The crisis of serial music

The writer is Iannis Xenakis

The year is 1955 

“[…] the serial system is thrown into question on its own two bases, which embody the seed of their own destruction and inadequacy :

          the series; 


their polyphonic structure. 



A series (of any sort) is the result of a linear “category” of thought. It is a string of a finite number of objects. […] 

Combinatory calculus is but one generalization of the serial principle. Its origin is found in the choice of how the 12 tones are arranged. […]

Linear polyphony is self-destructive in its current complexity. In reality, what one hears is a bunch of notes in various registers. The enormous complexity prevents one from following the tangled lines and its macroscopic effect is one of unreasonable and gratuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole sound spectrum. Consequently, there is a contradiction between the linear polyphonic system and the audible result, which is a surface, a mass.

This inherent contradiction with polyphony will disappear only once sounds become totally independent. In fact, since these linear combinations and their polyphonic superpositions are no longer workable, what will count will be the statistical average of isolated states of the components’ transformations at any given moment. […] .” (“La crise de la musique sérielle”, from Kéleütha. Ecrits, L’Arche, Paris, 1994, p.40-42, previously unpublished in English).


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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3 comments on “The crisis of serial music”

  1. ComposerBastard

    Well, we’ve come a long way w the definition of “serial”, and thank god it’s no longer assigned solely to the 12-t aggregate. The principles of set theory are as useful today as they were in yesteryester…let the buyer beware…

  2. Daniel Wolf

    While the critique might apply to Babbitt-style twelve-tone techniques (with which Xenakis was probably unaware at the time), the leading European serialists, beginning perhaps with Boulez’s second book of Structures and his withdrawal of Polyphonie X, had long moved past the pointillist moment and were focused on either creating lines and ensembles that embraced more traditional music-performative values, or, somewhat later (with Ligeti, Kagel, Xenakis) emphasising complete textural gestalts.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Interesting comment, Daniel.

    What repertoire do you think he might have been referring to? Was he just trying to make Boulez mad?


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