Two Issues That Impair Serialism

Composer George Rochberg became quite critical of serialism in his later years. Did he have a point?


I'm confident that what I'm about to describe has happened to many of us over the years – and that's the point. I think most of us can relate to this.


I remember listening to a piece of orchestral music and it was very engaging. It was a fascinating artistic work, crafted with remarkable skill, and performed by excellent musicians.


Consequently, there were times during the performance that I felt like I knew what the composer felt and was trying to communicate when he composed the music.


I felt a certain connection to him because his music was an extension of himself.


He was attempting to communicate to whoever was fortunate enough to be able to sit back and listen.


So I sat back, and I listened... and I felt.


Composer George Rochberg's early works were primarily serial and atonal. Tragically, his son passed away in 1963. Soon after, he came to the conclusion that serialism couldn't adequately express the emotions he was feeling.


Serialism alone can't express grief, anger, sadness, and the breadth of emotions that overwhelm the heart and soul during tragic circumstances. At least that was how Rochberg felt.


Rochberg isn't alone in his assessment of serialism. Many prominent composers who were educated and trained in these techniques ultimately came to the same conclusions.


That is not to say that serialism doesn't have a place in contemporary music.


But let's try to look at this objectively.


Allow me to Express myself

Musical expression is a concept that is very difficult to define, but we can start with the concept of context – context in the sense that expression in music only has value based on the context in which it is framed.


Fundamentally, this is one of the greatest challenges of serial techniques.


When context hasn't been properly established, it is impossible to extract an expressive gesture from any piece of music. That is why it is next to impossible to achieve an expressive single note (with no surrounding context, that is).


It is also for this reason that operas, plays, and even films have a story arc and a story structure that gradually builds to something. Because even an emotional outburst from an actor has no real emotional weight without the context of the moments preceding it.


Music is similar. That's one of the fundamental reasons that serial music has a difficult time successfully expressing emotion. Because serial music uses a musical language that is isolated from a more familiar context.

Allow me to Extend the argument

As I noted earlier, a musical work is an extension of the person who composed it. This is largely due to the fact that the composer uses musical syntax, form, and structure in order to convey a deep personal message.


It is for this reason as much as any other that a composer is able to take their internal feelings and translate them into a system of meaningful sounds and rhythms.


Conversely, serial techniques tend to create a schism between the composer and their own music. This makes it very difficult for the composer to express himself or herself musically.


Unfortunately, George Rochberg discovered this in 1963.


And I believe he had a valid point.


So, what do you think? Is Rochberg right? Can serialism adequately express a composer's emotions? Let me know in the comments.