Friday, November 11, 2005

Mechanical Efficiency II: Updating Traditional Practice

One of the reasons that I brought up the concept of mechanical efficiency as it applies to music, is that it's obvious to me that traditional practices can be directly updated to reflect current technological achievement. But first, a little background.

If we compare sixteenth-century modal counterpoint to seventeenth-century tonal counterpoint, a few things are obvious: 1) As pure counterpoint, the sixteenth-century style has the edge; 2) As a summation of then-current harmonic and contrapuntal practices, seventeenth-century style has the edge; and 3) From a purely technological viewpoint, seventeenth-century polyphony is far more mechanically efficient.

The problem with seventeenth-century polyphony, then, is that it sacrificed modal purity for the drive that only well-ordered harmonic root progressions can provide: Some of the tasty "modalisms" were left behind. From our standpoint in the twenty-first century, however, the seventeenth-century style is hopelessly antiquated: All of the Baroque ornamentation and grandiose flourishes represent the powdered wig era perfectly, but they really don't fit into my "Age of the Shaved Pate" at all.

Fortunately, great composers have addressed this issue, so we have examples to draw from. As I have mentioned before, Mozart's style was opened up and set free through his counterpoint lessons with Padre Giambattista Martini. But when Mozart composed the Finale of the Jupiter Symphony, he was not writing in the style of J.S. Bach, he was writing in the style of W.A. Mozart, which was a more mechanically efficient style that was perfectly in sync with the classical era's striving for simplicity and grace.

Later, Beethoven took up the challenge, and his many craggy fugattos are ledgendary, as is the Grosse Fugue Op. 133. But again, Beethoven was not composing in the style of J.S. Bach or W.A. Mozart, he was composing in the style of Ludwig van-freaking Beethoven, and that style reflected the late classical era transitioning into the Romantic era perfectly.

Later still, Sergi Ivanovich Taneiev - a pupil of Tchaikovsky - took counterpoint to it's ultimate level thus far, and in so doing he not only put an exclamation point at the end of the Romantic era, but he did it with a Russian accent, and through a countrapuntal style which has never before or since been equalled in terms of mechanical effeciency (Taneiev died in 1915, and I use that date to mark the end of the tradition of Western Art Music).

As a side note, Taneiev wrote the two greatest counterpoint treatises in all of music history: Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict style, and The Technique of Canon, the latter which has only recently been translated into english in a Doctoral Dissertation by Dr. Paul Grove. One of my goals is to blog through those two books, and after successfully composing the idiomatic fugue for the guitar, I think I'm about ready.

Anyway, composers have continuously updated counterpoint in the past, so there is nothing to prevent a composer from doing it now. My little guitar fugue is a simple example: There is no burdensome ornamentation weighing it down, it uses the simplest and most mechanically efficient fugue subject, it's filled with "modalisms", it uses the utmost economy of expression, and it is completely integrated through the use of fractal self-similarity. In short, it is a simple, streamlined fugue that sounds like Bach only if you give it the most cursory listen, and then only if you relate all fugue writing back to him (Which a majority of people seem to do, even with counterpoint generally. It's a problem: One newspaper writer described a performance of Bach that I did, only the piece was one of mine, not one of Bach's!).

Now that I have gotten basic tonal counterpoint, basic fugue writing, and basic canon technique under my belt, it probably is time to hit the Taneiev books again: I need to get the more exotic convertible combinations and non-octave canons down. This will open up the next level of technological achievement I want to get to. And remember, I'll be going at this with a twenty-first century mindset: All of the simple, streamlined, efficient, self-similar and natural ideals I have will be at work.

And, as Angie reminds us, simple, streamlined, efficient, and natural things are beautiful.

Though, it is possible that they might end up being "high maintenance" I'm guessing.


Blogger rgable said...

1915 as the end of the Western Art Music tradition

Although it's not necessarily a bad thing, I see the beginning of the end with the music of Busoni.

Question: If 1915 is the end, what about our greatest American composer, Copland?

Robert Gable

9:19 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

I really meant the contrapuntal tradition, primarily.

Copland is THE ONLY composer who lived during my lifetime who has made it to my iPod (Unless you consider Gershwin a "traditional" composer) so I liike his music, but he was not really a contrapuntal composer (Though he did use canon in a few things, so he knew counterpoint well enough).

I mean, Iove Glass' Ahknaten and a few other twentieth century "things", but I don't get "that feeling" from that stuff. Last night I listened to B's string quartet of Op. 131 played by a string orchestra under Bernstein (Very strange recording, but I love it), and THAT'S what I'M talking about! It was incredibly expressive tonal counterpoint loaded with "modalisms" that is sometimes even puzzling in it's spareness while it was at the same time being profoundly deep and moving music.

Why has no composer followed up on that approach? Perhaps Brahms tried?

I just think there is an entire common practice-based undiscovered musical universe out there... waiting...

11:01 PM  

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