Take a 12-Tone Trip: All About Serial Composition

April 7, 2017

Music continually surprises me. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on all things musical, I hear something fresh or play a line that brings wonderment and the excitement of discovery. There are only 12 notes in our Western music system, yet they offer endless possibilities for extraordinary, inspiring moments.

I had one of those moments last week when the bass part of Bob Brookmeyer’s “Tick Tock” landed on my stand just before a run-through rehearsal. I consider myself a decent sightreader, but during the chart’s first unison section, which features an exposed quarter-note line with bass and piano, I was flailing—not crashing and burning, but rather, just slopping through the notes and shifts. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was until I later checked the bass line closely (Ex. 1).

Looking at the line, I noticed there was no key signature, which is not unusual in jazz charts. I realized my problem was the absence of any tonal center. The bass line consisted of a string of 12-tone rows, where no note was repeated in the sequence of each row. I was flummoxed playing the line because I was searching for a key center that was not there.

At the time he wrote this piece in the ’80s, big-band composer Bob Brookmeyer was heavily influenced by modern classical music, and he was experimenting with serial composition (often called 12-tone) techniques, which were pioneered in the 1920s by Arnold Schoenberg.

The characteristics of a 12-tone row are:
1. No note is repeated in the entire row of 12 notes (also called a set or series).
2. The original row (called the prime row) can be repeated in retrograde (backwards), as an inversion (transposed using the same intervals of the original row), or in retrograde-inversion (played backwards using transpositions of the intervals in the original row).

Bassist Jan Adefeldt originally recorded “Tick Tock” on Brookmeyer’s 1988 album with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, Dreams [Dragon]. After a freely improvised solo section, the bass and synth keyboard play the quarter-note line at a medium swing tempo. In Brookmeyer’s original part, the instruction says “Solo—fall off every note,” which is indicated here in bar 1 with a couple of slides down from the notes C and B. Brookmeyer keeps the bassist jumping with large intervals, like the major 7th interval in bars 3 and 4 between the high D and low Eb. His use of rests on many of the downbeats (bars 5, 7, 8, 9, 13, 19, 23, 30, and 32) gives a rhythmically jagged feel to the line, and sets up little hurdles for the sight-reader to trip over.

The strict rules governing the 12-tone writing style can be stifling in the wrong hands, or liberating when the lines come from a great composer like Brookmeyer. Because of the democracy of 12-tone writing, no single note feels like the tonic, or home base. In “Tick Tock,” Brookmeyer uses seven different 12-tone rows—all unique or prime rows (original rows with no inversion, retrograde, or retrograde-inversion).

Check out the 12-tone row in bars 1–4. Here you’ll find 12 notes, with no note repeated. In bars 5–8, a new row is introduced as the line moves up the neck. Bars 9–12 yield another sequence of 12 notes. The row beginning in bar 13 finally resolves in bar 17 on the whole-note Db, which slides down to a G.

Bars 17 and 18 provide a clever bridge to the next 12-tone row, which spans bars 19–22. Count the notes in bars 23 through 26, and you’ll find 13, not 12. What happened? Brookmeyer starts the final 12-tone row of this section on beat four of bar 26. The solo section of the chart begins at bar 33. Brookmeyer uses chromatically descending dominant chords as the basis for the solo section: B7, Bb7, A7, Ab7, G7, Gb7, F7, E7, Eb7, D7, Db7, C7.

Even though you might not often encounter such angular lines, you’ll be well served by knowing all 12 notes, and where to find them on the bass. How can you practice this 12-tone line? Look through the music first without the bass, and think about where you need to shift or cross strings. It’s possible to play some notes in several positions on different strings. Find what works for you. Slowly play the line, even out of time if you need to check for accuracy.

Once you’ve got the shape of the line, play in time at a medium tempo. When you’re feeling confident, play along with the original recording. You’ve got 12 notes on your bass in several octaves. Why not use them?

INFO

JOHN GOLDSBY
Check out John’s new video lesson series, The Upright Bass Handbook. More info at truefire.com and johngoldsby.com.

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