Serial music and transhumanist art forms

From: primeradiant (
Date: Thu May 05 2005 - 06:56:38 MDT

Dear Matt,

    By 'serial' I meant, of course, 12-tone music, hence Schoenberg, Berg Webern, Stravinsky (middle period, e.g. Abraham and Isaac), the post-war Europeans including Boulez, Berio, Dallapiccola, Lutoslawski, Schaffer, Xenakis, earlier Stockhausen, the American School including of course Milton Babbitt, Wuorinen, Lewin etc.

If I introduce people to 12-tone music I usually select Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw - a terrifying, gut-wrenching work! The all-combinatorial sets that lie at the core of 12-tone composition are related to Messiaen's modes of limited transposition and the symmetric modes employed by Bartok in his central string quartes (3-5).

12-tone composition has expired as a creative force. This is tragic. It demands a highly developed level of skill, and most of the theoretical advances made before its final demise never became fully incorporated into the serial 'canon'. Yet for me it always represented the power of transcendence of the human condition. By its very nature, 12-tone structures and processes are excellently adapted to computer/AI encoding and expression (I did a lot of work on this at the CSRG in Toronto during the 80's).

Introductory articles in encylopedias, theory books etc. are so naive as to be useless. A more useful introduction to more subtle 12-tone thinking can be found at
The reason for the demise of serial music is explained in part by Milton Babbitt at

12-tone structures are computer/AI compatible since the pitch-class (note) set can be expressed as an array, i.e. the ascending chromatic scale C, C#, D, D#, E etc. (which by the way is also the first-order all-combinatorial set A) becomes 0123456789AB. This compatibility is analogous to that of the language Lojban, which this list discussed recently.

Some deeper aspects of compositional technique not discussed by Nagel include the M5/M7 transform, the use of multiple order function in counterpoint and the structuring of other musical parameters such as timbre, register, dynamic, attack-decay envelope etc. to complement the unfolding structures of the basic set. This transforms the simple 2x2 matrix described by Nagel into a n-dimensional one (P - I - M5 - M7 + time and ancillary parameter structuring).

The interval vector of each subset (see Allen Forte's The Structure of Atonal Music, Yale 1973) reveals the harmonic potential inherent in the basic set. It's the exploitation of this power durong the unfolding and transformation of a set that gives the music (at least for me) its poignancy and power. I don't use retrograde forms - these aren't easily perceived by the human ear. But the combinatorial properties of the set are clearly audible if the set is unfolded generically from its basic subsets to the totality using only the P - I - M5 - M7 transforms in the appropriate transpositions.

I hear the unfolding of a 12-tone set in a composition as a constellation of evolving, multicoloured crystals, rich in dimension and information. The music therefore has an entirely different impact to that of 'classical' or 'pop' and appeals to a different set of mental structures. But to say that it is 'unemotional' or 'noise' or 'all the same' is absurd. Such comments only point to the current constraints of human culture and potential.

Best wishes,


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