Serial composition — or the twelve tone technique — is considered one of the most important aesthetic developments in 20th Century compositional thought. What bowls me over is the banality of the technique. In its most generalised form, as devised by Arnold Schoenberg, it is this: Take all 12 notes in the chromatic scale, organise them into any order (a series), then stick to that series for the whole composition.
That’s it … that’s the crux of the twelve tone technique. What it amounts to is: Here’s an outrageous limitation, now see what you can come up with. Unlike other compositional methodologies which provide guidelines for ‘what works’, the serial technique doesn’t help, it challenges. The composer is challenged to find something that works, given a set of imposed limitations. In other words, it is a constraint system, and its success clearly supports the notion that restriction can lead to creative liberation.
What is interesting is that technology is also a form of constraint system. In the essay entitled “The Question Concerning Technology”, the 20th Century philosopher Martin Heidegger characterises technology not as ‘equipment’, not as a means to an end, but rather as something that holds biases. Engagement with it, such as using it to create music, exercises those biases; that is, it reveals certain things in certain ways and it hides certain things in certain ways. Dreyfus, noted Heidegger scholar, paraphrases Heidegger’s warning about the danger of technology as ”a restriction in our way of thinking” (1997, p. 99).
A restriction in our way of thinking. It is a phrase that just as well describes serial composition. Serial composition restricts how the composer thinks about music. Through that restriction there is a form of creative liberation. Of course, Heidegger’s writing on technology did not consider technology’s restrictive tendencies when engaged by opportunistic creative exploration.
Yet, through the use of technology (that not designed to create music), musicians have found creative liberation. The turntable is a fine example. To the uninitiated, the suggestion that the humble turntable can be used as a musical instrument of great creative potential must seem ludicrous.
I’m arguing that if the turntable had been designed as a musical instrument, I’d guess that it would have included all sorts of knobs and sliders and other controls to ‘frame’ a much broader set of musical possibilities. Yet it is precisely the narrowness of possibilities, the lack of controls, that have led to a creative exploration now iconic in contemporary musical styles. The turntable is a technological equivalent of serial technique.
The difference between the turntable and serial composition is that the turntable was not a designed constraint. It is an accidental constraint. It is a constraint imposed by using a technology for doing things it was not intended to do. The serial technique is a consciously designed limitation. For me, this highlights two points.
- Arnold Schoenberg was a very smart man,
- Perhaps music technology (software or otherwise) should focus not on empowering musicians but rather on restricting them. Interestingly, this is a notion that is contradictory to the ‘equipmental’ conception of technology. Adhering to Heidegger’s conception that technology is a form of bias … the design of technology to creative ends should aim to design that bias, and that includes designing the restriction — instead of allowing the restriction to be ‘the stuff that wouldn’t fit in’. It is this restriction that will both drive creativity, but also ‘colour’ the aesthetic. I suspect design ‘biases’, in technology, is a difficult thing to get right.
Dreyfus, HL 1997, 'Heidegger on gaining a free relation to technology', Technology and values.