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  • Twelve-Tone Music in America
  • Rob Haskins
Twelve-Tone Music in America. By Joseph Straus. Music in the Twentieth Century 25. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN-13 978- 0-521-89955-0. Hardcover. Pp. xxiv, 301. $99.

Isn't American twelve-tone composition still alive and well? Although the past fifteen to twenty years have seen the emergence of a number of composers who chose very different techniques—including Michael Gordon, Osvaldo Golijov, Lois V. Vierk, Ricky Ian Gordon, Caleb Burhans, and Mikel Rouse—it's absurd to imagine all of today's active composers have abandoned their involvement with the total chromatic. Younger composers, such as Ken Ueno, Marc Chan, and Ryan Vigil, work extensively with all twelve tones, while older and better-known composers—including Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and Gunther Schuller—remain very active. [End Page 510]

Of course, vigorous debate about the relative merits of post-tonal music continues among composers, their performers, and their audiences. Recent signs of this ongoing discussion include Steve Reich's receipt of the Pulitzer Prize in 2009; the positive reception of the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound's recording, a/rhythmia—a bizarre but enjoyable smorgasbord of Ciconia, Josquin, and Aphex Twin arrangements (Nonesuch 467708, 2010); and the rise of such composers as Mason Bates, Gabriel Prokofiev, and Daniel Bernard Roumain, all of whom have embraced the sound of electronic dance music as an important part of their style. On a more somber note, more than one American twelve-tone composer has speculated that commissioning organizations and prize committees have turned against their style in favor of others. Still, it seems premature to sound the death-knell of twelve-tone music. In the late 1980s, when the so-called postminimalist works of Reich and Philip Glass enjoyed an unusually large and transcultural audience, some hoped for a new golden age of contemporary art music. If anything, though, today's musical landscape is more fractured, more heterogeneous, and therefore, one could argue, much more vital and exciting than it was even then.

Twelve-tone music has had a long-standing presence in America. The Nazi Party's monstrous program to exterminate Jews, gypsies, Poles, gays, and others drove many to this country's shores. Two in particular—Arnold Schoenberg and Ernst Krenek—helped to inspire a number of Americans who were either already writing music that exploited a regular circulation of all twelve tones or who were beginning to explore twelve-tone serial composition. In this informative and provocative monograph, Joseph Straus rightly reminds us that Schoenberg's particular approach to serial writing differed substantially from Webern's, and neither composer's method resembled Berg's. (For that matter, Schoenberg's own practice varied over the course of his career.) Accordingly, Straus asserts that twelve-tone music should include the work of both serialists and any composers exploring the sonic resources of the twelve-tone universe in a meticulous fashion.

As far as the history of this American twelve-tone music is concerned, we have very little sense of its extent. Aside from the increasing prestige of Elliott Carter—still writing masterpiece after masterpiece at the age of 100—the opportunities for frequent performances of this repertoire are lacking. Textbook music history, with its tendency to discuss a composer only at the moment of first impact, reinforces the illusion of an orderly succession of styles. Nor has it helped that more than a few such histories have been written by composers or theorists whose delight in composition occupies the lion's share of their attention and whose total word count is all too limited. We urgently need more historical accounts, particularly of underrepresented repertories, that both introduce the music and place it in a richly historical context.

Joseph Straus is ideally positioned to write such a history. The author of a widely regarded textbook on post-tonal theory, Straus has also co-edited a fine collection of Milton Babbitt's essays and published a detailed and valuable account of Stravinsky's serial music.1

His most recent book comprises two sections. The first, and by far the lengthiest, is wittily titled, "Thirty-seven Ways to Write...


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