Order and Freedom: The Composer's Dilemma

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The music of the twentieth century comprises a bewildering array of "isms," an abundance of individual styles, and an endless succession of "new techniques." From the impressionism of Debussy's La Mer, in 1905, to the minimalism of Steve Reich's Tehillim, in 1982, there is no single, direct road, but rather a maze of intersecting paths and byways to be explored by the listener, the performer, and the composer of today.

A problem central to this situation was seriously addressed by Wolfgang Fortner, a German composer and teacher, born in 1907. William Austin tells that

Fortner came to the conclusion [ca. 1960] that in music, since the disruption of the 19th-century faith in progress, there could be no common style, and moreover no genuine craft. Instruction in composition, Fortner argued, must incorporate a selective survey of history from Gregorian chant onward, and of the wide spectrum of contemporary styles. Fortner's students asked for rules, but he gave them something better.

"The longing for order is common in the hearts of young people. The teacher is thus in a remarkable situation. In the desires of his students for order he is continually anticipated, continually surpassed . . . The teacher of such students must awake and develop in them quite other values, contrasting values, in order that they may not make their cabbalistic speculation into an end itself, not replace music with the finding of rules. Thus if instruction in composition is given today, I think the point is to find the right balance for the relation between order and freedom, and to resolve this very tension by means of comprehensive historical acquaintance with music. We must study the past, if I may say so, in order not to imitate it.

"This comprehensive culture is necessary in order not to burden the young man with blinders, with prejudices. He should learn to recognize a work of art in the most various stylistic entanglements, to see its artistry; he should learn how in all these styles order and freedom lead to the actual work of art."1

Many composers today would not accept Fortner's conclusions, but his statement of the problem, I believe, is unassailable. How does one balance the "longing for order" with an equally impelling urge to be creatively free?

Composers have always relied upon or sought "rules" to guide them during the formative years of their careers. Indeed, many composers, from Fux to Hindemith, have actually created their own systems of rules. On the other hand, there are also many instances of clashes between composers and their teachers, from Beethoven to Debussy, where rules were broken in the origination of a new style.

The "longing for order" to which Fortner referred in 1960 was powerfully manifested by Arnold Schoenberg during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. While his rejection of traditional tonality led him to experiment freely with dissonance and non-tertian harmonies, a style dubbed "atonal" by jeering critics, his mind could not accept the simple negation of old rules but required a new order to replace them. He invented his world-famous "Method of Composing with Twelve Tones Related Only to Each Other" roughly around 1920. The method was eagerly accepted by his pupils, Alban Berg, Anton von Webern and others.

It was Webern, in fact, who carried the process to a higher level of abstraction. His highly compact, cerebral music, brought serialism to the edge of "total serialism," or more accurately "multi-serialism," which became a predominant practice during the '50s. Even as late as 1967, Karlheinz Stockhausen said:

Webern, yes! You see, he condensed all music into what we call the needle's eye. Now, if you see what I mean, it has passed through the eye and is expanding in terms which are consistent with that condensation. Oh yes, all music must start with Webern; there is no other choice!2

In his book The New Music, Reginald Smith Brindle observes:

In the post-war years, one of the most difficult obstacles to our 'beginning again' was our own musical memories. Our minds normally create only out of what memory suggests. Thinking subjectively, we tend to reassemble familiar musical patterns. To avoid this needs deliberately objective reasoning and the use of thought-processes into which memory cannot obtrude. This was precisely the main reason for the flourishing of integral serialism. It was, in theory at least, a system of composition which obliged composers to think objectively and eliminate memory, so that the musical heritage of the past was blotted out and a completely new music created. Few composers did work completely objectively; they used a system to eliminate musical memory, but often kept some 'parameters' free so that they could adjust the composition into a satisfyingly musical end-product. In reality, therefore, musical memory, instinct, or 'inspiration' was only shelved at one stage of composition, to be reintroduced later (though few composers would have been ready to admit this).

In conversation with Italian composers who adopted total serialism in the early Fifties such as Nono, Maderna, and Donatoni, I was left in no doubt that the main reason for the use of predetermined principles was to obliterate memory. Total organization was, at that time, the only way to create the tabula rasa on which completely new edifices could be constructed. Furthermore, it was always evident that what troubled these composers most was their fear of conventional rhythmic configurations. Familiar rhythmic shapes are the most difficult of all to root out of our subconscious memories, but unless completely unorthodox rhythmic designs can be created, the new music is still not truly new. Therefore, since total serialism (or total organization) throws up of its own accord rhythmic designs which never belonged to music before, it seemed the most suitable mechanism for creating the new music of the Fifties.3

Thus, about 1952, Pierre Boulez composed Structures I, for two pianos, in which pitches, durations, dynamics, and modes of attack were implacably predetermined by a system of numbers, derived from the ordering of a 12-tone row. The process, and incidentally the row itself, were borrowed from Olivier Messiaen's Mode devaleur et d'intensites, composed in 1949. Boulez, however, carried out the process more rigorously and more completely. The result has been called "a classic example of such procedures."4 Similar procedures were used by Milton Babbitt in his Three Compositions for Piano, composed in 1948.

But the rigid controls of serialism began to pall. Hans Werner Henze, a pupil of Fortner, boasted in 1968 that he had been the first composer of the postwar German generation to employ the 12-tone technique. "Today," he sniffed, "they all do it, even before they have learned to write music." Henze had abandoned serialism before 1956. Since taking this step, he said, "I have been accused of treason to the cause of New Music."5

Iannis Xenakis was equally harsh in his rejection of serialism. He observed that "linear polyphony," or "multi-serialism," destroyed itself by its own complexity some time around 1954.6 He turned to the theorems of mathematical probabilities, developing large-scale works such as Phopratka (1955-56) by the application of the laws of large numbers. The effect is random, yet a kind of control is exerted by the composer. Xenakis called this "stochastic" music. Today such processes are common in computer music.

Boulez himself turned from multi-serialism shortly after completing Structures I. He became interested in allowing the performer some freedom of choice in selecting the order of events, as shown in his Third Piano Sonata, composed in 1957.

Such pieces are described as "aleatory," a ubiquitous term which may be used as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb. Derived from the Latin alea, which means dice or a game of chance, it connotes a wide variety of composer practices, involving the element of chance in some degree.

While the European composers' preoccupation with chance resulted from a reaction against serialism, in America a group of composers, among whom the dominant figure was John Cage, had begun to experiment with various forms of indeterminacy about five or six years earlier. Cage once said to Roger Reynolds: "I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases. Therefore, my purpose is to remove purpose."7 He made a fine distinction between "chance operations" and indeterminacy:

In the case of chance operations, one knows more or less the elements of the universe with which one is dealing, whereas in indeterminacy, I like to think that I'm outside the circle of a known universe, and dealing with things that I literally don't know anything about.8

In 1982, he said much the same thing during a visit to North Texas State University: "I am not interested in writing music which I can predict the sound of." He also said, interestingly enough, that his use of chance operations provided him with a "discipline" necessary to the achievement of that result. In 1952, the same year in which Boulez composed Structures I, Cage produced a piece called 4' 33", tacet, any instrument or combination of instruments, in three movements, during which no sounds are intentionally produced. Perhaps this work represents a kind of freedom which is at an opposite extreme from the precise ordering of Structures I. The concepts of indeterminacy, aleatory, improvisation and chance operations influenced composers enormously, both in Europe and America.

In addition, the impact of the electronic media, the dramatic, highly emotional style of Penderecki, and a plethora of happenings, theatrical pieces, and multi-media pieces all provided a counter-balance to the intense preoccupation with the cerebral constructions of the '50s.

Examples of attempts to find "the right balance" between order and freedom are common during the '60s and '70s. Among my favorites are:

1) George Rochberg's Music for the Magic Theater, composed in 1965, in which sections alternate between the dissonant serialism of his earlier style and quotations from the tonal and triadic music of Mozart, Beethoven and others;

2) George Crumb's Five Pieces for Piano, composed in 1962, but not published until 1973, which embodies in miniature most of the elements of the mature style which he developed in later works, such as Black Angels and many others. His predilection for what has been called "Ring Composition"9 seems to indicate a need for a symmetrical formal design, not necessarily discernible to the ear, within which his delicate timbral nuances may be freely explored; and

3) Witold Lutoslawski's Symphony No. 2, composed in 1966-67, which exploits the use of what he calls "aleatoric counterpoint." His method involves the combination of 2-, 3-, or 4-note pitch-class sets forming a 12-tone aggregate, thus insuring the equality of pitches demanded by serialism while allowing more freedom in their ordering and in their combination. Lutoslawski allows even greater freedom in rhythmic organization by the juxtaposition of "collective ad libitum" sections with metered sections. He attempts to create "sound textures" in each section, the nature of which cannot be changed by notes, or groups of notes, not always falling in the same order. He attempts to foresee all possible versions, composing in such a way that all versions would correspond to his intention.10

My own composition, Dilemmae, composed in 1973, consists of three loosely ordered 12-tone stages, interrupted by two free episodes involving limited aleatory and improvisation. It is for this reason that the quotation from Fortner appears on the title page of the score. "The point is to find the right balance for the relation between order and freedom." I am not sure if I have found that balance. On hearing the work ten years later, it seems to me that Freedom has won hands down, by decisively beating the stuffing out of Order.

(If I may digress for a moment, the title Dilemmae suggests that there is not just one dilemma involved; in fact it's "a whole passel of 'em." I'm not even sure if "dilemma" is Latin or Greek, and I do not know the correct plural in either language. That's just plain ignorance; but "Dilemmas" doesn't sound like much and "The Dilemma" is even worse.

The piece was commissioned by the West Texas State University Concert Band in 1973 and first performed at a Texas Music Educators Association convention in Houston, February 8, 1974, under the direction of my good friend, Dr. Gary Garner. It has been performed numerous times since then, including once at the College Band Directors National Association meeting in Berkeley, California in 1975. There were two performances of it in April, 1983, and another on May 18 of that year in Carnegie Hall.

The plan of moving through three "strict" stages, interrupted by two "free" episodes was due in part to my reflection on the problem stated by Fortner, and in part to the only stipulations of the commission, that it should be a display piece for the band, and that it should have an "exciting" ending. I took the latter to mean fast and loud, therefore I decided to construct the piece so that it would move from the lowest to the highest point along a varied scale of dynamic, rhythmic, and textural values. To insure this, considerable calculation was involved in the control of the various parameters. The free episodes, which provided opportunity for the display of soloists and small groups within the band, were often aleatoric and improvisational in character, ultimately demonstrating the total dilemma, in a dramatic and rather ludicrous way, by splitting the band in two. The band re-unites, however, for the final stage in the progression toward an "exciting" ending.)

To return to my main theme, the examples I have cited by no means represent all of the divergent aspects of Twentieth Century music; nor do I mean to suggest that there is any one practice or style which is best for the composer. I have chosen them simply because they focus forcefully upon the dual nature of the composer's mind: it is both analytical and creative, and the two modes of thought are in complete contrast.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow made many studies in creativity during the '50s and '60s. In 1957 he wrote

Out of the unconscious, out of the deeper self, out of this portion of ourselves of which we generally are afraid and therefore try to keep under control, out of this comes the ability to play, to enjoy, to fantasy, to laugh, to loaf, to be spontaneous—and creativity, which is a kind of intellectual play, a kind of permission to be ourselves, to fantasy, to let loose, and to be crazy, privately. (Every really new idea looks crazy, at first).11

This he called "primary creativeness," a quality very different from rationality, which he describes as a "secondary process:"

The primary process, those unconscious processes of cognizing, are very different from the secondary processes in which we are logical, sensible, and realistic. When secondary processes are walled off from the primary processes, then both suffer. At the extreme, the walling off of or the complete splitting off of logic, common sense, and rationality from the deeper layers of the personality produce the compulsive-obsessive person, the compulsively rational person, the one who cannot live in the world of emotion at all, who does not know whether he has fallen in love or not because love is illogical, who cannot even permit himself to laugh very frequently because laughing is not logical and rational and sensible. Such a person not only loses much of the pleasures of living, but also becomes cognitively blind to much of himself, much in other people, and even in nature.12

A similar categorization was recently pointed out by Bill Moyers in recounting his struggles to produce his fascinating television series on creativity:

To say that human beings have a creative capacity is not to deny the ordering function of the human mind. During the 1950s and '60s, J.P. Guilford and his associates found both kinds of thinking to be characteristic of human beings: convergent thinking, which neatly and systematically, so to speak, tends toward an answer, and divergent thinking, which tends away from a center, perhaps in several directions at once, seeking avenues of inquiry rather than a particular destination. . . .

Convergent thinking . . . is continuous with the past and leads to predictable conclusions on the basis of what has preceded. Divergent thinking makes a series of breaks with the past and leads to unpredictable conclusions on the basis of what has preceded. They are fundamentally different but related.13

Convergent thinkers, whether they be scientists, mathematicians, or scholars of any other discipline, sometimes require divergent thinking to solve a problem, when an accepted model or theory cannot encompass the problem to be solved. The reverse is equally true, that convergent thinking is sometimes required in the fulfillment of an idea intuitively perceived.

In these terms, the composer of today is largely a divergent thinker. Although he may be aware of established theories and traditions, he seeks to create new structural or conceptual models, which sometimes seem to be totally baffling and frustrating to the listener. "Crazy," as Maslow put it.

But it is not really crazy at all. It's "healthy." Maslow continues:

In the healthy person, and especially the healthy person who creates, we find that he has somehow managed a fusion and a synthesis of primary and secondary processes, of conscious and unconscious, of deeper self and of conscious self. And he manages to do this gracefully and fruitfully.14

Maslow sums up the implication of all this for the composer, and in fact for any creative artist, in an address he gave to a group of art educators in 1963:

We're pretty clearly aware now from our psychological analysis of the process of creativeness and of creative individuals, that we must make the distinction between primary creativeness and a secondary creativeness. The primary creativeness or the inspirational phase of creativeness must be separated from the working out and the development of the inspiration. This is because the latter phase stresses not only creativeness, but also relies very much on just plain hard work, on the discipline of the artist who may spend half a lifetime learning his tools, his skills, and his materials, until he becomes finally ready for a full expression of what he sees.15

So if you are a composer you will just have to contend with your conflicting impulses, and you will have to settle their differences in every piece you write. But may I offer a word of grandfatherly advice: don't try to analyze a piece before you compose it. First, form the sound images out of the volatile, wordless, ungovernable world of the subconscious. Then call upon all the logical, analytical, and critical secondary processes you have learned in order to get them into some kind of symbolic or graphic notation. Then write some more!

That, I believe, is the way to balance order and freedom. And nothing is more rewarding than the thrill you will feel when first you hear your work performed.


1William W. Austin, Music in the 20th Century (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966), p. 449.

2J. Marks, "Conversation with Stockhausen," The Saturday Review (September 30, 1976), 64.

3Reginald Smith Brindle, The New Music, The Avant-garde since 1945 (London/New York/Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 22-23.

4David Hamilton, "Boulez: Structures for Two PianosBooks I and II," High Fidelity (February 1969), 82.

5Hans Werner Henze, "The Composer on his Work," The Christian Science Monitor (July 8, 1968), 8.

6Iannis Xenakis, "The Crisis of Serial Music," in Formalized Music (Bloomington, Indiana: University Press, 1971), p. 8

7Elliot Schwartz and Barney Childs, eds., "John Cage, Interview with Roger Reynolds, 1962," in Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music (New York/Chicago/San Francisco: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1967), p. 341.

8Schwartz and Childs, p. 337.

9David H. Porter, "Ring Composition in Classical Literature and Contemporary Music," The Classical World 65, No. 1 (September 1971), 1-8.

10Witold Lutoslawski, "The Element of Chance in Music," Three Aspects of New Music, Composition Seminar in Stockholm, 1968 (Publication of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Swedish College of Music, No. 4).

11Abraham H. Maslow, "Emotional Blocks to Creativity," The Journal of Individual Psychology XIV (1958), 51.

12Maslow, p. 52.

13Bill Moyers, "Defining Creativity for Everyone to See," The Smithsonian (January 1982), 67-68.

14Maslow, p. 53.

15Abraham H. Maslow, "The Creative Attitude," The Structurist 3 (1963), 5.

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