Intermedium: dodecaphony and pointillism (1956–60)

 

The political transformations in Poland in 1956 as well as their consequences for the cultural policy pursued by the state created very favourable conditions for Serocki’s work. Although even before that his work had developed autonomously to a large extent, the opening of the Polish musical circles to the ideas and phenomena emanating from avant-garde centres in the West considerably increased the dynamics of its evolution. It also became possible to refer directly to the models promoted there and freely enter into a polemic with them, especially from the moment when the composer for the first time took part (in 1957) in the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt. Thus 1956 begins the second stage in Serocki’s work, in which the central part is occupied by artistic discussions with the twelve-note technique and textural pointillism.

The first composition in which Serocki employed the twelve-note technique (based not on a series but freely treated sequence of sounds) was Suite of Preludes from 1952. In subsequent pieces he continued his increasingly daring experiments in this respect, but – as he stressed in his 1965 lecture in Essen – he was attracted not so much by the technique itself (in connection with pitches), but by the technique combined with Bartók’s method, which was his inspiration in the shaping of various elements of the form of a musical work. What came to the fore in 1956 was the problem of combining dodecaphony with the technique of textural dispersion or “scattering” of sounds in the musical space of a work, i.e. with pointillism. 

Serocki came the closest to this issue in writing two cycles of songs for solo voices with orchestral or piano accompaniment (Heart of the Night and Eyes of the Air), in which dodecaphony and pointillism assume their own, individual shape. As Tadeusz A. Zieliński stresses, for Serocki pointillism had its “raison d'êtreas a new perspective of sensual perception of music, an attitude he always adhered to. So he enthusiastically embraced the new possibilities – and chose a good fragment of them”. He was undoubtedly fascinated with the logical discipline of sound progression ensured by the twelve-note technique – in any case genetically associated (in Webern) with an auditory impression of isolation and dispersion of sounds within a work – yet what mattered most to him was the very “sonic finesse” of the pointillist convention. Thus, the pointillist sounds used in these two vocal-instrumental cycles composed by Serocki are forerunners of his original sonic solutions which soon became the composer’s most important characteristic.

In Heart of the Night for baritone and orchestra to words by Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński (1956) twelve-note series are combined with textural pointillism and new tone colours provided by various combinations of instruments. A subtle play of contrasts and delicate colours matches here the poetic layer of the work, in which the poet depicted the images of the night and the moon as well as the most delicate sensations associated with them. The most pointillist element in the work is its instrumental part; the voice follows the adopted series of pitches in a rather conventional manner, melodiously, only occasionally parlando or quasi senza timbre. The second cycle – Eyes of the Air for soprano and piano to poems by Julian Przyboś (1957) – is similar in this respect. Poetic texts expressing various situations and emotional states are based on twelve-note melodic lines, while the cycle’s pointillist accompaniment provides a harmonic background for them. However, there are more – than in the previous, “sister” piece – indications concerning expression and articulation for the vocal part, e.g. quasi canterellando (almost humming) or quasi sussurrato (almost whispering). They make the voice sparkle with various shades of colours, heralding a future Serocki – “poet of sounds”.

In both cycles each song is based on a separate series, but it is not dodecaphony that makes the final result intriguing. This results from the vocal means and from what happens with the rhythm and the metre. As Stanisław Będkowski has demonstrated, we have here the principle of “variable metres” (variable Metren), a technique proposed by Boris Blacher, a German composer and for many years director of Berlin’s Hochschule für Musik. Under this principle, the metre changes basically every bar, following an arithmetical pattern. For instance, in the song Night from the Heart of the Night cycle this pattern is a mirror image of a “short series” 2/4 – 3/4 – 4/4 – 5/4 (the basic unit is the crotchet), which makes up sequences like 2/4 – 3/4 – 4/4 – 5/4 – 4/4 – 3/4 – 2/4 – 3/4 – 4/4 – 5/4 etc. In the song Moonthe same sequence of metres undergoes permutations, e.g. 2/4 – 4/4 – 5/4 – 3/4, 2/4 – 5/4 – 3/4 – 4/4 or 3/4 – 4/4 – 5/4 – 2/4.

Serocki’s interest in serial and pointillist techniques culminated in a piece for chamber orchestra entitled Musica concertante(1958). It is – according to the composer – a manifestation of “numbers being treated as a form-creating element”. However, it is not an example of “total serialism” or “total “pointillism”, but, rather, Serocki’s own vision of a general mathematical idea – inversion of all elements, from the smallest sound units to larger formal sections. Thus, among the seven parts of the work, the fourth part, in which all instruments play, is the central and at the same time culminating section. Around it are placed symmetrically pairs of the remaining parts: first and last, second and sixth, third and fifth. Inversion also concerns the twelve-note series used by Serocki, for the first time in his works, the only row for the whole piece. Though duration, colour or dynamics are “pointillised” here, they are not subordinated to a primary series. Such extreme manifestations of total determination of a musical work, represented by numerous examples in the Darmstadt circle (Boulez’s Structures for two pianos, Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte) were unacceptable to Serocki, primarily due to practical considerations. This is how he commented on the situation in Essen:

The growing rhythmic fragmentation of pointillist-serial music (which ultimately produced rhythmically amorphous musical progression) resulted in performance-related problems and, consequently, an increasing conflict between the musicians and the composer. It became clear to me that, for example, when the tempo is set at “crotchet = 180”, it is impossible for musicians to perform the quavers in a septuplet precisely, because the capacity of rhythm-related human perception has its limits. Theoretically there are [...] two possibilities: 1) the composer of such music believed that all complex rhythmical structures he had written could be performed precisely. Then he would have been an illusionist. Or 2) the composer was aware of this and did not even demand a precise performance of such sections, but allowed for rhythmic variations, which emerge as a result of imprecise performance. But then we should be considering a system of notation that would restore normality between the musician and the composer, to their mutual satisfaction.

Thus the period of assimilating the dodecaphonic technique and post-Weberian pointillism in Kazimierz Serocki’s work, the period crowned by Musica concertante, was relatively short. The problems that emerged in these experiments, beginning with rhythmic notation, became a starting point for artistic proposals which Serocki presented in the following years, consistently developing and modifying the original ideas. What came to the fore at that time was tone colour and sound itself.

 

  • Tadeusz A. Zieliński, O twórczości Kazimierza Serockiego [On Kazimierz Serocki’s Oeuvre], Kraków 1985.
  • Kazimierz Serocki, Komponisten-Selbsportrait [Self-Portrait of a Composer] [typescript, 1965], University of Warsaw Library.
  • Stanisław Będkowski, “Zmienne metra w twórczości Kazimierza Serockiego” [“Changing metres in Kazimierz Serocki’s works], Muzyka 1996 no. 4.