LeafAn Open Letter sent to
the music and arts editor at
The New York Times:

To the Editor--

Grateful thanks for three recent items on music: the article on the state of Contemporary Music by K. Robert Schwartz on Aug 3rd, the letter by Charles Greenberg and the piece by Paul Griffiths, both on Aug 17th. All were most perceptive in discussing the effects of Serialism on 20th century music. Unbidden memories flooded back to me. With apologies to those who may be offended or disagree, I'd like to add two topics of personal observation, honest impressions of long ago.
TOPIC ONE-- The suggestion in the Schwartz article that it was difficult to be a composer of non-serial music during the 50's through the 80's is in no way unfounded or exaggerated. My negative experiences as a composition student in the 60's at Brown and Columbia Universities is corroborated by composer friends like Corigliano, who studied in similar institutions before or after me. When the topic of serialism comes up, many become angry, and express frustrations I'd long ago tried to forget -- the feeling of alienation and arrogant condescension if one did not agree with this "Holy Grail". Thus Boulez's nasty quote in that article is merely overtly typical.
No one claims there was a SYSTEMATIC attempt to force all composition majors into atonal practices. Of course not! No meetings were held, nor secret handshakes created, to allow a Serialist Elite to disenfranchise the (tonal) non conformist. None had to be. It was "a mere case of prejudice", as unspoken, even unconscious, as what white neighbors did to keep out black residents during this era, or the corporate heads who somehow always sidestepped women, non-whites, and known gays for major appointments in their companies and corporate board rooms. (Bless the exceptions, like Babbitt.)
Such a conceit by an established musical creed is nothing new. Two generations earlier, Edgar Varese described subtle pressures placed upon students by a composition teacher, Vincent d'Indy, "to become little d'Indys". I expect d'Indy would have been horrified to hear the charge, and would wonder how it could be so... Think of human nature in general, and you'll find nothing surprising here. But to a naive student, it was cruel.
I was luckier than most. Upon realizing that my refusal to become a card-carrying dodecaphonist would effectively remove me from any chance of success as a new composer, I concentrated on the then new field of Electronic Music. My love of counterpoint and melody, orchestration and harmonic experimentation, could find healthy expression there. And traditional compositional skills lent an advantage over many in the field who had mostly technical orientations/backgrounds, with little grasp of musical construction and performance (sadly, this situation continues.)
As a result I made my name in Electro-Acoustic Music. I turned being dismissed by a prevailing musical prejudice to my advantage, and tried to help shape what has become a major branch of musical expression (perhaps I ought thank them?) Nonetheless it still hurts that I got boxed out of being considered a composer in the widest sense. Orchestra commissions don't go to "Synth Virtuosos" like Wendy Carlos. Yet the orchestra, my first love, remained superior for sophisticated musical timbre and gesture over the electroacoustic medium until just recently, after decades of "diligent work in the trenches" of the younger medium.

TOPIC TWO-- When I went over from a Physics major to music composition, it left me with a much stronger background in math and acoustics than most musicians. Thus I was unlucky enough to grasp that Schoenberg's systematized serial methods are based upon a lie -- that all intervals of the 12 note scale can be treated democratically in a row. But these intervals aren't the same acoustically, having developed from tetrachordal tonal and diatonic scales of at least as far back as Pythagoreus. Easley Blackwood has observed for a proper serialism one need employ a scale that is "intervalically neutral", such as the scales of 11 or 13 equal steps.
In this instance the Serialists were conservative, and never stepped past the 12 tone scale. Their reluctance (or ignorance) led composers to choose germinating tone rows that had minimal adjacency of tonal intervals: no rich 3rds and 6ths, few dominant-tonic implicating 4th and 5ths, which pretty much left what's heard as the watermark of so much of this music: 7ths, 9ths, and tritones. Only logical. (I've made a computerized count: most 12-tone music uses the latter three intervals 55% of the time, while all other musics seldom top 8% -- a significant difference!) Like a diet of all spices and little protein, fat or carbohydrate, it quickly loses its appeal. If the 13-note scale had been adopted, the cliche might not have arisen, as Schoenberg's initial goal would have become much easier to achieve: a systematic avoidance of tonal center, or "home key" (to oversimplify.)
When I tried to discuss some of this with the teachers and serial-prone students around me at Columbia, you can imagine the rebuff that I was given: snotty and defensive. If I suggested that the so-called "math" used for row manipulation (procedures that seemed to intimidate a lot of other musicians -- perhaps the point) was a rather weak copy of real permutation and commutation theory, their fear, hatred and scorn reached new heights. I learned fast to keep my mouth shut, while dutifully cranking out several capable 12-tone compositions to obtain grade credit, then tossing these papers later as initiation dues. Wasted time. (That some decent dodecaphonic music was being written seemed at the time an excellent example of "the exception that proves the rule".)
We appear to live in better times now, so that I can't help being relieved and a little joyful to see a system which far too strongly dominated new music in this century fade down a few notches. Cut down to an appropriate size, it can remain one of the many influences we have in our musics. I hope the future will be less rigid, and embrace all sorts of possibilities that may tempt the curiosities (and passions!) of an audience.
Perhaps keeping too close an eye on an audience's "pleasure centers" (and wallets!) quickly leads to commercial cliches and formula music at best. After over three generations of compositions by composers who effectively ESCHEWED these pleasure centers with uncompromisingly homely, if not ugly music, I hope we can better navigate to a healthy middleground. Bear in mind that art does not progress, primitive to advanced, like medicine or science -- like our humanity, it "just is". Recent examples suggest we may be somewhere on the way to such a spot right now. Amen.

--Wendy Carlos
  New York City

(Copyright 1997 by Wendy Carlos)

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