Oliver Chandler


Is the history of British twelve-tone guitar music a binary one, characterized by devotee practitioners and their vituperative detractors, or did some British guitar composers experiment with, but ultimately remain ambivalent about, dodecaphony? Chapter 3 argues that the solo guitar pieces of the Glaswegian composer Thomas Wilson might be thought to provide a provisional set of answers to these questions. In a nutshell: they manifest critiques of dodecaphony in the form of musical notation.

Writing at a distance from the modernist centers of British musical fashion, Wilson started to experiment with both guitar composition and twelve-tone serialism in the early 1960s. His first guitar work, Three Pieces, bakes a problem into its opening row: potential inversional symmetry between its first and third tetrachords is disrupted, resulting in an otherwise impossible foreground transpositional consistency between dyads. Much of the movement is spent trying to resolve this tension between different pitch parameters. And yet because Wilson sticks doggedly to a single row form in the piece’s opening Allegro molto, this proves to be a difficult task. Whether this is down to an impoverished understanding of the possibilities of serialism, or because the method’s “inherent” restrictions (as Wilson saw them) were being purposefully caricatured, the resulting harmonic monotony leads to a non-row derived pentachord’s becoming the work’s expressive apex.

This desire for variety—“impossible” within a serial universe, at least as Wilson presents it—leads to a freely atonal slow movement. The Finale attempts to synthesize these two extremes: namely, strict serial procedure and free post-tonal composition. No clear reconciliation is reached; the movement’s expressive apex is once again a non-row derived pc set. While the work’s end marks a return to the opening row, its gelid articulation does not suggest attainment or triumph.

In the later Soliloquy, it seems at first glance as if Wilson has turned away from dodecaphony proper. On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that a twelve-tone “chorale” near the end of its first section might function as a skeleton key: it unlocks a fresh understanding of the generation of the work’s opening materials, which are based on exactly the same set classes. While dodecaphony is portrayed in Three Pieces as a barrier to creativity—as something to be overcome—in Soliloquy, it provides a sublated means of freeing up creative possibilities. The consequence of its acceptance by Wilson, however, is that the row basically vanishes from the musical surface. Soliloquy, in classic dialectical fashion, both is and is not a twelve-tone work.

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