Friday, November 28, 2014

Johnson on Harmony, Soderberg on Theory (& Yes, I Get in a Lot of Words Edgewise)

The estimable Tom Johnson has just published a book on harmony, Other Harmony, "other" here indicating. heterodox to the mainstream of contemporary music theory and history teaching.  I haven't yet read the book, but some of the names sticking out from the online summaries — Euler, Hauer, Forte, Messiaen — make it appear very interesting indeed, in particular as ways of arriving at a greater diversity of voice leadings.

I think about theories of harmony a lot — perhaps too much for my own good — as both a practical and an intellectual concern.  A useful theory has got to do a handful of things at once:  It has to offer a taxonomy of resources within a given tonal system or environment, first among them managing the diversity of chords available (which need not always be simultaneities and need not always be complete and may sometimes be visited by guests or non-chordal tones, yet retain their identity) in terms of both their own content and their distance/relatedness to other chords and larger collections of tones but also in terms of the movement between chords, which is voice leading (which need not always be elegant or "parsimonious", a current term of art (I can't emphasize enough how important I think voice leading is; voice leading is a strong distinguishing quality among repertoires and I believe that it's the useful bridge between counterpoint — which I believe should be taught first — and harmony.))

That distance/relatedness exists in terms of both quality (yes, chords can be located qualitatively on a continuum of sensory consonance and dissonance (and yes, you have to consider things like registration and voicing and timbre and dynamics and duration (and yes, chords can be puns, simultaneously being identifiable in two or more ways)); yes, two major triads share a quality independent of their root relationship) and function within larger tonal contexts (scales, keys, and systems or networks, or collections and aggregates; yes, chords can be functionally dissonant independent of their sensory qualities (and yes, there's that punny business))   Finally, a theory of harmony should have the capacity to distinguish and describe individual and local harmonic practices, the things that an individual piece, an individual composer, or a particular repertoire do distinctively.  (These typically emerge not only in the choice of materials but in their temporal orderings.  Example:  in much repertoire, dissonances typically resolve forward to consonances. Example: the western classical, or "common practice", tradition allows IV to come before V but generally not V to come before IV; popular repertoires often do not share this prohibition.)

Ultimately, a theory of harmony is a tool that helps composers make more interesting or compelling works, helps players and musicians to engage with the works both practically and more deeply and is also a tool in discovering — or negotiating, as the case may be — the aesthetic foundations of our practices as composers, performers and listeners: not just what are our harmonic practices but what are our harmonic preferences?  

Stephen Soderberg is currently in the middle of a very thoughtful series of blog items about theory and its feedback relationships to practice.  I believe that hovering behind these relationships are, however, some psychoacoustic or neurological considerations and some private or social preferences that mix together and form or contribute to aesthetic criteria.  The entire twelve tone and set-theoretical project (from which tradition Stephen is working)  has a lot to admire about it, but attention to sensory considerations was not a prominent feature and, inasmuch as the tradition was or is pre-compositional or speculative theoretical, there was precious little said about the criteria with which musical works produced on the basis were to be appraised as successfully musical or not.

I was very impressed by the concern expressed by the late Heinz-Klaus Metzger that we are operating in a criteria-free era, but I suspect that we do, in fact, operate with criteria, but that we are almost painfully inarticulate about them.  (Yes, there were/are local and underground rules — they might be about octaves or starting rhythmic figures on downbeats or forbidding exact repetitions — but those are usually cloaked by the doctrine of deniability that governs things like admissions committees and awards panels.)  I will even go so far as to assert that we tolerate a lot of bad musical production because of this avoidance or even loss of the ability to be articulate about what we like and don't like (dare I go even further — this being aesthetics after all —: about what we find beautiful and not beautiful?.)

1 comment:

stephen soderberg said...

Hi Daniel,
You're certainly correct that I"m personally working from a 12T/set-theoretical past - but please realize I'm trying to work past the "project" support designation. I've always had a problem joining any club that would have me as a member (and none of the current silverbacks are going to make the offer at any rate). The thing I'd like everyone to concentrate on in this thread is that I am consciously attempting to take the personality out of the "players" -- theory instead of theorist, analysis instead of analyst, techne instead of composer. I am not trying to deny the aesthetics involved in making a "work of art" or the demands of "psychoacoustic or neurological considerations," but simply trying to separate out those things that define the "degrees of freedom" the artist has by choosing one "theory" over another (and such a choice is ALWAYS made, whether it's admitted/recognized or not). While I occasionally "slip" in this depersonalizing mode (how could I not?) as I describe the model as content-free, I'm still trying to test it in my own head by thinking of it as the future of serialism, say, rather than the past of CPP harmony. (I've even worked through it using Cage & Riley & others' procedures & I'm not convinced the model's relationships don't hold there as well.) It is in the nature of ALL art theories eventually to
get used up. Very few theorist-teachers I know of seem to get this. Well,... a lot more to say, but enough here for now.

Thanks for the heads up re Tom Johnson's book BTW!!