Kyle Gann reports that more than twice as many students have signed up for his 12-tone Analysis seminar than for his Beethoven class, and then in the comments he expresses concern that some of those students may think the course is a 12-Step program.

Coincidentally, our crack musicological research team has recently uncovered the following from Serious Composers Anonymous:

A Method Of Ensuring the Supremacy of German Music for the Next Hundred Years Using Twelve Steps Related Only To Each Other

1. We admitted we were powerless over free atonality, and that our compositions had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Method greater than our own intuition could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our music over to the care of The Twelve Tone Method as we understand it.

4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of the ways in which our music does not live up to the Great German Tradition.

5. Admitted to our professors, to ourselves, and to another Serious Composer the exact nature of our compositional failings.

6. Were entirely ready to have The Method remove all these defects of aesthetic.

7. Humbly asked The Method to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all twelve pitches in the octave, and became willing to treat them all as equals.

9. Made direct amends to dissonant intervals which we had heretofore enslaved with outdated rules of resolution to consonance.

10. Continued to strive to write music that is technically complex and antithetical to popularity, and when we discovered that we had written something pretty promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through practice and analysis to improve our appreciation of and facility with The Method as we understand it, praying only for knowledge of combinatoriality and the power to employ it effectively.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to those useless composers who have not yet come to feel the necessity of the dodecaphonic language, and to practice these principles in all our musical affairs whether the audience likes it or not.

7 thoughts on “12-Step Program”
  1. Dear oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, the writer of this ostensibly self satisfied prose protests far too much. No need for a reasoned appraisal of 12 tone harmony here, ‘serialism’ even less so. That might push the writer over the edge. Worrying.

  2. I can see 12-tone rows’ value in times when intellect is being stifled, by making music as intellectual, complex, and complex-oriented as possible, but the idea just seems unnecessary now, unless a strict compositional method is appropriate to the theme of the piece (i.e. something mechanical, etc.) Schoenberg certainly didn’t invent atonality, but he was no doubt an important composer. The rows are definitely a great exercise in learning pitch relationships, though! Also, the 12-step program guide was pretty funny.

  3. I doubt many people are using tone rows, especially in a strict, serialized fashion, but it’s not something I’ve particularly kept track of. My sense, though, is that the value of serialism lies primarily in controlling the statistical profile of a piece (the control of which aids long-term structure and sonic continuity) and that composers who are interested in that have discovered that there are other techniques that are also effective. So I suspect there are a lot of atonal composers who pay a lot of attention to set theory, and even choose pitch collections ahead of time. If anybody has more specific or authoritative information, I’d be curious to hear it.

    I tease, but I actually have a lot of respect for serialism, even when I’m not interested in many of its products. I have long thought that Schoenberg’s most important innovation wasn’t atonality, or the 12-tone method, but rather the idea that a composer can choose and manipulate the statistical profile of a piece at a fundamental level rather than defaulting to the the profile provided by functional harmony.

  4. Just out of curiosity, because I’ve seen a couple of 12-tone references recently, how many people out there under the age of, say, 50 are actually using tone rows on a regular basis? I know lots of people writing freely atonal music (like me), and lots of people writing tonal or quasi-tonal music, but I can’t think of anyone I personally know who uses rows. Are such people out there, and just don’t advertise the fact? Or is serial composition a dead letter these days among the young?

  5. Very funny Galen! I hope your Gershwin Hotel gig was filled with equal jocularity!

    Alas, far too many composers need to learn the original 12-Steps due to substance abuse challenges.

    I wonder if Kyle’s 12-tone course is better populated than the Beethoven course because it seems to have a more adventurous bent (although plenty would dispute that Beethoven was quite the adventurer) or whether it has to do with scheduling.

    BTW, my Westminster summer course on minimalism remains sadly under-subscribed. Here’s hoping that a few more students interested in Reich, Riley, Adams, etc. enroll and it runs.

Comments are closed.