I thought serialism was something that just wasn’t for me. Never heard a performance of a piece that particularly moved me. For every time I enjoyed the grating emotional overflow from Schoenberg (certainly his atonal works, even the serial works I can get through) or every time I felt a logical sense of relation and progression in a work by George Perle, I would also hear the maddening confusion from Milton Babbitt or Pierre Boulez. Serialism—it was dry, illogical, confusing, unaesthetic—would never be my thing. I got to a happy place having decided there was nothing wrong with serialism if people wanted to do it, I won’t say it’s ‘bad’ music, but I had no intentions of enjoying it.
Then I came to Bowling Green. And seeing as how I am in a program dedicated to the performance of contemporary music I felt obligated to give it a shot. Then an opportunity came—a saxophonist asked me to play a Wuorinen piece with him so I decided to suck it up and do it. I put off working on it until a couple days before our first rehearsal. Lo and behold, yes it’s difficult, yes the rhythms are nasty, the chords and pitches appear all over the place…but I could play it. I wrote out nearly every beat (often every subdivision) of nearly every bar, I tapped my foot incessantly, I counted out loud, I wrote in accidentals, note-names, fingerings and drew colored lines; whatever it took to cue my brain of what to play next. Come the first rehearsal, of course there were struggles, we did not lock in right away, yet it started to click much sooner than either of us thought it would. The second rehearsal was the same and I got more excited each time we broke down a passage and nailed it.
Once I got past the initial mental bewilderment, this music was exciting—it makes sense, it’s not so illogical, it was tickling something in my brain, in a similar but not quite equal way that “tonal” music did. I started to see the color in it, the subtle hues of sound and more than anything the brilliance of how motives weaved in and out of the texture throughout the piece. I guess I don’t mind serialism afterall.
I said this to my saxophonist and he said that indeed, he has found he enjoys playing it more than listening to it. I think this is very interesting—perhaps the intellectual element that draws some composers to it—can only be experienced if one is involved, otherwise it sounds only like an intellectual exercise. It made me think about the history of classical music, particularly chamber music. I would even include most piano music, up to but not excluding some of Chopin and Schumann, as chamber music—in the sense that it was not written to be concert music but written for a few people to enjoy playing together. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier and other works certainly pushed its way in to the concert sphere, but they were still written as chamber pieces to be played at home, they were not written to be concert pieces to be played by concert artists. I have long found Mozart and Haydn’s chamber music unendurable and boring. Both could write brilliantly in other genres but I never felt they brought their most appealing music ideals to their intimate works. I’d rather not hear a recording or see a recital of Mozart sonatas, but I could play through them all day.
Maybe there is more connection between early chamber music and serialism than what one hears on the surface. Haydn’s string quartets are surely important works but maybe not so important to be heard, just important to be played. I will never know because I have no intention of being able to learn a string instrument well enough to rehearse a Haydn quartet, but I imagine that I might enjoy doing so more than I enjoy listening to one. Perhaps that same tickle I started to feel actually playing through the Wuorinen piece is the same thing that attracts so many to this classical chamber music which I find so dull.