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    Isorhythmic Technique Of The Ars Nova Period and 20th Century Serialism

    Do we often discover that concepts regarded as contemporary innovation and/or progress have precedent in earlier concepts and work?  It would seem  this is the case regarding the isorhythnic motets of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in comparison with serialism of the twentieth century.  Both techniques involve a strict ordering and cycling of pitch collections, both feature retrograde or palindrome (de Vitry's Garritt gallus), both techniques "serialize" musical structure as an organizing principle.  In De Touz Les Biens by Machaut, the talea and color (tone row?) in the tenor part cycles through all of it's ratios until the starting point is reached in which case the compostion is concluded.  Of course isorhythm and serialism are not the same, but the essential organizing concepts are very similar minus the chromatic twelve tones as reference material - there still is a distinct "row" of pitch class set material as a priori structure.  The continual variation facilitated by the cycled structure at any given point in the antiphon or row is also, I would argue similar.  Just as the Triplum and Motetus in Machaut's De Touz Les Biens are composed according to, in relation to the antiphonal/talea/color tenor, the serial or twelve tone rows of Schoenberg or Webern's compositional material is also the focus and organizing principle of horizontal and vertical relationships.  Isorhythm of the Ars Nova period does not involve permutations and combinatorial subset relationships as archtectonic reference, rather the sense of contrapuntal consonance and dissonance of Medieval modal aesthetic.  I would posit rightly or wrongly that there is a conceptual similarity between Ars Nova isorhythm and contemporary serialism.  I would appreciate any opinions, counterarguments and comments.  Thank you.    

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    • Carson,

      You will be interested in Susan Deaver's 1993 DMA thesis "The Group for Contemporary Music, 1962 to 1992." The connection to your post can be found in her statement made early on about GCM's inaugural concert:

      Curiously a work of Thomas Morley titled Chrites Crosse (1597) opened the first program. The idea of incorporating old music into the concerts was an idea that would remain a part of the program format for nearly all of The Group's years at Columbia University. Old music was of interest to Sollberger and Wuorinen as composers and Marx, who was a musicologist as well as oboist.

      On his web site, Harvey Sollberger quotes from one of GCM's first reviews:

      Outside the din and glitter of pop culture and camp followings stands Columbia University's Group for Contemporary Music – aloof, seemingly past any ambition aside from through-out and responsible musicianship, salon sans heroics. A program of theirs, as was the case on March 20th [1967] , is apt to open with a pre-Baroque find or two written by some lesser-known composers in peculiar modern orchestration, followed by four or five chamber works by deserving but lesser-known composers. –– Carman Moore, The Village Voice

    • Thanks Stephen, I look forward to checking out this reference.