At the time he wrote Mirrorrorrim , Strang was embarked on a concentrated course of self-education, experimenting with a variety of approaches to dissonances and atonality, because, as he later recalled, he could not benefit from formal education:
At that time, there were no teachers who really had any knowledge of contemporary music. My classes at the University of California didn't do me any good, so I set myself up as far as a self-education program . . . I got hold of all the music I could and set myself up small-scale projects by the dozen to test out techniques and to see what these newer ideas meant to me.
Strang was particularly attracted to the dissonant contrapuntal style which was having a resurgence at that time; he had written on dissonance treatment in the English madrigal for his doctoral dissertation. He continues:
I did endless experiments in dissonant counterpoint using a multitude of different organizational approaches. At that time, of course, the questions of atonality and tonality were being discussed a great deal. Modalism was influencing all sorts of things, so I experimented with single modes, with various modes together, with mixed tonalities, expanded tonalities, with pan-diatonicism__any time I could find a word that somebody had dug up, I would experiment with it.
But, like Schoenberg, who later became his teacher, Strang was concerned with organization:
At this time I was very much concerned about what was lost if you abandoned tonality. My concern was, from the very beginning, with form and not in the sense of simply carrying on and using the older forms but of trying to devise approaches to the structure of music which were more methodological than compartmentalized.
As a result of his self-teaching, Strang began a correspondence course with one of the professors at Berkeley__only it was Strang who was the teacher:
One of the professors at the University of California at Berkeley__ Charles Stricklen, who had been at one time in Charles Seeger's dissonant counterpoint class, became interested in my experiments and asked me to give him a correspondence course in contemporary methods. We lived only a few miles apart but he wanted everything in writing. Working with him forced me to formulate some of my ideas. One of the pieces which developed at this time was Mirrorrorrim . I did it originally without any particular idea of publishing it or even making it particularly pianistic.
During his five years of acquaintance with Cowell, Strang had attended New Music Society concerts, had done some proofreading for New Music editions (he worked on Schoenberg's Op. 33b), and had joined Cowell in the latter's experimentation with sounds:
Henry occasionally visited at my parents' house where I was living. We used to do experiments in sounds there. We used to bang pots and pans on the strings and use nail files to produce harmonics. In the ensuing five years or so when he was on the West Coast, we used to see him intermittently. He used to come out to the house and we'd play a lot of bridge because he was quite a bridge fan.
Strang remembers writing Mirrorrorrim in 1930 or 1931 and of showing it of Cowell, thinking it would amuse him. He was surprised when Cowell decided to publish it. The piece, named by his wife Clara, incorporated many of Strang's ideas of the time dealing with dissonant counterpoint and organizational devices. Mirrorrorrim , as its name implies, is a multiple mirror image. As stated in the notes which accompanied the composition, "Wherever more than one voice appears, the lower staff is a precise inversion of the upper staff, based on the appropriate tonal center." It is also a palindrome in which "the last half of the composition is a note for note reversal of the first half with certain time changes and bar changes introduced for rhythmic reasons." The meeting point of the first and and last parts of the piece occurs between measure 49 and 50 (Example 62).
Strang described the other important organizational device__that of tonal centers__in the interview:
This piece is based not on a particular scale but on the concept of the availability of all twelve pitches. There are various ways of establishing reference to particular pitch: by key structure or modes or by making particular tones prominent, as in the reciting tones of medieval chants or orison tones in oriental music. But it occurred to me that this point of reference need not necessarily be a specific pitch but that it might lie in the cracks between the keys of the piano.
In Mirrorrorrim there are two tonal centers: for the first subject, the center lies between Ca and B (Example 63), for the second subject, between F and F-sharp (Example64).
"The center of reference was shifted," says Strang, "to produce something like the principal and secondary theme relationship of a key."
The publication of Strang's music was, to a certain extent, a new direction for Cowell, because it represented the first publication of one of the young composers of the far west who had been drawn into the new music group by Cowell and the New Music Society. Like many of the others who followed, Strang did his experimenting alone, not conscious of being a part of any concerted movement:
There was no school . . . no American school, nor were there a number of American schools. It was a highly individual thing. I remember the compulsion I felt as a young composer to avoid imitating traditional models, but also to avoid doing things like other contemporary composers. We had to find our own way of being different from the conventional, but beyond that, we also felt a compulsion that we must not continue to do the same thing the next time. We should try to be different from our own difference. Part of the atmosphere was this centripetal feeling which more or less forced us to go out as much as possible in individual directions. The cult of being new or different for its own sake was a tremendously motivational force.
Of all New Music 's legacies, this was to be the most significant. p.202-204