Monday, September 15, 2008

Historiographical mythbusting

Part III of an occasional series.

One of my pet projects on this blog is the attempt to debunk the conventional historiography of music. While the facts of music history (Beethoven was born in 1770; Rubbra wrote eleven symphonies; Delius is a terrible composer) are objective and unquestionable, our interpretation of those facts has been shaped by changing fashions. If you went to university in the 1960s, your professors probably taught history with the preconception that twentieth-century atonality was the logical, inevitable outcome of all previous musical developments. If you go to university today, your professors probably teach history with the preconception that twentieth-century atonality was an interesting anomaly, and that the resurgence of tonality (in either minimalism, neoromanticism or some form of popular music) has restored us to equilibrium. I don't find either of these narratives particularly convincing, but I'm naive enough to think that it's possible to come up with another one that works better. Before I can get to the stage of actually building a version of my own, however, I need to clear away a few lingering bits of mythology that turn up distressingly often:

Myth #1: It is possible to write atonal music.
This is a leitmotif of mine (see here, and here). I've never quite bought into the idea of atonal music, mainly because I've always perceived some level of tonal logic in works that I'm told are completely atonal. So-called "atonal" music skews our sense of tonal centre in the same way that post-Romantic chromaticism does - by using so many different pitch-classes (simultaneously or in succession) that it is impossible to perceive one of them as a tonic. The only difference between a piece by Wagner and one by Webern in this regard is that any individual combination of pitches in the Wagner will sound more familiar than the combination of pitches in Webern. (In his book, The Evolution of Music Through the History of the Perfect Cadence, Alfredo Casella shows how the increasing elongation and complication of cadential patterns through the nineteenth century finally gave way to a twentieth-century language in which cadential patterns are sometimes almost imperceptible, but still definitely present.)

And so - to rephrase what I've written previously - atonal compositional methods do not prevent a listener from perceiving pitch centres in a piece. If the composer is truly dedicated to his atonal ideal, the only way to stop the listener from hearing pitch centres is to change tonalities so quickly that the listener is completely disoriented - an effect that Hindemith commented on with disapproval. But this doesn't eliminate the influence of tonality; it merely suppresses it, and if the music was played more slowly, the listener would begin to detect patterns and impose the idea of a tonal centre upon the music.

Atonal music, in other words, is just tonal music where the changes happen too quickly to follow. Which has nothing to do with the compositional methods used to write the music (I'm fairly certain that Webern would be horrified to find that his audience could infer tonal patterns in his orchestral music), and everything to do with the human tendency to impose patterns upon the external world.

Myth #2: Twentieth-century art music is preponderately dissonant and complex.
I posted this summer on a brief experiment I performed this summer - take a random year during the twentieth century, and see what sort of music was composed during that year. (All of the music came from my own Itunes library, so this was obviously a highly unscientific experiment.) Taking the year 1969, I discovered that composers' language varied widely: we had everything from academic serialism (Rolv Yttrehus), to the avant-garde (Elliott Carter, Ligeti), to neo-tonality (Malcolm Arnold) to early minimalism (Gavin Bryars). There was no apparent pattern, except in that the musical languages seem to "average out" to a extended tonal language somewhere between the two extremes (composers like Tippett, Shostakovich, or Messiaen.) The same happens if you pick another random year in the twentieth century; in 1947, for example, we learn that A Survivor from Warsaw coexists with Rubbra's Fifth, or Symphonies of Wind Instruments with Durufle's Requiem.

With the benefit of hindsight, the last century now seems one of the most varied in musical history; it's hard to think of two composers further apart than Vaughan Williams and Webern, for example, and yet they were contemporaries who came to maturity at approximately the same time. It's certainly true that many composers of complex, dissonant music held a disproportionate influence on the musical world, but it's also true that there were no shortage of composers who wrote in a tonal, accessible style. (I've lost count of the number of times I've read in CD liner notes and composer biographies how much some minor 20th-century figure suffered because of his or her position as a tonal composer at the mercy of an atonal establishment. If all the "neglected", "isolated" tonal composers had gotten together in the 1960s, they could easily have staged a coup and had all the "atonal" composers shipped off to Siberia.) As we gain a clearer perspective of the twentieth century, I expect that we will have a clearer picture of the true relationship between "tonal" and "atonal" composers. Rather than perceiving the period as an anarchic battleground, we should understand the wide disparity in twentieth-century styles as part of a centuries-long tension between simplicity and complexity.

Myth #3: Western harmony is normative.
Apologists for neo-Romantic tonality often base their views on the idea that Western harmony can be derived from the harmonic series - the combination of high overtone pitches that is present in any pitched sound. This is based largely on the fact that the harmonic series opens with the interval of an octave, followed by a fifth, another octave, and a major third - in other words, with the notes of the major triad. After this, however, the pattern breaks down. The next unique note in the series is a seventh, which would turn the chord into a dominant seventh chord, except that the seventh partial in the series is extremely flat. The series diverges even further from Western norms as more unique notes emerge - a ninth, an extremely flat tritone, and an extremely sharp minor sixth - until finally the series dissolves into microtones.

For Western purposes, the series has to be massaged and twisted into various shapes in order to produce the correct notes for our system of equal-tempered, triadic harmony. Most other cultures, however, have interpreted the series rather differently; in many folk musics, we find scales which require fewer notes to the octave than ours, or which include microtonal pitches smaller than we are used to perceiving. Western art music is separated from most vernacular traditions by the existence of polyphony, which requires a sense of vertical harmony in addition to a melodic sense. This means that the traditional Western model of functional tonality is our only pre-20th-century model for applying the realities of the harmonic series to organizing vertical sonorities. However, that does not make the alternatives devised by modernist composers any less valid - think of Messiaen's idiosyncratic modes and unique cadential patterns, the quartal harmony of Hindemith, or the contemporary French spectral school, which bases its entire musical language on scientific analysis of the overtones produced by musical instruments. All of these systems are very different from the norm of common-practice tonality, but they are grounded in an understanding of the harmonic series and have proven to be effective means of organization in their own right.

In other words, we can be fairly sure that some aspects of our musical language are universal. The idea of octave equivalence, for example, is a natural outgrowth of the harmonic series and, as far as I'm aware, is shared by all cultures with a system of pitch organization. Likewise, all music (and, for that matter, all art) has inherent in it an alternation of tension and resolution which is expressed in music by the motion towards and away from a pitch centre. However, we should not assume that the other artefacts of our cultural tradition, such as equal temperament or triadic harmony, are permanent, or will last forever.

The past three posts have been dedicated mostly to attacking other people's ideas (even if they're mostly strawmen). When I continue this, I hope to make some attempt at developing my own version of history to replace the one I'm trying to demolish. Comments welcome.


Robert said...

Hello Osbert,

I enjoyed reading your blog. I like to read comments from opinionated people to attempt to show them where they are wrong. In your case, you need to read the motto of pre-Socratic philosopher Protagoras: "Man is the measure of all things." In other words, there is no little god of art or music who goes around stanping lables like "good" or "bad" on works. The only thing that counts is that people like something. Then it's good. If more like it or the few like it longer,then it's better. All that matters is that someone somewhere listens to a piece of music for it to have some value.

Bob Ehle (

Osbert Parsley said...

To establish a philosophical basis for objective musical quality was beyond the scope of these posts, and I make no apologies for not including one. If you're right, however, and the only basis for quality is "that people like something", then I'm lost - none of the distinctions I attempt to draw have any meaning.

I don't think, however, that you've made a particularly convincing case for relativism about aesthetic judgments. If I was trying to defend this relativism, I would certainly not start by quoting Protagoras - like all of the pre-Socratics, he's known to us through his use in the dialogues of Plato, where he's used as a strawman so that Plato can demolish his supposed relativistic arguments. In other words, all we have to go on from Protagoras is a clever quotation and a series of faulty arguments to support it. That's simply not enough for me to abandon all aesthetic judgment, especially when some level of aesthetic objectivity (Haydn is better than Dittersdorf, say) is so completely intuitive.

I'm a dilettante philosopher at best, so don't expect me to revolutionize the world with my new theory of aesthetics. However, it seems to me that there are strong metaphysical bases for holding that there is an objective basis for artistic quality, none of which require us to posit "a little god of art or music." The best route, it seems to me, would be to appeal to the Aristotelian/scholastic conception of universals: any individual piece of music instantiates the form of a musical composition, and it can do so more or less perfectly. Because musical universals, like all universals, are at least partly accessible to reason, it follows that we can at least partially evaluate how well a particular composition instantiates the musical form it attempts to access.