Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Not Yet Tonal

For many years, and only half-jokingly, I've referred to my harmonic practice as "disfunctional harmony". Taking as a model Charles Seeger's essay on Dissonant Counterpoint, in which the structure of species counterpoint was maintained but the scaling of the materials (the intervals) was inverted, with acoustic dissonances the rule and consonances the exception, I realized — in one of those late night revelations that only teenagers get on a regular basis — that the bigger idea was that the materials as well as other aspects of the contrapuntal program (John Cage's term, in describing his counterpoint studies with Schönberg) could all be considered variables, and that that one might similarly and usefully extend this practice to other aspects of composition: rhythm and metre, harmony, orchestration, form etc..

But the term "disfunctional" carries a connotation of negation, and the negation of functional harmony in particular, which is far from the only idea here. I believe that the program I'm following is more constructive than a negation of existing technique, and the relationship here to existing technique could be imagined as a kind of historical fiction in which someone slipped into music history at particular moments when something momentous was about to happen and instead investigated other possibilities, the paths real music history happened not to take. To a certain extent this program shares aspects with neo-classicism, even a generic, or "wrong-note", neo-classicism, and the work has been informed by those working in the algorithmic replication of existing styles, although John Cage's cheap imitations and erasures of existing music are probably more to the point. But the greatest influence probably comes from the composer Jo Kondo, who described his own work as "The Art of Being Ambiguous", without ever really spilling the beans about what, exactly, he is being ambiguous.

The term I'm coming 'round to liking is "not yet tonal." This phrasing suggests the music-historical problems which concern me (i.e. is Machaut tonal? is Javanese Karawitan tonal? is early Cage or late Stravinsky tonal?) , but also leaves it open to the possibility of being an active compositional issue as well as an issue of musical perception and aesthetics. Importantly, the field of associations for this idea is open to other concerns which have guided my work, including the relationship between musical intonation and tonal practice and the relationship of these to timbre and rhythm, as in all of these parameters or domains the same mode of operation, what would happen if _____?, is at play.

Jo Kondo zeroed in on La Monte Young's Composition 1960 #7 (the piece with the b-f# perfect fifth "to be held for a long time") as a minimum, which I take to be a minimum state for a form of tonal music, and if not yet that, at the least it is a seed for a potential tonal music. In fact, Young's score, in its apparent simplicity, forces one to engage with a huge field of possibilities opened up by the acoustic nature of the described event, the problems of performance practice, and the particular aesthetics of the content and form described by the score. How long is a "long time" (Young comes from a faith tradition in which "eternity" and "all time" are distinguished, wo he has plenty of patience) and how does it end? With which and by how many instruments is it to be played? How is the fifth intoned, tempered, or beatless, matching spectra as closely as possible? Why the particular fifth b-f#? Why an open fifth, and not a triad (although, with rich spectra, a major third will emerge)? From such a set of questions, one could almost construct an entire repertoire (and perhaps Young has done exactly that).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your concerns here. Often history leads to new fields when not all the land has been sown. Such thought experiments expose these. Ezra Pound stated that one need a constant and a variable. You point out what the latter can be.