It may not have escaped your notice that a lot of the music written for guitar (as well as for other instruments) in recent years can be rather hard on the ear. It often seems strange to people that anybody would spend hours writing music, and somebody else would spend even more hours learning music, that goes down like the proverbial lead balloon in concerts. And often, after all that effort, only gets played once. Even more strange, perhaps, is that other composers still write music that does not have this effect. Why the difference? What’s going on? How did we get to this situation?
The purpose of this article is to examine the phenomenon of contemporary music, put it in a historical and artistic context, and offer some hints for the better appreciation of the tougher end of modern composition.
Nothing new under the sun…
The first thing to understand is that there is nothing new about people not liking ‘new’ music. Musical history is littered with reactions ranging from bafflement to fury, to new musical styles or ways of writing; with the benefit of the long view it can be very amusing to see how people in past centuries balked at developments in musical language which seem very small and minor, and yet which clearly caused a lot of difficulty at the time. Basically, these reactions are because there is an in-built tendency for people to like what they know, and so to prefer music which follows established patterns, fulfils established expectations, and runs according to familiar principles; these things we generally refer to as ‘style’. In other words what most people want most of the time is the same piece written with the same notes but in a different order.
Unfortunately this isn’t good enough for an intelligent, inquiring musician, let alone one whose creativity is bursting with new ideas that seek expression in ways that have never been tried before, in developments that take what has been done before and either add to it, modify it, or in extreme cases, dispense with it all together.
The issue here is one of familiarity; familiarity and its close cousin, over-familiarity. I would like to express this using the term “redundancy”. This will take a little explanation.
As soon as a note is sounded, you know about it, its information (pitch, volume, timbre) has been registered in your mind. If that note is repeated, it starts to become ‘redundant’ – you already know the note, and the number of times you can hear that note repeated is limited, before the mind starts to complain and say that it would rather hear something else, please.
So, as soon as you register the information of that note, a number of possible expectations or questions are aroused in your mind. Is it going to repeat? the same or differently? will there be a different note? what will happen then? – All these questions and more are flicking on and off all the time in your mind when you listen to music, and the way that the music closes off the options as it progresses, ‘plays with’ the expectations and questions that have been buzzing away in your mind.
Now, if the music decides to take a progression that goes too far beyond the questions your mind has prepared for it, in other words if the notes follow each other and are combined with each other in such a way that the ‘answers’ overload your ‘questions’, then you can end up severely lost.
From the small scale to the large
Let me explain a little more about redundancy, so that we will be able to make the jump from understanding the simple process of the ‘redundancy questions’ discussed above and relating basically to individual notes, to the issue of redundancy of style, which is at the core of this question.
Musical style, or language, that few if any people have any trouble with is always based on what one can call ‘conventional’ or ‘traditional’ harmony. Harmony is the combination of notes sounding together at one time (sometimes called ‘vertical’ combination, harmony or organisation, because written down the notes are vertically arranged relative to each other); harmony is also stretched out, when we call it melody (horizontal harmony), but it still obeys much the same principles whether it is vertical or horizontal.
The vertical organisation of traditional harmony is based on the use of three notes, the first, third and fifth degrees of the scale, to give a chord (I’ll give all the examples in C major, so here that is C, E and G) which conveys enough information to be clearly identifiable, but is simple enough to be ‘stable’, ie when you hear it you do not have any clues as to what will follow it. If you then write a piece of music in the key of C, this will traditionally involve a number of ‘related’ chords, principally F and G (which gives you ye olde blues progression), together typically with D major or minor, and the relative minor (meaning it has the same key signature) ie A minor.
Traditional harmony is in fact a many faceted thing, relating to the practice of composers over several centuries, which makes up the variation in historical style that is one of the delights of twentieth century music making (certainly no previous era ever heard so much old music!). The different facets correspond to precisely how many different harmonic, melodic, rhythmic and structural elements are brought into play within the overall use of harmony sketched above.
From the simple towards the complex
The development of musical style since the earliest written down music in the western tradition has been one of greater availability of notes. Thus, in medieval music there are very strictly defined limits concerning what notes you can combine horizontally and vertically with other notes, and many notes are simply ‘unavailable’, it would never have occurred to a composer to use them and to do so would be immediately ‘out of style’. What has happened since then is that gradually and progressively the range of possible harmonic, melodic and rhythmic options has increased.
Within conventional harmony, these options could only stretch so far; you can add a lot of non-standard notes to a chord, or use many unusual inflections in a melody, but to be in that conventional harmonic world, what we often call ‘tonal music’, we still have to have a clear enough sense of what the harmony is at any given moment, and crucially, where we are in relation to the key of the piece, the tonal centre (ie as C major in the example above). The concept of tonal centre is vital to understanding the way that harmony works in traditional harmony; the whole system is organised around a journey from, and a return to, the home key, the tonal centre.
Consonance and dissonance
For this reason, two further concepts need to be mentioned as part of the issue of redundancy. If a chord sounds so that it is ‘at rest’, ie a C-E-G chord of C, it is called consonant (ie ‘sounding together’). If extra notes are introduced the chord becomes dissonant (ie ‘not sounding together), and it no longer sounds as though you would hear it at the beginning or end of a piece of music, for example. So if you added a Bflat to the C-E-G, giving you a C7, tonal musical style would require this to be followed by another chord; hence it is not at rest. Consonant chords are therefore far more ‘redundant’ than dissonant ones, because they are simpler, contain less information for the mind to process, and because they reinforce what we already know about the harmony of the music.
A dissonance introduces a new element; lots of dissonances introduces lots of new elements, and so music which is made up entirely of dissonances and no identifiable tonal centre has very low or zero redundancy. Thus the question of the proportion of consonance to dissonance in a musical style is the important. Virtually all music has some dissonance; it makes it interesting. Music without even a C7 chord would be terribly bland. Most of the skill of the composer of music in traditional harmony is to make the use of dissonance such that it achieves low redundancy without causing the listener’s mind to totally lose the sense of whatever journey (from the beginning to the end of the piece) the composer has designed.
The harmonies, chords, melodies and rhythms that make up the details of such a journey in traditional harmony are simply an ornamentation or decoration of a simple structure, for example C-G-C. Quite how complicated this decoration is, we call style (just as there are styles in fashion which are described in terms of decorative features, or styles in architecture which are defined by the use of various ways of holding up a roof and making the whole thing look good.
Such musical habits are what make up the redundancy of any musical style, simply because once we have heard them a few times, they are like the note you have heard once…. This does not mean that it is totally impossible to make interesting and beautiful music out of these elements alone, and it does not mean that one cannot keep on listening to tonal music without getting bored; however the fact that the language of tonal music has been used for so long, and so much has been written in it, tends to mean that it is very difficult to write anything, ‘new’, ie non-redundant, within it.
This of course does not greatly bother many people, because there is so much music in the tonal language that they have not heard, that is different enough to them for the redundancy issue to remain insignificant. For those involved with the creation of new art however it is often, though by no means always, a big issue. The main leaders in every art form have always tended to be concerned to expand the limits of their art, whether in time, space, or other modes of expression. For the composer this has historically meant the length of the piece, how many people can play in it and how many notes they have access to at any given moment, as discussed. For this reason one can roughly plot the development of music since the middle ages as being one in which more and more people got to play (or sing) in longer pieces of music in which the harmonic and melodic complexity was likewise increasing. And the really important thing to take on board is that all three elements – number, length and note complexity are related and intertwined. It works like this.
If I want to write a longer piece, I need to be able to use a wider range of notes and harmonies, because otherwise it gets very hard to avoid boredom (I’ll be talking about Minimalism later). It is also very useful to be able to employ more people to play so that there is more variety of timbre (instrumental or vocal colour). Or if I want to write a piece with a lot of harmonic complexity, it tends to need to be long, so that I can work out and resolve the tensions and conflicts in the music that I need to generate and sort out if the piece is to work satisfactorily. And finally, if I want to use a lot of musicians, for example if I need a lot of volume to fill a theatre, opera house or whatever, then it would be silly to have them playing for a short time….and so on.
From the smaller towards the larger
So you can see that in the earliest recorded days of medieval European music making, (say c1200 AD) you had a small ensemble of players, perhaps 3-5, one to a part, playing shortish dances or songs with limited note complexity. (The parts would also probably not be notated, by arranged by ear in the manner of a folk band today). In the Renaissance (c1450-1650) you could have quite a large choir singing more complex music for typically 5 or 8 minutes or so per item, with some items lasting longer. In the Baroque period (c1650-1750) an orchestra might comprise 15 or so, perhaps plus a choir, with big works lasting 20 minutes in 3 movements for instrumental items, an hour or more for operatic works. The Classical orchestra (c1750-c1830) could be 25 or 30 strong, and Beethoven pushed the symphony as far as 45 minutes, though most would still be 30 minutes at the most. The Romantic period (1830-c1913) orchestra grew to monstrous size and symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner expanded to an hour and half. During this timescale the use of note combinations also grew gradually more complex (with some temporary reversals at the junctions of periods, such as that between baroque and classical). So you can see a general trend towards everything getting bigger, longer, louder, more complicated to write, produce, rehearse, conduct (conducting as we understand it did not exist before the early 19th century and did not become the norm until the late century) and of course, listen to. It is this gradual process of evolution towards the more involved musical product that has often caused listeners to rebel, but never more so than what happened in the early years of the 20th century.
If you remember earlier on I described the home key or tonal centre as being central to the understanding of conventional harmony. This is because the universal procedure right up until nearly the moment when the whole system was torn up, composers always felt an absolute need to return at the end of their composition to the key in which they began it. This is clearly straight forward if you have a short piece in C, if you end it in, say, G or A minor, it just sounds ‘wrong’. However, pieces got longer and longer and longer over time, yet this principal was still adhered to. Could the listener really tell after 1 1/2 hours whether it was the home key at last at the end or not? Well some educated listeners doubtless could, but this is not really the point. The fact is that composers felt the need to continue to push the return to the home key, sometimes called the resolution, further and further away in time. And yet still come back to it. In Wagner’s Ring Cycle it takes 10 hours! Along with this went an increasing complexity of harmony that clouded the sense of home key so much that at times it really was hard to know where you were in relation to it. Eventually there came a point when it simply was not possible to continue to push the resolution further away, and a true crisis was reached. What on earth to do now?
Going a step further
The next step actually occurred in a number of different places at different times in quiet ways, but only one name is associated with the absolute invention of the idea and its carrying forward into the 20th century. The name is Arnold Schoenberg. When he wrote some piano pieces with no key signature in the first decade of this century this was the first time somebody had deliberately set out to write music where this did not mean that it was in C major or A minor, but that there was no key, no key centre, no home key to set out from and return to. That there was no use of the first, third and fifth degrees of the scale, that in fact each note should be considered equal, and that each note was equally available at any time. In fact the only rule had to be that notes were not chosen that did form a conventional chord!
What had Schoenberg done? Well, on the simple level he had simply taken the process that had been piling up into the crisis I have described and taken it to its logical conclusion. He was recognising that the organisation of notes we call traditional harmony is in fact totally arbitrary, and was deciding to arrange notes in a totally different way. It was the self same notes, just that there was no tonality. No tonal centre. For this reason it is commonly called “atonal” music to distinguish it from “tonal” music. (Though since all music consists of tones these terms are very silly if you analyse them too closely. Still the usage remains and I still stick with it).
On a more philosophical level Schoenberg had done something rather earth shattering, and the effects reverberated around the world and continue to do so. He took the lid off a box that nobody had dared look into before, and most of the music-loving world did not at all like the contents. More or which anon.
Up until this point Schoenberg had been a promising young composer and had written very rich romantic music in the prevailing style of his time; very emotional, complex music. While he did write tonal music at times afterwards, it is his atonal music and the way he influenced younger composers that is his most important legacy.
Needless to say the first responses to his new way of composing, after the disbelief wore off, were often unprintable. However he saw himself as a missionary or prophet for this new art, and moreover he was a very great musician, so people could not ignore him and make him go away. For a composer whose compositional style stood in opposition to the Romantic ideals of harmonic richness, emotional weight and unbridled expressiveness his attitude in fact was remarkably in tune with the Romantic age; he saw himself as a lone hero fated to carry out his mission against the odds.
Quite apart from audience derision there was an important artistic difficulty to overcome however, and this leads to one of the greatest paradoxes in art history.
The big paradox
For several years after Schoenberg first wrote atonal music, he was quite happy to do so according to a methodology no more organised than basically just choosing notes on the basis that there was no resemblance to traditional harmony implied. Unfortunately, after a while the sheer infinity of possibilities became too much however and for a while he could no longer compose because the choice of which note to use next was simply to great. Eventually he came up with a solution that both guaranteed the purity of the music he wanted to write and made it a lot easier to choose the next note. This was to base his works on what has come to be called a ‘tone-row’. The was a row of the 12 semi-tones available, using all 12 before any is repeated. This assures the equality of each note (none are repeated so none can be more important) and sees that all 12 are used, so that a full chromatic (ie all the semitones) harmony is generated.
So it was all down to the order of the tone row. In order to extend this he also adopted the procedures of inversion and retrograde from counterpoint; the tone row could also be reversed (retrograde) or turned upside down (inverted). Or both at once. Add all these variants together in various ways, start them on different notes, and you have quite a brigade of possibilities to order the creation of your music. The principle operational rules were that you had to use the notes in order as per the row or its inversion/retrograde, that you used notes in order in a chord, that you could repeat a note but not while something else was going on, ie not so as to sound like you were reusing before it was due to come round again, and certainly not to make that note sound more important than the rest.
A distinction is usually made between music made with tone rows (or similar systems), which is called “serial”, and those composed freely, which isn’t.
So where is that great paradox I referred to? Well to most ears there is not a great deal of difference between serial and free atonality. It sounds, as it is, without any tonal centre, without any traditional harmonic organisation. In fact it sounds as though it has no organisation at all, it sounds chaotic. The paradox then is that serial music, which sounds totally chaotic and random because you have no idea what note is coming next (compared with the high degree of predictability of tonal music, hence the redundancy factor) is in fact VERY highly organised according to clear and often rather simple mathematical principles. The choices are in fact limited and circumscribed far more tightly than even medieval music, (if you stick to the rules), yet for most ears this music is the epitome of disorder. That’s the paradox.
If you stick to the rules. Well, rules rarely get stuck to for long, and Schoenberg and his followers did not stay strictly with them for very long. Today, for a composer to write serial music according to the letter of the law would be an exercise in historical style, except where the principle of serial technique has been extended to cover all the parameters of composition, such as timbre, rhythm, structure (total serialism) but that’s a later story.
So what was this atonal music doing, what was it expressing, and what does it continue to do and to express? Earlier on I referred to a lid being lifted that had not been lifted before; the lid in question was the musical equivalent of the lids being lifted at the same time in their respective fields by painters, writers and, especially, psychiatrists like Jung and Freud. Music had for centuries been a mirror of the psychological awareness of the times in which it flourished, and also of the forms of social organisation that flowed from that. Music had seen a gradual growth in terms of complexity, length and organisational sophistication, and it had been part of an artistic process that reflected a reverse process; a development of art that started out on the largest possible scale and gradually over time focused down smaller and smaller until it lit on the individual psyche and beyond.
The big perspective
Medieval art is impersonal, in fact it is on a pre-social scale because there was no concept of society as such. Not only is an individual character in a medieval story not meant to be believable as a real person, the whole idea of ‘individuality’ in the sense of a person being a discrete entity with rights and a unique personality was totally alien to the time. Society was organised like the current conception of the cosmos; the King/God was the only particularly important person around. Medieval art reflects this by placing people as types, not flesh and blood people, who have no direct access to the divine (except by divine grace if they are lucky) and certainly with no opportunity to escape their destiny. The music reflects this by tolerating very little polyphony or independence of voices; like Gregorian chant, where a mass of voices is welded into one line, the artistic cosmos held everybody/every voice as an unseparable part of a cosmic whole. There is no perspective in medieval art because there is no sense of one person looking at the scene and taking part in it. There is no true ‘perspective’ in the music because you cannot really tell from what is going on where you are in the piece.
With the Renaissance came a sense that the individual could aspire to a relationship with the divine. However the medieval sense of an over-arching continuum in which individual people cannot be distinguished remained; renaissance polyphony reflects this in the sense that the separate strands of the counterpoint are of equal weight and importance, there is no ‘melody and accompaniment’ aesthetic in the later sense, since even an accompaniment, as in a lute song, would be full of independent ideas of its own. So music reflected a sense of a humanity moving in a spiritual sphere with room for some individuality but not independence. In art, the use of perspective gave the painter the tool necessary to define the location of an individual within the scene, but it was not an individual watcher, it could be anybody; musical perspective advanced further with the development of clearer ways of organising the structure of a piece, but it remains fluid.
With the Baroque period the sense of an individual’s relationship with the divine became very strong; although still embedded in the social backdrop it came to the fore, still reflected in music in the predominance of polyphony and the sense of a totality of more-or-less (slightly less than before) equal voices making their progress through a journey. So the difference compared to earlier times was that music reflected a degree of personal individuality, while still retaining an overall spiritual connection.
That changed as the 18th century progressed and the human concern became more and more social. Classical music became an expression of the individual in society, with competitive pressures, a definite sense of perspective (knowing exactly where you are in the world/piece of music – and not necessarily accepting it) and as Europe went through the upheavals of revolution in France and near-revolution elsewhere, the concept of individuality, of the rights of the individual, were clearly articulated on a wide scale for the first time. So music, reflecting this as always, had now moved from a sort of cosmic straight-jacket to a social flux where the individual stood as a discrete entity. Musical perspective developed as a use of structure that enables the informed listener to know exactly where in the movement they are.
The next stage beyond the individual as a part of society was taken by the Romantic period with its emphasis upon dreams, subjectivity, intuition…in other words the domain of the subconscious. Romantic music, art and artists used these elements frequently and freely. However, being the subconscious, it was by definition non-conscious, and until the necessary tools were developed, first by Freud and then perhaps rather more scientifically by Jung, the lid remained on what lay beneath. Musical perspective here started to be lost as structure became less defined, more fluid and vague, particularly towards the end of the period. This reflected the shift in awareness focus away from a concrete outward concern towards a subjective inward direction.
The Dark Side…
That was the lid that was lifted by Schoenberg and other artistic minds around the turn of the century; hence the long history-of-art lesson. Art and music had narrowed down from a cosmic halo around the divine in the Medieval era, through an individualised spirituality in the Renaissance, through a firmer sense of the individual’s place in the scheme of things in the Baroque, through a clear sense of the individual in society in the classical and through a sense of the individual’s personal psyche in the Romantic periods.
And of course not only did people listening to Schoenberg’s atonal music not like the sound it made, they didn’t much like what they were picking up intuitively from the other signals it was putting out. Just as the earlier musics had encoded elements of the human condition of their time, so did the atonal music of the early 20th century encode the human condition of that epoch.
Things had not only started to go downhill when the Titanic hit an iceberg in 1912; many commentators and artists had perceived a sense of decay in the air despite the new technological developments and general outward optimism, for many years. With hindsight we know that the world was sliding half-blindly towards the First World War, and what it was like when it came, and how it lead to the perhaps even greater nihilistic nightmares of the Second World War.
There was nothing new about war and human cruelty of course; what was new was the degree of mechanisation and industrialisation of war and cruelty and hence its inhuman efficiency and barbarity. No wonder people did not like the news from the ether; however they chose to follow their old patterns of nationalism and patriarchal militarism and the rest is the history of the rest of the century.
Part 3 (concluding)
Artists do not create history on this sort of scale; however because they are people of the most sensitive and receptive kind to the signals coming from around them, they often distil the future into symbolic form well before it arrives. However I do not mean that the composition of atonal music really represented human conflict and war, rather that when people were drawn to inspect the contents of their collective psyche by being confronted by this form of art, they found those contents very disturbing for very good reason. Hence the extremity of the reactions to the new atonal music. Fear is a strong emotion and it causes many responses, most of which are not exactly rational.
What’s going on in there?
So is it possible to be more precise about the expressive content of atonal composition? Certainly it gives the composer the possibility deliberately to explore varieties of psychological state which a tonal language cannot touch. This is exemplified by the use of atonality in circumstances in which millions of people hear it regularly without turning a hair; horror films and the sort of nature documentaries where all sorts of ugly creepy-crawlies are the stars of the show. Especially in horror films, it is common practice to use atonal music for sequences where the director wishes the viewer to experience a connection with their strongest fears; this is the use of music perfectly soundly to heighten and strengthen the effect of the images. Depending on the extremity of the harmonic combinations used, a wide variety of effects are available.
What this is doing however is exploiting the general experience and perception of atonal music, namely that by negating the sense of personal subjectivity, perspective, individual coherence and integrity, social place or spiritual relationship (to run swiftly backwards through the history lesson), the listener is left at the mercy of whatever is left; the void, the subconscious, the emptiness at the heart of everything, whatever you may like to call it.
This however is actually not necessary. As I already demonstrated, the serial technique is of the highest variety of order and rationality, and this makes clear that it is not the actual music itself that is chaotic, but the listener’s mind that is ill-attuned to recognise the order it has to offer. Therefore, even in free atonality, it is not the actual music itself that causes the sense of loss of self and the distress of the soul cast upon the volcanic rocks of artistic nihilism, but the fact that the listener is attached to certain ways of organising notes and harmonies (ie tonality) to the extent that anything beyond that (ie atonality) is experienced as a psychological pain.
Taking the bull by the horns
While there are some (disputed) physical principles underlying the experience of harmony, the human constructs (negative or positive) placed upon it are entirely arbitrary, as are the usual associations of the one with comfort and pleasure and the other with discomfort and displeasure. Thus, not only is it unproductive to blame atonality for ills of which it was merely an incidental pointer, it is far more sensible to take the bull by the horns and learn to take one’s perspective far enough into oneself so that the atonal organisation of music can be integrated into one’s world view and notion of art and the place of the self within it.
Success in this process is very useful for the absorption and acceptance of contemporary music into one’s being. However, valuable though this process can be, it also has a remarkable effect upon one’s understanding of older musics as well. Quite simply, atonality, was always there, it just never occurred to anybody to write it (except no doubt in the entirely private ruminations of a few visionaries – crack-pots? – who never wrote anything of that kind down). Knowing that it was there when Hildegaard penned her ecstatic visions, or Dowland his morose meditations, that it encircled the tonal universe like a cloud when Bach wrote his most elevated counterpoints or his most lively gigues, …and so on! – gives the 20th century listener a unique and privileged position. Quite simply, you know exactly where everything fits, where everything is in the progression from cosmic generalisation to psychotic rage; in other words all the world is there.
Thinking about the development of music in this way, as a progression from one state to another, is a very important part of this process, and to be successful involves the confrontation and transcendence of whatever your personal vision of whatever is under that lid, as lifted by Schoenberg and friends. It also involves the recognition of the process of redundancy as discussed earlier on. Redundancy has an opposite, for which I do not have a portmanteau word. This is the state where, far from there being too much repetition of familiar information, there is not enough. This is precisely what afflicts most people when confronted with contemporary music of an atonal nature; the rate of change of pitch, rhythm, harmonic combination is so rapid that the mind cannot follow what is going on, and hence rebels. This can occur even in complex tonal music, or atonality that combines tonal elements; it is more a matter or rapidity of information turn-over than the nature of the information itself.
An important element here is the question of personal style. Personal style became a matter of far greater importance in the 20th century than ever before, particularly because as the century progressed, music splintered into numerous ‘styles’, ‘isms’ and factions. As a result, the music of the century has become a bewildering kaleidoscope of musical shades, accents, styles. Recognising this, as ever, is the first step. Doing something about it means consciously identifying the personal characteristics which distinguish one composer from another. Being able to fit a name, a bit of biography, a face, to a sound is a very powerful way to learn to identify with that sound and the music of which the ‘sound’ (by which I mean an aural impression or quality) is a part.
Next, because redundancy is so low in most contemporary music, there is no alternative but to listen to a given example a lot, if necessary just to a few bars or notes, so that they become familiar. Usually you will find that not only do the notes not progress in ways that you can predict, but that there is no repetition of motivic ideas or even rhythms, or that any repetition present is well concealed. This learning process is very similar to that of learning to play a composition on your instrument.
Writing a simple serial piece is also a very useful exercise to attune the ears to the style and process. Greater detail of the system is readily found in musical dictionaries and textbooks.
I promised I would mention Minimalism, the 20th century style which takes rather an opposing method to that of atonality, and repeats comfortably consonant harmonies way beyond the practice of previous eras. Redundancy here is the whole point; musical information is presented which is expressly meant to overload the mind’s capacity to think about what is coming next, to subvert it in a sense, because what is in fact happening in most minimalism is that the music is in fact changing but very slowly and subtly. Thus it can be an interesting way of playing with the human mind’s tendency to operate on a very narrow band of attention. In this case the mind is stretched to concentrate on large chunks of very similar information, looking for change over a large span; in atonal or very complex tonal music the opposite is the case, and the mind needs to register very rapid changes of information. It is interesting that when a composer uses atonal combinations of notes but stretches them out over a large period of time, something similar to a minimalistic effect is possible despite the different nature of the harmony.
It is also worth noting that minimalism shares certain features with the polyphony of, in particular, the renaissance. Much of the sacred music of this time was consciously composed in such a way that it would engender a meditative frame of mind, this being supposed to be conducive to prayer and spiritual connection. By stretching the mind in the way described, minimalism can have a similar effect. Certainly, it is hard to imagine genuinely atonal music being used for sacred purposes with any success.
What’s next please?
The reader may have wondered, in reading my personal description of the development of musical art from the medieval period to the 20th century, what was going to happen next? Indeed, what happened after Schoenberg? Now that tonality had been snapped there was no further to go in the direction of extending it further and further; at least, nobody tried, seriously, despite the persistence of tonal composition among composers like Rachmaninov. Atonality in fact tended to favour short forms, and Schoenberg’s pupil Webern was notable for concentrating upon extremely compressed musical structures; other major figures have rarely composed atonally on large canvasses.
One direction has been alluded to; total serialism, the organisation of every parameter of composition according to the same principles as the tone row. Another has simply been to increase the sheer complexity and density of the atonal language by requiring ever more rapid and involved writing, frequently with the use of quite phenomenal technical demands, rhythmical intricacies that resemble complex equations, and which produce an end result that is usually deliberately much more concerned with general texture and effect than the identifiable progress from one note to another.
Still another direction has been the use of microtones, subdivisions of the octave giving more than 12 notes. Unsurprisingly enough this tends to sound out of tune, and so is even more marginalised and unpopular than atonality based on the orthodox 12 notes despite the theoretical attractions.
Many composers have also experimented with a combination of serial principles and tonal principles, as in the use of a tone row that follows a tonal sequence (ie C-G-E-A etc, rather than C-B-F-etc) or combining a tone row in a tonal environment.
No artistic movement in history has successfully gone back on its tracks
Many composers have abandoned the unpopular path altogether, often despite a youth spent at the sharp end of the avant-garde; where this has been for apparently naked commercial reasons (some have made fortunes as a result) the progress of human artistic endeavour has not been greatly advanced. No artistic movement in history has successfully gone back on its tracks, and it is clear that contemporary music cannot simply go back to writing music as it was written in the past without suffering a permanent demise. No truly creative artist can make do with somebody else’s style, because a central part of the job description is a restless and tireless urge to expand and progress. To do otherwise is to become a craft-worker rather than an artist. That of craft-worker is a very necessary vocation but not the same thing and not the stuff on which an artistic legacy can be founded. At the moment however it is not at all possible to see how any future musicians will be able to draw the disparate strands of 20th century music into a coherent and unified whole and take it forward in the way that has clearly and identifiably happened at every turn since the medieval period.
It is not at all impossible that we return to a state similar to that which held before the first written records of music were made. Not that we know what music was like then, by definition we don’t in any clear detail. What I mean is that music was certainly made and played, by ear, it changed from generation to generation and from place to place, but the lack of a unifying element – notation – meant that it remained fragmented, dominated briefly by strong individuals…rather like today, except that now we are really clear about how our music works because it is recorded, broadcast, fixed for study and re-visitation. We would only need to lose that conscious process of examination to slide into a very similar pre-notation state, and all that would take would be the final destruction of the apparatus of education, funding and support of contemporary music making as a creative and innovative process.
My intention in this article has been to demonstrate how contemporary music came to use a language and a ‘sound’ that is qualitatively different from the music of previous centuries. Quite simply, it had to happen because the musical string of tonality was only so long, and it ran out when it did. I also sought to demonstrate that the confusion of the sense of chaos with music of an atonal, particularly serial style, is unfounded in fact, and relies upon the aural habituation of the listener. This holds the promise that with ‘practice’, a listener can come to hear the tonally complex world of atonality with as much ease and reward as that of tonality.
In particular it is important to grasp the progress and development of style from one period to another. All human activity takes place in a social and historical background context, and the listener lost in any kind of complexity will feel infinitely more empowered and enabled if supplied with a sense of perspective over the long view.
That word perspective is key. Apply the concept of perspective to all your experience of art, whether the visual, literary or musical, and it liberates a tremendous amount of information and makes a lot of things make sense. Just bear in mind that perspective is not confined to a single-pointed point of view; indeed that is the point. Just as art forms from the earliest in history to the latest make use of various concepts of perspective, so do we all in our everyday lives; we take a group perspective on group matters, a personal perspective on personal matters, and so on. Art cannot help reflecting life, even if life is not always exactly grateful for the mirror.
Stephen Kenyon 1997