Serialism (12-tone composition) was Arnold Schoenberg’s attempt to unfetter classical music from the bonds of chord progressions. It could only have arisen, one imagines, in an era when the unfettering was already well under way, when the harmonic bonds that remained were less like handcuffs than like well-cooked spaghetti.
Though many composers dabbled with serial techniques, ultimately serialism was a failure. The music from the 20th century that has gained a lasting place in the concert repertoire — for instance, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra or Barber’s Adagio for Strings — is not serialist.
It’s a pity Schoenberg didn’t have access to instruments that could play microtonal scales. He could have entirely burst the bonds of conventional harmony without needing to resort to cold mathematical processes. I’ve read (can’t remember where, but it may have been in a letter Wendy Carlos wrote to the New York Times) that a statistical analysis of serial works reveals a strong preference for the intervals of the minor and major second, tritone, and minor and major seventh, coupled with an avoidance of perfect fourths and fifths and major and minor thirds and sixths. It’s not hard to see why. The latter intervals imply conventional tonality, while the former are aggressively dissonant. But if you’re playing in 17-note equal temperament, none of the intervals imply conventional tonality. It’s all terra incognita.
Tonight I was musing about using serial techniques to write a piece in 31-note equal temperament, a scale that has both sweetly in-tune intervals and intervals that are utterly bizarre and foreign-sounding. I doubt I’ll actually do it. It would be a lot of work. What interests me about the idea is that you wouldn’t need to avoid consonant intervals in order to be guaranteed a fresh harmonic palette. You wouldn’t even need to start with a row that rigorously includes all 31 pitches. You could generate a random 32-note row that might have a few repeated pitches without worrying that the repetitions would imply anything too conventional in terms of tonality. You could also use techniques of recombination and fractalization that Schoenberg never envisioned, making your piece even more tonal (if desired) without fear of its collapsing back into too-familiar harmonic gestures.
Whether the results would be worth listening to … I guess we’ll never know unless I actually tackle the project. Nobody else is likely to.