Styles and Techniques

In post-war Europe the most appropriate technique to be used by a modern composer was serialism. With time, however, composers began to experiment with other techniques: sonoristics, minimalism, aleatory technique or tintinnabuli. The techniques and styles reflected their philosophy and personality.

There is no doubt that each of the Music in Movement composers was a great personality, an artist consistently developing his own distinctive language. And yet, as we follow the careers of Andriessen, Boulez, Pärt and Serocki, we come across elements they all had in common. These are styles and techniques that for years had such an impact on music that it was impossible to ignore them. In the 1950s and 1960s all four became interested in serialism, which derived from Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. The impact the doctrine had on them varied – while Boulez developed this strand for years, bringing it to an extreme of sorts, Serocki only experimented with its premises in Musica concertante but these experiences were important for his further artistic decisions.

When they encountered serialism, the composers had had different musical experiences behind them. Boulez, who studied in Paris, had earlier made attempts to enter into a creative dialogue with Olivier Messiaen and Anton Webern. Serocki, who was active in Stalinist Poland, composed pieces in the spirit of neo-classicism and folklorism. Their encounter with dodecaphony was different as well. When Arvo Pärt was writing his first serialist works, he knew the technique only from books, as performances of such imperialist music were forbidden in Soviet Union at the time. He made light of the inconvenience, saying, “if you hear that people in a distant country dance on one leg, you don’t have to fly there to be able to imitate this dance.”

Andriessen and Serocki quite quickly came to the conclusion that the characteristic assumption of serialism – total rationalization of the rules of writing music – restricted their creativity too much and began to look for different means of expression. Pärt was pushed away from dodecaphony more by the emotional atmosphere it created and by its aspect of atonality. In his search for reduced and communicative music Pärt found his guides in medieval liturgical music and Renaissance polyphony. This gave rise to tintinnabuli – an idea of reduced music, simultaneously static and moving, technically based on a strict, mathematical organization of musical means. Beginning with a small piece for piano, Für Alina, tintinnabuli became the Estonian’s calling card.

Principles of reducing are also present in Louis Andriessen’s oeuvre, although in this case the source of inspiration is to be found in American music and the work of Terry Riley or Steve Reich. In the monograph of the composer Robert Adlington quotes the Dutchman’s reaction to the former’s In C: “minimalism offered an immediacy and physicality that connected it to pop, yet retained a conceptualist element that helped distinguish it from the world of commercial music—a crucial distinction for a leftist composer hostile to the corporate world”. The problem is that minimalism is just one of the components of Andriessen’s style, in which a substantial part is also played by European modernism, the composer’s political views and jazz. An example of a reference to bebop is Facing Death – a piece, written for the Kronos Quartet, which cites Charlie Parker.

Serocki abandoned serialism in favour of music the main element of which was sound. Such music, called sonoristic, was very popular among Polish composers in the 1960s. In works like Swinging Music or Symphonic Frescoes roles usually attributed to melody, harmony or rhythm are shaped mainly by changes and various interactions of tone colours. A similar method of composing was used in Poland also by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, Krzysztof Penderecki or Wojciech Kilar.

Another technique important to the MIM composers was aleatory technique, popularized in Europe by Pierre Boulez, who used the term to describe the introduction of chance into music, like in a game of dice (Latin alea). In his Piano Sonata No. 3 he left it to the performer to decide in what order its movements were to be played. The potential of aleatory music was also explored by Pärt and Serocki.

Jan Błaszczak