Total serialism is an extension of the serialist techniques developed by the Second Viennese School. In serialism the order of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale is determined pre-compositionally. The pitch rows are usually not repeated until the entire row has been played. However, pitches or a group of pitches can be repeated in succession. Total serialism extends the concept of serialism to rhythms, dynamics, tempos, meters and other non-pitch elements.
One of the principle concepts of total serialism is the avoidance of repetition at all levels and in all domains. This avoidance prompted a need for a pre-compositional creation of “scales” to determine features not previously determined. This was done so even if the choice made from these “scales” was not always in accordance with any serial procedure. This type of composition is much maligned because it restricts the performers ability to interpret the piece.
One of the first pieces to incorporate elements of total serialism is Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d’intensities. In this piece, from his Quarte études de rythme, Messiaen indicated specific dynamics, articulations and durations for each of the notes of the piece. Pierre Boulez, a student of Messiaen expanded and developed the concept of total serialism. Inspired by Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d’intensities, Boulez composed a series of piano pieces in which many non-pitch elements of music were controlled. One of the first was his Structures I. Boulez serialized no only pitches, but also rhythms and dynamics. He also used a quasi-serial technique by using a set of 12 dynamic markings and 12 indications of attack.
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras makes use of a “chromatic scale” of 12 tempos. This consisted of creating a scale where these “other values” are arranged in a progression analogous to that of the equal tempered semitone scale.
Definition provided by Brian Bice