Boulez: Structures

This piece for two pianos composed by Pierre Boulez in 1952 is an example of total serialism, which employs a series for aspects of the music such as duration and dynamics as well as pitch.  The series itself is not evident just from listening to the piece (not that I expected it to be).  It consists of lots of short, fast passages interspersed with rests and entering at different dynamic levels.  It doesn’t sound quite random – the chords seem to have been chosen for particularly colourful sounds (all dissonant), but there is no obvious rhythmic pattern.  It ends with a single note played loudly and held, allowing the string to vibrate for as long as it can.  The sudden dynamic changes and heavily attacked chords give the piece an aggressive sound, and I could find little cohesion in it other than transient moments.  Overall I found it unpleasant to listen to.


Webern: String Trio

Webern composed his Op. 20 String Trio between 1926-27, and it was his first purely instrumental work using the twelve tone technique.  The first, short movement sets a mysterious tone, using glissandos, pizzicato and harmonics.  The notes created from the tone row sound fairly disconnected from each other to me, it’s not very melodic even for atonal music.  The second movement is more jagged, with sudden changes in dynamics and tempo, extremely high pitched notes and unpleasant dissonances.  This builds up to a climax and then fades out rather suddenly and unexpectedly to the end.  As with most atonal music, my own response is one of tension and feeling ‘on edge’.  I didn’t enjoy this piece at all; some serialist music (such as Berg’s Lyric Suite) is very expressive, creating cohesion through rhythm or melodic snippets, whereas this trio sounded very disjointed and clinical to me.

Berg: Lyric Suite

This twelve-tone string quartet composed by Alban Berg between 1925 and 1926 is in six movements.  The tone row it is based on is an example of an ‘all interval’ series, meaning that it contains one instance of every interval (2nd, 3rd, fourth etc.).

The first movement is fast and chaotic, the second andante amoroso movement slower and more lyrical.  Although atonal, there are colourful harmonies which sound not unlike jazz in places.  It’s mostly extremely emotional music – often desperate and frenzied, but also gentle at times.  The allegro misterioso  starts with a direction to play ‘am steg’ (on the bridge), with fast passages that puts me in mind of bees buzzing.  It creates an interesting sound, but with no identifiable melody or harmony; this movement doesn’t sound like music to me.  The adagio appassionato sends shivers down my spine with its intense sound and chromatic melodies.  The presto delirando creates an interesting, ominous sound with quiet tremolo close to the bridge, but the faster sections are again unmusical to my ears, with often unpleasant dissonances.  Finally, the largo desolato opens with slow, solo pizzicato on the cello and suggests a lonely, desolate landscape, ending with the viola fading out on a quiet, chromatic melody.  There was much in this music that I didn’t enjoy, but I was also surprised at how much I did like and how the music succeeded in drawing me in, particularly the lyrical, expressive sections.

Schoenberg: Suite for Piano

Schoenberg’s Piano Suite, Op. 25, was the composer’s first complete work written using the twelve tone method.  It was composed between 1921 and 1923, and the form is the traditional dance suite (prelude, gavotte, musette, intermezzo, minuet and gigue) with all six movements based on the same tone row.  I listened to a recording by the pianist Glenn Gould.

The pieces certainly don’t sound much like dances, though they are in places quite rhythmical and frequently change time signature.  The tone row was used to create a theme for each movement, some more obviously than others, and this does seem to give the pieces some cohesion.  I found them surprisingly lyrical and expressive with lots of dynamic and tempo changes, although the atonality gives the music a tense and sometimes disturbing quality.  They reminded me of some of Scriabin’s later preludes.  The musette was particularly interesting to me, featuring such strong use of G in the left hand that this did create a centre of sorts (although neither major nor minor).  There are also places where dissonances get resolved into consonances in a similar way to tonal music, for example in the intermezzo which ends unexpectedly with a major third and a sixth added in.

I found the faster pieces in the set the most challenging to listen to, as I have with other atonal music.  In slower pieces I find there is time to absorb the sound and make some sense out of it, but I am unable to do this in faster pieces and the lack of any cohesive harmony makes them sound (to me) like a chaotic mess.

Exploring Graphic Scores

This exercise asks us to create our own graphic score, designed to accompany a scene from a film.  I have decided to write one for piano to accompany a short scene from The Sixth Sense where the main character, Cole, sees a terrifying ghost in the middle of the night.

It starts off setting a mood of suspense and anticipation – it is dark and quiet, and the kid is clearly afraid.  There is a sudden interruption as Cole becomes aware of the ghost passing by while his back is turned, and the tension now increases.  Finally he sees someone who he at first thinks is his mother but turns out to be an angry ghost.

The piano seemed appropriate for this as it is capable of very low, bass notes which can sound ominous, and it is an instrument I am able to experiment with by myself.  I decided to create a score with approximate pitch represented vertically on a single, large staff.  I have drawn three lines, where the middle line indicates middle C, and the top and bottom lines are roughly an octave from the top and bottom of the piano.  I have invented a few  different ways to represent the music:

  • Single notes are shown as circles
  • Where I want a group of notes to be played simultaneously I have merged the circles together into a blob (the larger it is the more notes are required)
  • Glisssandos up and down the piano are shown with wavy lines
  • Fast passages are shown with the notes very close together, and slower ones further apart
  • For dynamics I have used a colour scale – blue for quiet and red for loud (green for mf)
  • I have used squares instead of circles where I want the performer to play only black notes, constraining them to belong to the pentatonic scale which doesn’t create dissonances.  This was useful to create a change in atmosphere when the boy thinks the ghost is his mother

I was initially quite skeptical about this exercise, as most of the pieces I have listened to that were written as graphic scores don’t really satisfy my definition of music (I view them more as conceptual art, similar to the John Cage 4’33” piece).  I did however find it gave me a new perspective on composing music which might be useful for this sort of genre – film music, or atmospheric soundtracks.  It enables you to plan the overall concept of a piece and visualise it nicely without having to get bogged down in too many details from the beginning.  Perhaps it could be used as a teaching aid as well, for example in guiding improvisation.  I think as a composition tool I would only use it as a starting point though; ultimately I would want more control over the final sound.

Graphic score for piano


This bizarre work written by Cathy Berberian in 1966 features all kinds of vocal effects including singing, speaking, sneezing, whispering and animal noises.  There is a recording on YouTube where you can follow along with the score here.

The graphic score consists of symbols and drawings on three staff lines, where the vertical placement is a rough indication of the pitch (particularly where the sound is intended to slide up or down).  Many of the drawings are comic-like cartoons, e.g. of a bee buzzing.  Like many of the other pieces from this section of the course, I can’t identify any kind of melody, rhythm or harmony to make it satisfy my definition of music.  Each time I come across a piece like that I reevaluate my definition and question whether it feels like music.  This particular piece is quite humorous (a light relief from Stockhausen!), but definitely not musical to my ears.

New Notation

Kurzwellen is a work written by Stockhausen in 1968 using his idea of process composition. The piece is essentially a set of instructions on how to transform some input material – in this case drawn from short wave radio broadcasts happening at the time the performance takes place.  The performers ‘tune in’ to particular sounds and then try to replicate them on their own instruments.

As this is quite radically different from traditional music, it requires a radically different type of notation.  I haven’t managed to locate a score, but I have found some analysis on the internet (e.g. see Stockhausen – sounds in space).  It consists primarily of plus and minus sounds which indicate increasing/decreasing various aspects of the music such as dynamics, register and duration.  He also includes several different arrow symbols which inform the players when to play together and in what combinations.

The notation in Kurzwellen is very specific and clearly defined; other scores are much more abstract.  Some ideas I found in my research include:

  • Using art to simply inspire the performer
  • Traditional notation with details omitted (e.g. stave and bar lines), giving only the general idea of melodic shape and rhythm
  • Traditional notation in unusual shapes or layouts e.g. circles, creating a work of visual art
  • Explicit written instructions on what sounds to make
  • Timelines written out with durations marked in seconds
  • Colours and shapes interpreted by reading a separate key which provides specific instructions on what sounds to make

I found some good examples on the Classic FM and Guardian websites.