I Really Hate Serialist Music

I Really Hate Serialist Music

Today is National Coming Out Day. I thought pretty hard about it, but in the end I decided that now probably wasn’t the best time. I’ll leave that for another day.

Instead, I’m going to talk about how much I detest serialist music. I know, it’s not about books. It’s not about NaNoWriMo. It’s not about Doctor Who or any of the other things that I normally talk about — and many of you probably don’t know what serialist music is, nor do you care. But that’s kind of the point. I want to talk about how something I’m studying bothers me, not because it’s inaccessible, but because it represents a form of artistic elitism that illustrates a wider problem.

Basically, this is where I go into Enjolras mode and start talking about social issues. Kind of. From a position of intense privilege, since I myself do know about serialism, and again, that’s kind of the point. Anyway, you’ll see what I mean when I’ve finished.

For those of you who have absolutely no experience of serialist music, it is a style that developed during the 20th century as a reaction against older forms of music and their inability to express the anger and disillusionment created by events such as the First World War, as well as economic hardship. It’s experimental, it sounds absolutely awful on first listening, and you have to understand it to like it.

Here’s an example. I do recommend listening, because it will make the rest of this a more interesting. This particular piece is actually the one I’m studying for my music exam, so it’s the most relevant to this rant.

It sounds random, doesn’t it? It sounds like somebody got very drunk and attacked the piano. It sounds like a cat crawling across manuscript paper with ink on their paws. It does not sound like it has been composed with mathematical precision, utilising a special type of scale called a “tone row”, and is highly structured. It doesn’t sound like it’s clever.

But it is. It’s so clever that it is been written so that nobody can enjoy it unless they understand quite how clever it actually is. It’s like the ultimate in ego boosting — if your critics like it, then they are clearly incredibly clever, and what’s more, they now understand exactly how clever you were. But if they don’t, then you can dismiss their comments because clearly they just didn’t understand your genius.

In other words, it’s the world’s most inaccessible music.

Okay, so some smart ass is probably going to tell me that something is more inaccessible, and fine. Maybe there is. But the point is, you can’t enjoy this music unless you have received an education that explains to you why it is good (because apparently, “good” just means “clever” these days), and that’s not exactly the majority of the population.

I believe that music is for everyone. It never ceases to anger me how difficult it is for people with a lower income to receive instrumental lessons, or how expensive instruments themselves are. Of course, I understand that it’s a highly skilled industry and it’s difficult for it to be made cheaper, but that doesn’t mean it’s right that it should be limited to so few. Like dance, music is exclusive and classist. As a result, I much prefer film music to Mozart. Okay, there might be more to it than just the social issues (like the fact that all Mozart sounds pretty much the same?), But think about it. Film music was written with the same dedication and care, and has been performed by musicians of the same standard, but it reaches so many more people, because you can enjoy it without having to understand it.

Serialist music makes me angry because it deliberately tries to ensure that its only fans are those who are incredibly educated and musically talented. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people struggle to enjoy it at all, but are made to feel this is simply because they are less intelligent, and therefore their opinion is invalid.

Well, I would like it to be known: I have learned about this music. I understand the precision involved in composing this music. I have analysed these tone rows until I wanted to cry… and at no point have I thought, “oh, isn’t this nice music?”

I don’t understand why a composer who had the opportunity to reach a huge number of people and touch them with music chose to create something so exclusionary, limiting his audience to pretentious idiots seeking to escape from what they perceived as boundaries. It’s basically hipster music, or at least its classical equivalent. Everything else was too mainstream, so they wrote this instead.

They are a bunch of pretentious hipsters, hiding behind a mask of “experimentalism” and “innovation”. And that’s really all there is to it.

Why am I ranting about this here? Well, the truth is that I haven’t got anywhere else to rant about it. I never said I wasn’t going to talk about music on here, and it’s not exactly the first time I’ve talked about classism in the arts.

Oh, and there might be the small matter of the fact that if I weren’t writing this, I would be writing my English coursework…

Yeah, that probably has something to do with it.

22 thoughts on “I Really Hate Serialist Music

  1. Yeahh. Good post. I mean, that piece has some kind of pattern to it, but I can see what you mean about it sounding random, and at least it’s in some sort of key, right? But I tried listening to it, and, after two minutes, I just got bored. You’re right: that style doesn’t reach anybody.

    1. Well you say a “key”. It’s technically not. It’s atonal, and then uses a tone row made up of all of the notes of the chromatic scale, with none of them being more important than the others. So there is no home key, no cadences…

  2. xD Nice introduction…

    I agree with you so much. People should be able to like whatever kind of music they wish, but I think it’s ridiculous to like something just because it’s not mainstream, or is not understood/appreciated by many people.
    It just seems show-off-y to me. I couldn’t care less if people like my favorite genres of music, or if they’re considered weird/unpopular. I don’t like, say, film scores to prove a point to anyone. I listen to them because they’re gorgeous.

    1. I’m so subtle ;-)

      My issue isn’t with the people who enjoy serialism, but with the message it sends to everyone who doesn’t – “well, clearly you just didn’t get it”.

  3. Rightio – I’m introducing this to my little horde of will-be (because I think we came pretty close to barricades last week, and this week promises to be even better) revolutionaries in my Approaches to Criticism seminar next week.

    We’re all about class and discimination for this term, and I seriously think we could get somewhere with something like this to dig our teeth into – ties into a lot of stuff from this guy called Owen Jones, who wrote a book called “Chavs: the demonisation of the working class”, which has a lot to do with this sort of thing – discriminating on the basis of developing little pigeon holes for different sorts of people and defining them by their understanding, enjoyment and interaction with certain factors.

    I’m bringing earplugs though. This stuff sounds like something I would write if I was drunk and had lost half my fingers to frostbite. SO MANY SQUEAKY NOTES. OW.

    From a personal perspective – I agree. It’s all very well to HAVE something very formally dependent and structured . . . but using it as a means to say how clever you are and how pathetic the masses are because they don’t get it? Absolutely disgusting. Worst sort of thing a human can do to another if you ask me.

    If you need me, I’m making rosettes and composing a rousing anthem in my corner.

  4. But this goes back to the question: What is music for? Does it have to be for enjoyment?

    I appreciate that you don’t like this music, but you’re making a lot of sweeping statements here.

      1. Calling the entire appreciative audience of Serialist music ‘pretentious idiots’ is an example of such sweeping statements.

        1. So I did. Apologies for my formerly erroneous comment – replying to comments on my phone makes it a little hard to check my facts. Nevertheless, I’m sure none of them value my opinion enough to care.

  5. I have a similar feeling about most 20th century “serious” music. I have two music degrees, so I, too, have studied this stuff. Sometimes I read the program notes for a particular piece about how it was put together and all the mathematical concepts and what-have-you that went into creating it and think “how fascinating” and really want to listen to it. Then I put it in my CD player and it makes my ears bleed. I appreciate the desire to keep exploring new ways of composing and not just keep writing the same thing that’s come before, but I wish it turned out to be enjoyable to listen to more often.

    I should say that I have found some 20th century pieces (serialist, minimalist, etc.) that I’ve enjoyed listening to (though I can’t think of a specific example off the top of my head – sorry), but by and large, I think that you’re correct in your assertion that these pieces are only appreciated by a very limited audience.

    1. Two music degrees is a lot more musical education than I have! And yes, I suppose I’m generalizing a little, because I’m sure some serialist music is tolerable, but I haven’t found any yet.

  6. Thank you, oh thank you, and again, thank you! I too once analyzed “teh tone rows” and had to endure the “Anton Webern Semester” my freshman year of college. I tried to open myself to the “intellectualism” of it all, and found it a frozen wasteland and a cypher. Not to mention having to endure the pretentious little Stockhausen wannabes with their tape loops and splicers, brown-nosing the professor. Blechhh. Thirty-years is a long time to wait for vindication, but it has come at last! :-D

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