Yes, it's been a month since my last post. I've been practicing, taking kids to swimming lessons, teaching a class, preparing for fall classes, travelling to Wisconsin, reading lots of books, listening to tons of music (I love my iPod), and going to the occasional movie.
In my 20th century theory course at Indiana U, we've been talking about comprehensibility and serial music. In Style and Idea, Schoenberg stated that his main goal in designing the method of 12-tone composition was to achieve comprehensibility while acknowledging the historical evolution of musical dissonance. After analyzing Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31, we talked about whether the piece was comprehensible and if the use of rows helped this. Several students said they couldn't hear the different forms of the row, beyond perhaps the first two forms in the main theme. But most students still felt the piece wasn't random noise (a common criticism of atonal music), and several students discerned emotional content. So the piece is comprehensible, even if the rows are not. This follows the same type of logic as saying that Beethoven's music is comprehensible, even if the listener doesn't perceive the various modulations, developments of motives, or even the basic form of the piece. For some reason, audiences place higher expectations on the comprehensibility of atonal music than tonal music. Perhaps this is because of the mathematical logic associated with these atonal works, deliberately designed and used by the composers. But I think that is an unfair association for the majority of atonal works. Instead of sitting in disbelief that anyone can hear the relationship between a row and its retrograde inversion, listen for the emotions expressed. Many of the emotions of the Second Viennese school are dark, given the Expressionism influences. But that shouldn't repell audiences that watch gritty psychological dramas and hyper-violent action thrillers.