of Pierre Boulez and the historical fascist response to 12-tone and atonal music.

Nonetheless, I don’t think he pressed the political angle hard enough. Dodecaphonic music — 12-tone serialism — represents a direct correlate of post-modernism — a notion that disregards objective for infinite “perspectives.” Arnold Schoenberg, the attributed architect and founder of the 2nd Viennese school (which introduced the 12-tone method), coined his system an “emancipation of the dissonance.” Schoenberg designed the 12-tone method so that no single pitch could exert dominance over any other in a given work. All pitches remain equal — one struggles to imagine a more direct analogy to the enforced equality that post-modern thought imposes.

And I use the term “enforced equality” in a literal sense. Schoenberg struggled to achieve his idealized equality. Anyone who studies music theory can attest to the great pains the composer undertakes to create works that conform to the 12-tone system. In the 12-tone system, the composer cannot reuse any pitch until he has cycled through every pitch. The series the composer employs is called the tone row. Composers take the tone row and manipulate it by running it backwards, inverse, and through myriad other mathematical transformations.

As a student of music, the artifice of the system struck me as odd, and I struggled to understand the intent, especially when the results suffered such poor reception. The truth didn’t occur to me until years later, while studying linguistics. The system’s imposed artificiality resulted from the great psychological hurdles Schoenberg had to surmount to prevent listeners from seeking and superimposing their own notions of harmony. In fact, Schoenberg determined if any single pitch predominated, the listener would relate all other pitches to it and, thereby, hear the piece in that key.

The results constitute the stuff of horror — literally (not figuratively). I say so because the only place one will likely encounter 12-tone music in mainstream culture remains in horror films since the effect atonal music elicits from the lister is one of disorientation.

In sum, 12-tone composition represents post-modern thought applied to sound, and it has produced a body of work few listeners have chosen.

By P. Ezra Vasquez

Educator, writer, musician, linguist

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