Serialism is a rubric applied to diverse systems of composing music in which various elements of a piece are ordered according to a pre-determined set or sets of musical pitches (sometimes called "rows"), and variations on them. The elements thus controlled may be the pitch of the notes, their duration, their dynamics, their accents, or virtually any other musical parameter. More generally, Serialism refers to any music wherein ordered sets are applied to any musical element. (See also Tonality, Atonality)

Serialism is an extension of Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique (sometimes called dodecaphony), which involves the use of tone rows: the basis of the system is that all the pitches used in a composition ultimately refer to a particular ordering (a "row") of one (and only one) instance of each of the twelve notes in the chromatic scale and permutations of that row. The composer either begins by creating a new row, or infers a row from free composition and attempts to structure the piece around that inference.

Schoenberg's concepts are themselves extensions of long-standing formal conceits in Western music, whereby the integrity of a piece is thought to be developed by the composer in a manner analogous to organic growth in nature, beginning with a distillate (in the case of Serialism, the set is the musical seed).

The terms serial and twelve tone are often used as synonyms, though this is misleading, since a serial piece may concern itself only with a serial ordering of one musical parameter (such as rhythm) and limit itself to fewer than twelve notes. To clarify the terms total serialism or integral serialism are often used to distinguish twelve tone compositions from the more expansive kind.

The development of serial composition was the task of composers during the middle of the twentieth century. After Schoenberg, much innovation moved from Germany to France, where students of influential French composer and teacher Olivier Messiaen expanded Serial concepts. Two significant proponents of Serialism were Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, both drawing inspiration from the "parameterization" of Messiaen. They conceived of taking the structure of 12 tone technique, and expanding on Anton Webern's compositional style, placing all elements of music under the control of a unique "series". So instead of merely having "rows" of tones, which Webern would also associate with dynamics and attack, they proposed that each feature be serialized. While the Second Vienna School did not use the term "serial" to describe their music, it was applied to their work by later theorists and composers.

The vocabulary of serialism is rooted in set theory, and uses a quasi- (some would say "pseudo-") mathematical language to describe how the basic sets are manipulated to produce the final result. Musical set theory is often used to analyze and compose serial music, but may also be used to study tonal music. According to Boulez, "Classical tonal thought is based on a world defined by gravitation and attraction, serial thought on a world which is perpetually expanding." The latter types of metaphors-- which seek to closely associate contemporary art with contemporary science-- are typical of mid-twentieth century Modern composers.

Serialism, along with John Cage's aleatoric music, was enormously influential in post-War music. Theorists such as George Perle codified serial systems, and his 1962 text Serial Composition and Atonality became a standard work on the origins of serial composition in the work of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Declaring itself "revolutionary" and "a new tonality", serialism created an environment where experimentation with sound, in a manner similar to the exploration of pure painting in Abstract Expressionism was at the forefront of composition, which led to increased use of electronics and other applications of mathematical notation to composition, developed by theorists such as the composer and mathematician Milton Babbitt.

Other composers to use serialism include Luigi Nono, who developed similar ideas separately, Roger Reynolds, and Charles Wuorinen, the later works of Igor Stravinsky and the early works of George Rochberg. Major centers for serialism were the Darmstadt School and the "School of Paris" centered around Pierre Boulez.

Serial music remains, over 50 years after its founding, enormously controversial, attracting both ardent defenders and vehement attacks. Philip Glass described the School of Paris as "crazy creepy people writing crazy creepy music", while on the other hand one critic said that Boulez' Sonatas "reveal a sparkling world of turbulent passion and abstract beauty. " Many composers, such as Rochberg, who had been ardent serialists have largely abandoned the style, while many younger composers have never been attracted to it. Various terms have been introduced to describe this trend away from Serialism, such as the New Romanticism, etc. See: minimalist music


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