Wednesday, June 11, 2008


More than a few composers arrive at a moment when it seems useful, if not urgent, to assess their relationship to one element or another of music in a more systematic, sometimes formal way. It could be an assessment of rhythm or form or orchestration, but it's more often about pitches, and a composer's relationship to counterpoint/voice leading/harmony is not only a moment for producing teaching materials to share with others, but a moment for clarifying ones own practice and identifying resources and paths with potential for new music. For many composers, this is carried out within the context of a piece of music -- I think of Glass's Another Look at Harmony or Jo Kondo's Threadbare Unlimited (which the composer refers to as his own Harmonielehre) -- but for others, it takes the form of a written text: Schoenberg's Harmonielehre, Partch's Genesis of a Music, parts of Cowell's New Musical Resources, Charles Seeger's Dissonant Counterpoint. James Tenney's Changes for Six Harps and Klarenz Barlow's Çogluotobusisletmesi are interesting examples in which a composition and a theoretical/practical essay were produced simultaneous. Other composers who have more recently turned to major projects of the sort include Wolfgang von Schweinitz and Hans Zender.

Harmony, as a subject, is not precisely that which a scientist would identify as a theoretical discipline.* Sure, the taxonomy can be developed in a rigorous way (in fact, in many different ways), and the perception of harmonic and voice leading structures is a serious area of research in music perception and cognition, but a harmony text is more akin, in the worst cases, to an etiquette book, and, in the best cases, a cookbook, a collection of rules or recipes for describing a range of tone relationships and for replicating certain sounds or sequences thereof. There is clearly a program of taste, of aesthetics, behind every harmonic prescription. The German word that titles many a harmony textbook (and, of course, a nice work of symphonic dimensions by John Adams), Harmonielehre, captures this better than the English phrase "theory of harmony", as Lehre is teaching or doctrine as much, if not more than theory. As far as I'm concerned, the discipline of studying harmony is largely one of absorbing just enough of an existing doctrine in order to remake it -- accepting some aspects, rejecting others, introducing new concerns -- for ones own purposes. And then, as with any other form of doctrine, the greater spirits among us will proceed to ignore their own system in fascinating, productive, and yes, musical ways.
* There is an argument that harmony is only a consequence of voice leading, a view that is taken up, for example, by James Cook at Mathemusicality. Although I am personally a voice leading oriented musician, I disagree with Cook & Co. entirely: there are many ways for composers or listeners to arrive at or to hear the same piece of tonal music, and while a strong voice leading approach may be construed as more efficient or logical or less complex than a strong chordal approach, (1) I don't believe that efficiency, logic, or simplicity are always going to be the chief criteria through which we approach or should approach music, (2) there are simply too many counter-examples of fine musicians who think in terms of sequences of chords rather than simultaneous melodic lines, and (3) there are many real musical contexts in which the music succeeds precisely because the balance between vertical and horizontal is dynamic and/or ambiguous.

No comments: