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
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.
Recognition of this danger forced composers to reconsider radically the psychological problems of hearing music, as well as the technical problems of writing it. From what can now be seen as a hermetic, experimental period there emerged new works which, while not abandoning those discoveries in which new expressive possibilities were inherent, tried to use them in a more realistic way. Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maitre (1954) for voice, flute, viola, guitar, xylophone, vibraphone and percussion, combines the fluidity of continually varied rhythms with more regular patterns, so giving a new dimension to both.
In an attempt to resolve the same contradictions of ‘total variation’, Stockhausen uses the concept of ‘experiential time’—time as experienced by the listener, as opposed to clock time. He recognizes that the way one hears something depends on its relation to what precedes it: fast-changing passages with a high degree of surprise for the listener must be offset by passages in which enough remains constant to fulfil expectation. The controlled use of such tension and relaxation is of course as old as music itself. But Stockhausen attempts to control consciously the interaction of relaxation and tension in different dimensions. In an article, Structure and Experiential Time (1955), he analyzes a passage from Webern’s string quartet and shows how, while the rhythm remains constant, the rate of change is varied in different degrees in the other dimensions (pitch, chord-density, loudness, etc). He claims each of these is perceptible as a separate continuum; the interaction of the rates of change in the different dimensions articulates the time-structure of the music as a whole.