Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Happily nonharmonic

Reading an item about a composer very different from myself, I was once again struck by a notion that, despite all the old and familiar and -- sometimes -- unreconcilable aesthetic and stylistic differences, there is in fact one area of new compositional activity in which there is widespread engagement, a common project even, albeit one that is content to find a diversity of compositional solutions rather than embracing any single hegemonic path.

I'm thinking here of the project of working within a tonal environment that includes a wide spectrum of possible pitch configurations, with, on the one end of the spectrum, configurations similar to harmonic spectra and on the other, configurations approaching or including noise. Along this spectrum, one can locate all the familar animals in the tonal music zoo, with structures paralleling harmonic and subharmonic series, and all of the more exotic ones as well, in which pitch space is divided in an equidistant or a more unruly way, or those which are the residua of conflicts between voice leading and harmony, and even incorporate some real harmonic xenofauna, culled from further reaches of the harmonic spectra or other divisions of pitch space. And, through rescaling, one can include musical phenomena that were previously considered too subtle for compositional elaboration if not inaudible, for example those of interference beats and combination tones.

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic and generous to describe a project with such a broad scope, but it has real roots in historical theory and compositional practice -- consider the treatment of contrapuntal dissonance and, later, nonharmonic tones, topics that were hot from the start and reached an apogee in the conflicting approaches of Schenker's voice leading and Schönberg's expanded catalog of chords. More contemporary approaches are manifold and resonant: Cowell's attempts to locate clusters in an overtone series, Seeger's dissonant harmony, the Stockhausen of ...how time passes... , the phonetics research, and Sternklang, the largely-francophone timbre/harmony or spectralist project (with its ultimate roots in Fourier and Rameau), Robert Erickson's Sound Structure in Music, James Tenney's John Cage and the Theory of Harmony, and late Cage's own "anarchic harmony", and, most recently, William Sethares's idea-rich book Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale.

But a composer needn't approach the notion of an expanded continuum of pitch relationships with a heavy theoretical apparatus; this can be taken in intuitively. A personal landmark for me was encountering La Monte Young's release of a disk with a vocal and electronic performance within a well-behaved harmonic series flipped by a B-side of a continuously bowed gong, a sound that was both distant from and continuous with, the harmonic material of the A-side. When Andriessen and Schönberger, in their delightful book on Stravinsky, The Apollonian Clockwork, observe that Stravinsky often used harmonies with bell-like structures, they are locating Stravinsky's tonal practice on precisely this sort of continuum. While it's certainly possible to elaborate more, I don't think that a compositional (or speculative) theory needs much more scaffolding than that to simply get to the business of composing.

1 comment:

Ben.H said...

Funny, I just found an mp3 of that La Monte Young album a little while ago. Every now and then I go back to Tenney's essay about Cage and harmony and understand it a little better: Cage certainly seems like a composer who found his theory through his music.

There are also composers who now move between working theoretically and intuitively, adapting various tuning and harmonic principles as compositional devices, moving from one to another when they wish. Presumably they're creating a meta-theory of the "common project" you decribe. (Now I think about it, I might be one of those people.)

Also (for anyone else reading) it's William Sethares: I didn't know about him and just googled to find out about his book.