Thursday, February 07, 2013


One of the features of an overwhelmingly large share of tonal music is that pieces or, at least, movements of pieces, start and end in the same tonality — with some variations, i.e. starting in minor and ending in major or vice versa etc. — with a typical tonal narrative sense of being someplace, going someplace different — different, by degrees, of course, with going to the dominant or a parallel or relative tonality being relatively modest journeys, and tonalities more distant from the tonic suggesting journeys of more exotic or adventurous varieties — and then returning to the place from which you started.  (The late composer Robert Erickson was fond of a baseball metaphor, then ends of the piece marked by home plate, and the bases implying ever more distant tonalities relative to home.  (Under the Ericksonian system, hitting a homer is slick and efficient, but having to work one's way around the bases — through whatever combination of drives, flies, bunts, walks, and and steals — is certainly more interesting.))

At the Zenith of atonal/twelve-tone/serial music's academic presence, one of the strictures was that, in order to avoid the suggestion of tonality, beginning and ending with the same tone or pitch configuration, or other suggestion of the same tonality (taken, in its most liberal sense) was to be deprecated.  (Alongside restrictions on octaves, major-minor triads and dominant seventh or stacked-third chords (I can recall that one of the common criticisms in certain academic quarters, of Steve Reich's phasing pieces, was that they usually phased all the way around their modules, coming back to the initial arrangement; but it's striking that there was little self-criticism of serial or twelve-tone works which just as systematically — if not auditionally as democratically — cycles right through their own exhausted aggregates and whatever-featured arrays, inevitably implying that the next note, the hypothetical note to follow the last one in the score, was most likely the first one (and, may I add, if we are allowed to imagine implied-but- unsounded tones in Schenkerian analysis of tonal works, then we damn well ought to be able to imagine the implied-but-unsounded in non-tonal pieces.)))  Unfortunately, holding tightly to a rule like this suggests a very weak understanding of what actually happens in a piece of tonal music, and in particular, in the very best pieces of tonal music.  In such music, I contend, the appearance of a return is usually just that, an appearance, not an identity relationship, for one doesn't really return, but arrives at a place, with similarities to the point of origin, to be certain, but so informed and so colored by the experience of everything that has transpired in the journey — and all the more so when that journey is full of tonal fakes and puns and errors —, that "the same" isn't really "the same at all."  (See also these (here and here) recent posts about the useful weakness of "same" and "different" in music.)  

I suspect that one reason we resist recognizing such differences is that we have a lot invested in the metaphorical notion of a piece as a journey with a singular trajectory, that of getting lost and coming home (or, there and back again), so that all the adventures and detours and cul de sacs along the way get largely discounted  (recently, there have been a couple of surveys of German tourists which have shared the conclusion that most German tourists enjoy their holidays least while they are actually on them, and most when they are back home on their sofas, reminiscing and planning the next package vacation) although those are precisely the parts of the journey which give it texture and distinction  (I recently had a gig which involved copying massive amounts of Beethoven & was once again reminded that I'm never sure which is more impressive: the banality (arid, bromidic, characterless, cloying, colorless, commonplace, dead, drab, drag, drudging, dull, flat, ho hum, humdrum, insipid, interminable, irksome, lifeless, monotonous, moth-eaten, mundane, nothing, nowhere, platitudinous, plebeian, prosaic, repetitious, routine, simplistic, spiritless, stale, stereotyped, stodgy, stuffy, stupid, tame, tedious, threadbare, tiresome, tiring, trite, unexciting, uninteresting, unvaried, vapid, wearisome, worn-out, zero altitude) of his material or the extraordinary things he makes out of his materal (like, wow.))  Perhaps it would be useful — if not as a listener or performer of existing music, but at least as a composer of new music — for us to change the metaphor a bit.  Maybe we don't really use music as a form of travel; at least we don't use good music as a means of traveling in straight lines from here to there and then back here.

What might an alternative metaphor sound like?  How about this from Raymond Roussel:  In his How I Wrote Certain of My Works (which is essential reading, buckoes) identifies one working method which begins with a pair of words which have some similarity — which could be homonyms or metagrams or rhymes or assonances or visual but not acoustical similarities etc. — and then creates sentences or phrases around the word with their own punning resemblances, but altogether distinct meanings, assigning this pair of sentences or phrases to the beginning and end of the poem or novel. Composition then becomes the process of connecting these two same-but-different bits of information through a process of interpolation (and often multiply interpolated interpolations (which are represented in Roussel by multiple sets of nested parentheses.))  In tonal music, or not-yet-tonal, or even not-really-trying-at-all-to-be-tonal musics, might it often be the case that apparently-same tones or tonalities are actually only punningly related, with an external marker of similarity or two temporarily confusing the listener into conflating events that are really fundamentally different in character (in a trivial example, but getting back to Beethoven, in the Consecration of House Overture, he begins with all the tones of a C major triad spread thick and wide, but ends with only Cs, in five conjoined octaves — gone to C alright — and, for that matter, hard not to hear as major, but hardly the same C as the opening)?     

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