The European avant-garde is often accused of ignoring the wider problems of communication and of having retired into an ivory tower. This is one of the dangers facing a composer today: he cannot rely on a public audience with stable views and attitudes; he cannot be content to fall back on forms which appear to him obsolete; he is thus forced into the rôle of an explorer whose immediate appeal is to a minority. The search for new means of expression has inevitably led to a certain amount of specialized concern with techniques. About ten years ago this led to a crisis in musical language. But more recently composers like Boulez and Stockhausen have been coming to terms with the new problem of comprehensibility which arose in this critical phase.

Serial technique as used by Schönberg and Webern has been a point of departure for post-war music. Schönberg’s 12-note technique was intended to serve two complementary purposes: 1. To derive all melodic and harmonic material from a single basic note-series; 2. To subject this note-series to constantly varied treatment. These are really two aspects of the same idea and they form the primary method of building forms which are both unified and varied in atonal music. Schönberg eliminates extensive repetition and in his music variations become continuous. This derives from the ‘development’ section in a classical movement and is related to the ‘thematic transformation’ of Berlioz and Liszt.

Webern applied the serial technique in a rather different way. He presents a series of notes in constantly differing perspective and builds forms with permutations of a single idea, like an object seen from all angles: ‘always the same thing in a thousand different ways’.

‘Post-Webern’ composers have seized upon this permutational aspect of serial technique and extended it to rhythm, dynamics, timbre and other sound characteristics; in each of these a pattern is constantly altered. New rhythmic differentiation, use of widely contrasted high and low registers, abrupt alternations in dynamics and attack, kaleidoscopic successions of instrumental colour—all this, taken from Webern, is developed to an extreme degree. Since everything changes from one moment to the next and nothing ever recurs exactly, one cannot follow the form of a piece. Instead, one reacts with continual surprise to each new event. New freedom and fluidity can be achieved; there is no longer metre, which arises from the regular recurrence of stresses, but a single rhythmic ebb and flow. It is often asked why such music as Stockhausen’s Kontrapunkte (1953) and Boulez’s Structures 1 (1952) has ‘no rhythm’; it has, in fact, a continually changing rhythmic structure, instead of constant reiteration of the same patterns.

The composer H. Pousseur has spoken of ‘time-tensions of dynamic character, whereas pulsation is indeed movement, but it is stationary and thus the most static of all possible forms of movement’. The same happens in other fields: melody is broken up into a series of sharply differentiated points and the texture changes so uniformly fast that progression is no longer meaningful. The danger of such abrupt successions of unique events is that they soon cease to be surprising and become boringly predictable. One’s capacity for surprise is limited; some regularity is needed before a contrast can be effective; music which alters too quickly is unintelligible—not to mention the difficulties of performance.