My friend Rich Trott recently posted something about Warren Zevon's perspective on serialism/12-tone composition, which got my 20th-Century-Music brain workin' overtime. My response:
I love Warren Zevon. But I have to disagree with his perspective here.
Zevon is stating a variation on a familiar theme, and also being tautological: Serialism plays by different rules tonal music, so it's hard to tell whether it's good or bad (in this case, Zevon is specifically saying "it's easier to hide bad composition in serialism").
The first part is obvious. Yeah, serial music is fundamentally different than tonal music. That was the whole point!
And the second part? Good or bad depends on your perspective and criteria for evaluation. Because serialism doesn't sound like tonal music, it is difficult to define how one should critique it.
One can evaluate the piece within the context of serialism and ask "Does it follow the rules? Is it clever and inventive?" But to properly do so, you have to know music, have a score, and really analyze the piece in order to make an informed judgment about "good or bad". You can't/shouldn't just listen to it without considering its serialist qualities.
I think it's fundamentally misguided to try to evaluate a serialist piece solely using tonal criteria. But it is very difficult for listeners and critics to separate the serialist criteria from tonal criteria, and further, from our own direct, emotional criteria: "Is it pretty? Does it make me feel something? Is it memorable", etc.
Zevon, like many other critics of serialism, seems to be saying "well, you can do some clever stuff, but it's not really going to move people like, you know, REAL (i.e. tonal) music could. And who can tell, anyhow?"
This is akin to saying "minimalism is a way for people who can't draw to hide their lack of skill". A more enlightened view says "the goals are different."
Serialism is a way to compose (and to think about music and composition) that is supposed to be fundamentally different than tonal music. It is entirely possible for a composer to be lousy at tonal composition but excellent at serial composition and vice versa. Not every painter does photo-realistic portraiture, do they? And the ones who are great at that don't necessarily make the best Expressionists, right?
And I am not saying serialist music can't make you feel something (Berg's "Wozzeck") or be pretty (Webern!). But I think hard-core serialists would argue that whether or not what you produce is "pretty" or "catchy" or "lyrical" is irrelevant, and that anyone who tries to make "tonal"-sounding serial music isn't really being serialist at all. They're hedging, or worse, missing the entire point of writing serial music.
Serialism produces music that's so seriously alien to most people's ears that pieces which succeed as serialist AND as "conventional" tonal works are the exception rather than the rule.
And most people have so little exposure to serialism that they are simply not qualified to say whether or not something is good - they're comparing the dozen serialist pieces they've heard to the thousands of tonal pieces, and applying tonal criteria to them.
That is really no different than picking a tonal piece and talking about what a bad serialist piece it is because it doesn't maintain its tone row. It's just as silly.
I recognize the sheer strangeness of 12-tone is a turn-off for most people. I like to think of myself as a relatively sophisticated listener, and I CANNOT approach music I hear with any perspective other than that of tonal music. But at least I recognize that about myself before I yell "Turn off that PIERRE FUCKIN' LUNAIRE racket RIGHT NOW!"
Now, if Zevon had said "I, Warren Zevon, don't like 12-tone music", that'd be fine. But to simply reduce all of 12-tone music to "a way to cloak an uninspired composition"? That's ludicrous.
It's interesting that Zevon started with this stuff at age 12. As a teacher, I found serialism to be much less intimidating than tonal composition to the gifted students I taught. Unlike tonality's demand for "pretty tune", Serialism is like "number games". It doesn't matter if what you're producing "sounds bad", as long as it follows serialist rules.
That's very liberating, and it changes the rules for judging what makes a piece "good" from relatively squishy/subjective things like "it makes me feel something" or "it's pretty" to "that's a neat use of the retrograde inversion" or "That's a cool tone row".
Students liked the fact they were manipulating notes in a more abstract fashion. Rather than be judged on their compositional ability in terms of making a melody or motif that "worked", they were judged on their compositional ability to do interesting things with a tone row. This, in turn, got them thinking in many more compositional dimensions quickly (every year, at least one kid "rediscovered" TOTAL serialism), rather than just getting hung up on counterpoint and harmonization.