Friday, March 14, 2008

Important Scholar Supports Organist's Eccentric Ideas

One of my hobbyhorses is the idea that there's no such thing as atonal music. It is, of course, quite possible to construct music without reference to the conventional key signatures and tonal relationships that people are used to, but this is of interest only to the analyst. In the listener's mind, old tonal listening habits are still working - any pitch repeated often enough becomes a tonic, any collection of pitches with consonant intervals becomes a chord. The only way to prevent the listener from listening in this way is to turn the piece into Hindemith's amusement park ride - to change the pitch centres around so frequently that he'll never be able to orient himself. There is very little music that does this, mostly because it's so difficult to write music that so systematically defies all our expectations. But in none of these cases is the music exempt from tonality, any more than the man on the amusement park ride is exempt from gravity.

So it's nice to have my prejudices confirmed by real, live, published scholars! Here's Peter Jona Korn* talking about the Second Symphony of Roger Sessions, which is organized atonally but nevertheless uses key signatures:
A minute analysis of this symphony will no doubt confirm the existence of carefully submerged tonal centres, to which these key signatures have reference. The same kind of analysis would bring forth very similar results with any given score of Schoenberg or - much more so - Berg or Dallapiccola, none of whom uses key signatures. Atonal music is, after all, nothing else but tonal music in which the tonal functions occur and permute in the shortest possible space of time.
The Symphony, ed. Robert Simpson, vol. 2, pg. 261.

Ha ha HA HA! Told you so! With both Hindemith and Peter Jona Korn on my side, the world will be at my feet in no time.

*Who? Apparently, a German composer (1922-1998). Studied with an impressive list of composition teachers (Rubbra, Wolpe, Schoenberg, Eisler, Toch, Rozsa, and Dahl) and had a successful academic career, but his music is almost entirely unknown.

No comments: