Thursday, June 12, 2008

On Pan-Stylistic Legitimacy in Contemporary Composition

In my Musical Implications of the Harmonic Overtone Series posts - under Musical Relativity Theory in the sidebar - I demonstrated how the musical force present in the harmonic series generates everything purely musical: Being a dominant seventh chord and containing, as it does, a dissonant tritone, the resolutional impetus of this sonority generates the secondary dominant system, the secondary subdominant system, and by extension all of the secondary diminished sevenths, and altered secondary dominants such as the traditionally so-called German and French augmented sixth chords.

That series of posts was actually the second set, the first being The Harmonic Implications of the Harmonic Overtone Series, which was where I first haltingly elucidated these breakthroughs (I did not deem that particular series worthy of a sidebar section). Several months ago I had the final conceptual breakthrough I was searching for, and so I will be posting the third and final series of posts on this topic as soon as I am finished with my present recording project. This one will make it into book form, but I'm glad I have published this series online, as there is a record of when and by whom these ideas were developed. Probably about 20% of the hits on this blog are from people the world over who are studying various chapters of this series, so I know the concepts are getting out there; I just want to be certain credit is given where credit is due.

Context is the final piece of the puzzle. For a long time I have wondered why purely "atonal" pieces were miserable failures as absolute music in concert halls, while the very same pieces could be wildly successful for film score scenes. The answer is context: Pieces in which "one tone relates only to another" - Schoenberg's words - totally reject all musical contextual references, and so they are unsuccessful as absolute music: At least, to those who have a high degree of innate musical intuition. What a film scene (Or an opera scene &c.) does for these pieces is it provides an extra-musical context in which these pieces can function effectively.

This was brought home to me just a few weeks ago as I was watching There Will be Blood, which has a brilliant film score put together by Jonny Greenwood, and which contains a piece by Arvo Part, a composer who I usually detest listening to, because he has no sense of musical context (Or at least, he provides too few musical contextual references, or cues). Well, in this film, his piece Fratres for Cello and Piano functioned very effectively - brilliantly, in fact - because it was provided by the film scenes with an extra-musical context, while listening to it alone turns it into nonsensical crap.

Without doubt, the biggest misunderstanding of my work is by people who - I'm assuming - read it only superficially and who do not study it in depth. The usual manifestation of this is often stated in some form of, "he thinks there is only one way to resolve harmonies, and that the only legitimate music is traditionally tonal." Seriously, I'm baffled by how anyone can think this, because nothing could be further from the truth. What the overtone series generates are the contextual reference points to which all music relates, and how closely or distantly a composer gets to and from these reference points is what allows for musical effect and affect. The Alpha Prime musical context is the traditional major key or Ionian mode because it is the most natural context that the overtone chord generates, but all of the derived modes of Ionian are available as sub-contexts with the exception of Locrian, which has no perfect fifth, and therefore no substitute dominant, to support it: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian are all valid sub-contexts within the Alpha system.

I will get into the Beta and Gamma contextual systems (And many others) when I start the next series, but I wanted to publish this now to lead into the main thrust of todays post, as well as to have a published record of it.


As I was pursuing my graduate studies in music, I time and time again encountered the criticism that my work wasn't legitimate because it was, 1) tonal and, 2) based on styles of the past. Of course, from my perspective, these criticisms were not valid because, 1) I found my work to be intrinsically superior to that of said critics and, 2) my work contains a lot of sub-contextual modal elements anyway (Which exposed to me that these critics had tin ears). I knew there was more in support of my position, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it... until now.

In the fantastic era we live in today, we have available to us recordings representing every stage of western musical evolution, as well as recordings of non-western music, and with a click we can download them to our computers and listen to them. People all over the world are, at this very moment, listening to Gregorian Chant, Fauxbordon, the early polyphony of Leoninus and Perotinus Magnus, Ockeghem, Obrecht, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Heinrich Schutz, J.S. Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, Chopin, Debussy, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Penderecki and legions of other composers: We literally have the totality of western musical evolution at our fingertips and in our ears.

Not only that, but due to modern scholarship there are groups of musicians who specialize in the accurate performance of music from all eras today. What this means is that the totality of western musical evolution is current because people everywhere can and do relate to it in the right here and right now. So, for example, if a composer writes a modal melody and has it performed within the context of a larger work by a group who specialize in the accurate performance of Gregorian Chant, even a well-listened amateur will relate to it and find it evocative of the era in question: The musical effect will produce the desired affect. Within the context of the very same piece, some "atonal" Arvo Part anti-harmonic string portamento effects might also appear, and if they are employed deftly, affectations of the uncanny (or whatever) can be produced.

In a nutshell then, there are no longer any ancient styles that are out of date, because modern technology and scholarship have brought them all out of the past and made them up to date.

I can never get past the nagging suspicion that contemporary composers who criticize we who employ more traditionally based techniques are using their criticisms as a fig leaf to cover their shame at being unable to do the same.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...the totality of western musical evolution is current" - thanks, Huc, great nutshell statement for us eclectic nylon stringers who like to pull licks at will from the historical grab-bag. (Who will ever notice the Dowland cadence formula I snuck into Tears In Heaven? But the money's in the tip jar...)

When you play directly for paying listeners, these oh so 20th century ivory tower arguments about legitimate style are chased into the shadows by the sunshine of direct musical communication, in which style is how the game is played - your former critics probably can't play "Happy Birthday" with style and wit, for all their self-conscious stylistic awareness...

Keep it up, I like reading your stuff.

-- Jack down in SMA

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the harmonic series generates everything purely musical: Being a dominant seventh chord and containing, as it does, a dissonant tritone..."

Huc, I'm here to split hairs today. I will argue that the first two "tritones" in the overtone series, which have the relatively low ratios of 7/5 and 11/8, are only dissonant when translated into equal temperanment (OR into Pythagorian tuning). As part of the lower overtone series, they are really among the most consonant of intervals. The upper tone of the first "tritone", which we call a "Bb" in the "C" overtone series, splits the upper half of the octave in the exact proportion that the major third splits the lower half, and the relation between these two tones which quarter the octave can hardly be called dissonant in its natural state.

The tritone's position as "the devil in music" derives from Pythagorian 3-limit tuning based on cycles of fifths, which required acres of bronze age pebble arrays to calculate a tritone >> to split the Pythagorian octave which contains twelve divisions not 8 or 16 as does the overtone series << with always some small inaccuracy. This early conflict between the overtone series and Pythagorian tuning has been perpetuated in our modern tuning systems. The ET tritone has about a 5-digit ratio as I recall, just to get close, and it's really an irrational number. But the overtone series may be said by definition, I believe, to contain no dissionant elements. It IS consonance.

What the practical significance of this is, I'm not sure! It's hard to say that any modern scale really reflects the overtone series, and in my opinion the "Lydian-w-b-seventh" may be a better candidate than the Ionian. However, all western scales place the 5/3 major third element or an alteration thereof in its correct position halfway to the fifth, while the 7/5 element is between the 6th and 7th of the scale. If the upper half of the scale were to truly reflect the overtone series, the octave would be in position nine instead of eight, because the overtone series's division of the octave is completely symetrical.

All respect due to a stimulating discussion with which I agree in principle, of course.

- jack from SMA

2:12 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Jack, Comparing a just tritone and an... "unjust" one lol (TTET) simply by ear reveals that they both sound virtually equally dissonant. just because the ratio of the just tritone produces a rational number does not mean it isn't just as dissonant as the irrational ratio produced by TTET: There is only a couple of cents difference.

I get the, "TTET is an irrational system" argument all the time: Just because the intervallic ratios produce irrational numbers does not mean that the CONCEPT is irrational: Compressing the perfect fifths by 1/12 of the Pythagorean Comma to get rid of it is as simple, logical, straight forward and RATIONAL a concept as there could be. Pi is also a perfectly rational concept despite the fact that the number Pi is irrational.

Finally, all just intervals compared with TTET intervals BY EAR are perfectly identifiable for what they are in either system. In fact, MANY LISTENERS CAN'T IDENTIFY WHICH SYSTEM THE DIFFERING INTERVALS COME FROM.



9:32 PM  

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