Thursday, May 7, 2009

Living in an atonal world

If the fight against a world proceeds by way of undermining its "point", the feature that sutures it into a stable totality, how are we to proceed when (as is the case today) we dwell in an atonal world, a world of multiplicities lacking a determinate tonality? The answer is: one has to oppose it in such a way that one compels it to "tonalize" itself, to openly admit the secret tone that sustains its atonality. For example, when one confronts a world which presents itself as tolerant and pluralist, disseminated, with no center, one has to attack the underlying structuring principle which sustains this atonality - say, the secret qualifications of "tolerance" which excludes as "intolerant" certain critical questions, or the secret qualifications which exclude as a "threat to freedom" questions about the limits of the existing freedoms.
Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, 31.


John Blackburn said...

The 20th Century included a great deal of passion on both sides--"Atonality or Death!" and "It's Tonality or the Highway!"--but, polemics aside, it's clear that a number of commendable compositions were created which might reasonably be described as "atonal" for their abandonment of traditional tonality for alternative organizational techniques.

When you rail against atonality, it's unclear both what you're railing against, and what you're defending. Can you please elaborate on what it is precisely that you dislike about atonality, with clarifying examples? And when you do, please disregard any labels and definitions and address the substance, not the academics.

Is it the self-inflated importance of Schoenberg and the rest of the Viennese school you dislike? I'll give you that one. Darmstadt? Preaching to the choir. Details would be much appreciated, thanks. There's a lot of nothing out there.

But I'd say Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles proves the opposite, that an "atonal" work, traditionally speaking, can be movingly beautiful and fine. Most of Stravinsky's late pieces, actually. Ligeti's Etudes are another example, as are a few of Lutoslawski's works such as Paroles Tissees.

Regarding the enduring allure of tonality, who might you recommend as worthy carriers of The Torch? Who, in other words, is still composing tonal works with vitality and without tired recycling? Embrace tonality today without embracing with it a great deal of unwanted associations is not easy, all the more so in this age of commercialized music.

I've enjoyed your bully pulpit for a while now, but I wish you'd direct the passion as much forward as you do backward.

Neverthess, thank you for taking the time to write.

Osbert Parsley said...

I'm quite perplexed by your comment, as I'm a huge fan of twentieth-century music and have used this blog to advocate a lot of music that could be considered "atonal" - Xenakis, for example. Nothing you've written above will receive any argument from me!

The quotation from Žižek I posted above, in any case, has nothing to do with musical atonality - rather, it uses the concept of atonality (a lack of a unifying tonal centre) as a metaphor for Western society, which has abandoned the idea of a common metanarrative in favour of pluralism. Žižek argues that this "sociological atonality" is superficial, and that a closer inspection will in fact reveal secret shared assumptions.

John Blackburn said...

No wonder you're perplexed: I had confused your blog with another whose frequent jabs at 20th Century music must have colored my reading of the quotation, which on re-reading is quite lovely, actually.

Your bully pulpit is fine. I've now moved up from row 6 to row 5, thanks.