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Twelve Sumptuous Notes

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Depending on your appetite, a delicious vegetarian banquet can be just as satisfying as a juicy cheeseburger. Likewise, good musical compositions come in great variety! Every lover of music delights in cultivating a unique musical taste. What I love is music with a wide range of expression that brings home a meaningful idea. Even within the confines of twelve notes, I find composing an exciting exploration of new possibilities for powerful and expressive music.

Although I always hope my music will make sense to the listener, I do not limit myself only to traditional or extended jazz harmony. Many times I find myself relishing musical passages that seem to not to have a key or scale. For me the unpredictability of such music has a great sense of freedom and exhilaration! But sometimes random or even intentional composing without the guard rails of tonality can lead to unintelligible chaos. To find a sound that makes sense without using a scale or tonal center, I am exploring ways of using a sequence of all twelve notes. This mode of creating music (known as serialism) was developed by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and his followers during the 1920's.

Schoenberg did not see himself as a radical usurper, but rather he saw his methods as a completely natural outgrowth of the same musical ideals practiced by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. In my local community college library, Pasadena City College, I discovered the 1952 publication "Composition With Twelve Notes Related Only One To Another". It has been very helpful in giving me a better understanding of Schoenberg's approach. The book was written by one of Schoenberg's students, Josef Rufer, and translated from German into English by Humphrey Searle. My interest in the book caused me to hold it way past due, but I finally purchased an out of print copy and made the appropriate return!

To help me discover how to use Schoenberg's method, I decided to compose six examples using twelve notes in the same order. I wondered if I followed Schoenberg's "rules" strictly, would a unique quality of this particular sequence appear? I also wondered if following the "rules" might be too limiting. So, somewhat arbitrarily, I picked the following notes in this order: Bb, E, A, G#, C#, F#, D, B, Eb, F, C, G. Here is just one of the many possible ways these twelve notes could appear written on a musical staff:

To create the six examples I followed the most basic "rules" in accordance with Schoenberg and Rufer:

1) The twelve notes can appear in any octave register.

2) The twelve notes are always are used in the same order. This means you cannot go back and repeat a note after it has been dropped. However you can sustain or repeat notes while others are sounded.

3) To help me understand the character of this sequence of pitches (called a tone row) for now, I restricted myself to the original (prime) form - no usage of inversion or retrograde (That would be turning the sequence upside down or sounding it backwards.) Schoenberg and Rufer encourage us to explore these possibilties - but for now I want to keep this exercise very simple to see how it fundamentally plays out.

4) I was free to choose any rhythms or durations.

Here is a performance of six examples:

My conclusions from this exercise.

1) Even though the order of the notes (pitch names) remained consistent (with the exceptions of repeated or simultaneous notes) I was still able to find a fairly broad expressive range.

2) The examples sound strongly related but still have contrasting moods .

3) I found I still had a great deal of freedom of expression with rhythm, melodic contour, multiple stops, and dynamic phrasing, and articulation all under my control.

4) It might be possible to take the above elements to greater extremes and still maintain a consistent sonority amongst all the examples.. That could be another exercise with more examples.

5) The intervals created by this row of notes creates its essential character. This character is unchanged whether the notes move up or down, or whether they are played faster or slower. However, how the notes are played can create a vast range in the musical expression.

6) This particular row of notes will always produce intervals or the related interval inversions (the interval produced by the same notes upside down) in this order: tritone, perfect fifth, major ninth, perfect fourth, perfect fourth, major third, minor third, tritone, whole step, perfect fifth, and perfect fourth.

7) Each example has the potential for further development. I am most drawn to number 1 and number 3 because of their lyrical qualities.

Now that you have listened to the examples, I welcome your thoughts.

Do you have a favorite among the six? If so tell me why?

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