Chatter Column No. 40 (For All the Victims of Soulless Compositional Phenomena Everywhere)

I’ve been wondering lately if the audience-development debate in the composition community hasn’t been centered on the wrong issue. My impression is that the way music sounds—dissonant vs. consonant, strident vs. mellifluous—is supposed to assume responsibility for its success or failure among ordinary listeners. Pieces, like teenagers, are more popular if they’re pretty than if they’re ugly, says conventional wisdom.

But most of us—and by “us,” I mean not “composers” but “citizens of the 21st century”—are familiar with weird-sounding music. Between film scores and Radiohead, I bet it’s harder to turn off modern audiences with dissonance and noise than one might think. Not old people, of course (most of whom just want to hear Tchaikovsky or a reasonable Peabody facsimile), but baby boomers, Gen-X-ers, and denizens of Generation Y such as myself. Opera and symphony orchestra audiences seem to skew older, although I don’t have data to support that assertion. I’m willing to accept that these elderly audiences might be afraid that Schoenberg will take the blue right out of their hair, but what about younger people? Besides ignorance, what’s keeping them away?

Maybe it has to do with what the music is about. Early serial pieces, my usual punching bags in discussions of meaningful/meaningless music, may happen to sound angular and uninviting, but their more damning trait yet may be that they are about integral serialism. Integral serialism, like all compositional systems, techniques, and methods, means nothing. You could replace every minor ninth in Kreuzspiel with a perfect fifth, and it would still leave most listeners absolutely cold. (Are there minor ninths in Kreuzspiel? There must be, but I feel like I’m setting myself up for a humbling correction.)

On the other hand, consider the Penderecki Threnody. By virtue of its title, that piece is explicitly about the detonation of a nuclear weapon over Hiroshima; it sounds much more abrasive than, for example, Éclat, but its affective power is far greater. A cheap trick on Penderecki’s part? Perhaps. Nevertheless, the piece seems to have an emotional resonance that keeps ‘em coming back. I’d wager that the ugliest, most ear-splitting piece imaginable could win over a 21st century crowd if it had the perfect title.

Clearly, addressing a particular real-world topic in a piece of music is not simply a matter of coming up with the right title. If I had students, I certainly wouldn’t countenance their taking a provocative name for a nondescript piece as a means of injecting marketability (à la Penderecki). This constitutes a breach of compositional ethics, as far as I’m concerned, and I personally feel that renaming Study for 52 Strings or whatever it was for the victims of an atomic bomb to satisfy one’s publisher is nothing short of immoral. However, we shouldn’t need to be convinced that composing conceptually relevant music is well within our job descriptions. I think we might be surprised how much radical music we can get away with if it tells the audience something they need to hear.

35 thoughts on “Chatter Column No. 40 (For All the Victims of Soulless Compositional Phenomena Everywhere)

  1. pgblu

    Music as a message
    You make a good point about the disconnect between pretty/ugly vs. relevant/irrelevant. People connect with things they can relate to, even if those things are not necessarily beautiful. It’s a problem that any composer needs to acknowledge.

    But we also need to understand that “a message which the audience needs to hear” is very much an idea acceptable at certain times in history and not at others. When composers were engaged in integral serialism, the idea of an extramusical message was nauseating, because it smacked of propaganda, or sermonizing, which people had had enough of during fascism. To write music WITHOUT a culturally identifiable message was thought of as an act of political progress. Nowadays, fascism is far less prevalent, but does that mean we have to return to imbuing our music with a message?

    If I wanted a message, I’d go to a lecture. If the message of the lecture is unconvincing, then perhaps a soundtrack would help? See what I’m getting at? I must admit that even today I get pretty queasy when composers advocate “conveying a message.” As the despicable Penderecki example shows, even the most banal music can adopt the most profound political impact if the circumstances are right. That isn’t music’s “power”, it’s music’s Achilles heel.

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  2. AlexRossNY

    A couple of historical notes here. Some composers engaged with integral serialism were anything but nauseated by the idea of attaching extramusical messages to their works. Nono is the obvious counterexample, but there are others. “Gesang der Jünglinge” is a work with a religious subtext (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego). Or think for a moment about the title “Kreuzspiel”!

    Also, I wouldn’t be so quick to label Penderecki “despicable” for giving his work a sensational title. It was quite commonplace for composers in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to attach anti-Western or anti-American programs to their more stylistically adventurous works in order to give them a better chance of being performed. Schnittke did so with “Nagaski,” and Penderecki did so with the Threnody. Most of us have no idea what living under a totalitarian state would really be like, so it’s risky to judge.

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  3. stevetaylor

    Excellent point about Kreuzspiel Alex – I cannot believe I had never thought about that before.

    Colin, here’s an aside to your ideas about dissonance and beauty. In the movies, where most folks hear orchestral music, dissonance always signifies fear, suspense, pain, negativity; consonance => bunnies and rainbows.

    Some of the most interesting music around today, including Radiohead (and back at least to Hendrix, Coltrane, integral serialism, Varese, etc), is about getting past this simple duality.

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  4. Kyle Gann

    Most of us have no idea what living under a totalitarian state would really be like…

    But lately we’ve been learning a little more every day, haven’t we?

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  5. pgblu

    Counterpoint
    I don’t know what you’re driving at in relation to Kreuzspiel. Do you mean the Christian image of the cross? That piece is the locus classicus, for me, of an attempt at purely intramusical meaning, where serial technique is used to produce rows that gradually cross one another in register. The piece did attain unintended extramusical meaning, of course, and that’s what I mean by the “Achilles heel” comment. It would be naive today, or any time since about 1968, for composers to expect extramusical meanings to be shut out entirely. I think we’ve lost our innocence on that front, and that’s for the better. My point was, though, that it’s just hopeless to try to control the extramusical message.

    You mention Nono, but I make a distinction between the Nono of “Ein Gespenst geht um” and the Nono of “Incontri”. The history of integral serialism as “pure music” was a very short one; for a more thorough account of this change in Nono or his contemporaries, I refer you to Nono’s own writings, and those of his skeptical student, Helmut Lachenmann.

    I stand by my opinion of Penderecki’s title, though to be precise, I didn’t say HE was despicable, just that particular example of opportunism. I don’t buy the “under the thumb of totalitarianism” excuse, either. Poland at the time was full of talented composers, many of whom felt they could refrain from that sort of moral posturing. True, their restraint probably didn’t help their careers…

    And I didn’t judge him quickly, either. I thought about it for a long time. A lot of people hear “Threnody” and the sounds that resemble sirens give them a sort of satisfyingly chilly frisson, presumably reminding them that their moral compass continues to point north like it oughta — well, the innocent people of Hiroshima didn’t have the benefit of a siren to warn them that they’re about to be blown to smithereens. It just strikes me as callous. If we need someone to lay it on that thick in order to understand the gravity of atomic warfare, then we as a species are in sad shape. That’s not an entirely original observation, either; that critique of Penderecki’s choice has been around for years. People are free to disagree with it, though, and go back for some more frisson.

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  6. jbunch

    mental floss in G major
    In a different way, we live in a culture that is “amusing itself to death.” So to many of us, while the government isn’t forcing us to write major chords, there is still a feeling of cultural totalitarianism. But whose fault is that? Maybe “cultural totalitarianism” is another way of saying “The vox populi?” You’ll just as soon wish winter into summer as think you can change that en masse.

    My non-musician roommates think everything I write is “scary – like from a horror soundtrack.” They do have a limited vocabuary with which to express their opinions about new music. To amplify Steve’s comment – bunnies can only be fluffy – they can’t be forlorn, or confused, or 1000 feet tall as far as that goes. Although I do consider it a strange compliment that a friend once told me he though a piece I had written sounded like “100 gerbils drowning in their own blood.” That’s pretty creative.

    One thing I’ll certainly say is that I think the act of composition should reflect as much of one’s live experience as (s)he will permit it – contemplation, humour, nervousness, activism, disgust, joy, sarchasm, naievity, you name it. The problem with much of the polemic I hear about new music from composers is that they are always aiming at “challenging” their audience. I want to do that too (at times), but as of right now, I must admit that I don’t know what that even means in real experience. It doesn’t take a genious to perplex people, all you have to do is something wierd enough to exist outside of their data set. That’s still pretty damn easy.

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  7. philmusic

    I think Schoenberg’s “A survivor from Warsaw” could be described as political. Anyway, in my experience its been the “old” folks that like that dissonant music-like Schoenberg!

    And Kyle, I think you’re on to something.

    Phil’s page

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  8. AlexRossNY

    When I mentioned the intersection of integral serialism and Nono’s political activism, I was thinking of “Canto sospeso.” I know that that work isn’t the most perfect exposition of the method, but he could have written the most absolutely rigorous integral-serialist piece and still attached a political message. The method does not in itself rule out a message; that’s my point. Certainly, the postwar serialists were apolitical more often than not. But the exceptions are very interesting.

    ***

    Paul Griffiths has this to say about “Kreuzspiel” in Modern Music and After: “One might even speak of a conversion, especially when what exhilarated both Stockhausen and Goeyvaerts was the spiritual dimension of their work: the possibility of liberating, more than creating, sound structures which would have nothing human in their composition, which would be images of divine unity. Since at this point Stockhausen was a devout Catholic, the form and title of his first piece after the Darmstadt experience cannot have been accidental, through the ‘crossplay’ is also a direct extension from Goeyvaerts’ method…”

    ***

    Penderecki, in accepting the suggestion of a “Hiroshima” title, was just one in a crowd of composers going along with political directives. The long article by Adrian Thomas linked to below gives details of the propaganda activities of Panufnik and Lutoslawski circa 1951, and compares those activities with later claims of political innocence. Conclusion: “Both composers evidently went through different phases of accommodation with, and rejection of, prevailing cultural demands. Understandably, they both recollected those features of their past which were least painful or distasteful to the memory. In constructing their compositional identity in later years, they ignored or forgot those aspects which jarred with their own view of their creative persona.”

    http://www.usc.edu/dept/polish_music/PMJ/issue/5.1.02/thomasfile.html

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  9. Colin Holter

    Aside: The two interpenetrated issues that have come up in this discussion–being a nominally “super-free” citizen of the most powerful nation in the history of the world and being unable to stop the accretion of associations (i.e. Kreuzspiel and the cross) that attach themselves to human creations–are really two of the most interesting things to me. I’m really glad we’re talking about them, because–get ready for some serious meta–most of my pieces address either or both of them.

    Ross is right: Having never worked under the scrutiny of apparatchik thugs, it’s impossible for me to understand what it must have been like for a composer in the Eastern bloc; this is why I try not to be too hard on Shostakovitch, whose music I would probably otherwise excoriate.

    In America, the closest thing we have is probably race. My white male composer friends and I may sometimes feel unfairly disadvantaged by hiring practices that favor women and people of color, but we shouldn’t. Such policies are a very small step toward ameliorating an enormous and very old problem.

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  10. pgblu

    I appreciate these points, and find them very interesting, although I think our points of contention lie elsewhere.

    In both the Nono case of “Canto Sospeso” and Stockhausen, I don’t want to conflate “extramusical associations” with transcendental ideals. I am not saying that Stockhausen thought his music was “just music”, but that he was keen on celebrating the music’s potential to express ideas beyond the realm of the human, as you quote. He believed in a complete and thoroughgoing transcendence of cultural criteria. Extramusical associations are a more mundane, intracultural concept, e.g., “lament” bass, or siren call, or polka. Or the unfortunate association of the start of “Metastaseis” with a plane taking off.

    The text-level is yet another different matter: in “Canto Sospeso”, Nono tried to use serial methods in order to make the music literally expressive of the text: a fascinating experiment. That is very different from a composition that relies directly on typical tropes of pathos to make its expressive point. For Canto, those tropes are not just audible as tropes, but are built into the (fairly strict, I think) precompositional serial structure. A strategy of transcending, not just embodying, the trope, by showing its contingency upon parameters. I am not saying that that excuses Nono completely, but the care and reflection that went into his project makes it hard for me to dismiss it as exploitative.

    The Panufnik and Lutoslawski examples are enlightening, thank you for the link; and I agree that we shouldn’t single out Mr Penderecki by any means. What I’m getting at is that the whole Threnody story is a symptom of despicably naive (and in this case, harmful) thinking at a specific point in history.

    Colin, I even don’t know what it’s like to be my own twin brother (if I had one). We ought to be able to form an opinion about these historical events without being in the composers’ shoes — that’s why we read history. If someone can prove to me that K.P. was coerced into adopting this exact title, that’s another matter — no disrespect, but couldn’t he have chosen something like “The Capitalist Machine Squashes another Hapless Member of the Working Class”, or even “Lament on Atomic Warfare”? It still wouldn’t make it an effective piece, but then I would no longer use the term “despicable”.

    With my understanding of history, I would guess that the ministerial authorities would have accepted him writing a new piece with the “Threnody” title, and paid him handsomely for it. But please correct me if I’m wrong — I’m not an expert, just a listener with certain political sensitivities vis a vis the artistic commemoration of mass murder. Canto: yes; Threnody: no.

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  11. AlexRossNY

    I don’t know how I’ve ended up defending Penderecki, far from the top of my list, but I’ve read enough of the politics of music under totalitarianism to know how agonizing the situation of composers could be. I don’t have sources relating to the Threnody in front of me, but Tim Rutherford-Johnson, who’s writing a PhD involving the work, writes as follows: “The piece was originally given the anti-programmatic title 8′ 37″, but on a recommendation after the first performance, Penderecki changed it. Rumours abound as to why or how this actually happened, but the current consensus leans towards the suggestion coming from either a Polish radio official, or Penderecki’s publisher.” (From johnsons-rambler.blogspot.com, great blog.) Now, this doesn’t sound like Lavrentiy Beria lashing away in his Lubyanka torture chamber, but nor is it some nice Boosey & Hawkes person saying, “Hey, K, why not put something about Hiroshima in the title?” The suggestion could have been made in the most mild way, but a young composer would have felt a potential threat behind it.

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  12. Colin Holter

    No matter how the party missive was handed to Penderecki, I assume it was backed by some amount of coercive power. If an authority figure told me to change the title of my piece or some bad shit might go down, I’d offer a three-word rejoinder beginning with “Go” and ending with “yourself,” with a possible horse-related addendum. It seems reasonable to assert that Penderecki did not have quite this kind of freedom. In its absence, his decision to retitle the piece is understandable–but one could make the case that at times like those the artist has to step up to the plate and be not just understandable but brave.

    Unlike Alex Ross, I flatly refuse to do any homework on this argument, but I’m glad he’s around to supply us with actual information.

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  13. Jebman93

    “Pieces, like teenagers, are more popular if they’re pretty than if they’re ugly, says conventional wisdom.”

    I love it.

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  14. pgblu

    Poinsettia
    I’m finished holding Penderecki’s feet to the fire, but the point about musical meaning still holds. Thanks for the interesting exchange.

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  15. JKG

    *sigh*
    Despite the best of efforts for many mannerist composers to go out of their way to NOT sound like anyone else, not only does their work sound altogether like their peers, and as if to add insult to injury, a lot of their pieces sound pretty much alike. Not to the untrained listener, mind you, but to the person who knows about Nono and Xenakis and of course, Crumb. That, to me, is the most unalterably dubious distinction of music devoid of meaning except for the “composer” and his twisted drinking buddies. But hey, who am I to judge? I’d rather know for sure someone is a truly pathetic musician than to ever wonder about it. Personally, I think it’d do more composers good to actually learn and master an instrument.

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  16. pgblu

    Rub-a-dub-dub
    Nono: the butcher.
    Xenakis: the baker.
    Crumb: the candlestick maker.
    The entire avant-garde: just a big tub.

    Thanks, JKG!

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  17. Daniel Wolf

    Penderecki’s title also bears the word _Threnody_, which places the work into a Christian context. This was surely not the intention of any cultural power brokers in an East block country, and Penderecki’s overt Catholicism was demonstrably problematic for the Polish state. (And with due respect to Colin, Penderecki’s title is clear that it’s not “about the detonation of a nuclear weapon over Hiroshima”, it’s a lament for the victims of that detonation.)

    It is entirely possible to have sentiments against the bombing of Hiroshima and not be merely echoing some official party line and it’s possible to associate those sentiments with a piece of music. For example, several works of Lou Harrison were intended by the composer to be associated with opposition to nuclear weapons.

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  18. amc654

    not only does their work sound altogether like their peers, and as if to add insult to injury, a lot of their pieces sound pretty much alike. Not to the untrained listener, mind you, but to the person who knows about Nono and Xenakis and of course, Crumb. That, to me, is the most unalterably dubious distinction of music devoid of meaning except for the “composer” and his twisted drinking buddies.

    I’m sorry, but that’s simply the dumbest effing thing I’ve ever seen on this site. We have here a lovely, erudite, insightful, well-researched conversation that includes some of the best writers on contemporary music in the country (and even had the best, most quotable line I can remember reading on one of these sites (Colin’s masterful “take the blue right out of their hair”)), and _this_ is your contribution, JKG?

    If you tried really, really hard, I don’t think you could construct a -worse- argument with three worse examples. Nono, Xenakis, and Crumb could hardly be more different in their materials, methods, intentions, notations, and sound worlds. And, even -more- to the point, those three composers have _enormous_ extramusical “meaning”/significance attached to their work, each being deeply engaged in politics/spirituality/social justice issues/etc.

    Who are you to judge, indeed.

    My apologies to the rest for taking JKG’s bait. … I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the discussion, and will take -Colin’s- much more relevant and interesting bait momentarily …..

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  19. pgblu

    What am I to make of this?
    I said I was done, but then I found this on Johnson’s Rambler, to which Mr. Ross was kind enough to alert us above.

    “After the relaxation in 1956 of Soviet control over the arts in Poland and elsewhere in the Eastern bloc, programmatic music and musical representation, with their suggestion of Socialist Realism, became anathema to young Polish composers, and musical abstraction became a highly-valued avenue of expression.”

    Threnody was 1960-61, and though the specifics of “relaxation” are not clear, I don’t know what to make of it in light of our discussion, so I will let it stand and declare my opinion on the matter unchanged.

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  20. JKG

    Nono, Xenakis and Crumb…
    Yes, you are exactly right about the expresive abilities of these composers, which is why I chose them as examples of composers who wrote for their generation in a meaningful way. If you have a hard time with someone not receiving mannerist techniques as viable, then perhaps the problem is as much yours as it is mine. Yes, I am very closed-minded to music which to my ears sounds like garbage, so to some extent, you could say I am even more elitist than many of you. I do not, however, fool myself into thinking that mere manipulation of sound is music – Ives made a good point about that when he asked “What does sound have to do with music?”

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  21. jonrussell20

    A little bit of a different thread here, but it does relate back to the initial question of what seems to make “new music” difficult for people, even ones who can get into radiohead and other “weird” music. We’re always talking about harmony and dissonance as the thing that makes our music inaccessible, but I think the impact of rhythm is way underappreciated. One of the things that much contemnporary music has done away with is the idea of meter and groove, which underies music from pretty much every other time and culture. I don’t mean having a drum set, but simply having an underlying rhythmic pulse and profile that organizes the music. I think the elimination of this was far more radical than the loss of tonality. This is what radiohead and avant-garde jazz do have, and why I think they can get away with some pretty crazy sounds and still be accessible to large audiences.

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  22. sgordon

    If you have a hard time with someone not receiving mannerist techniques as viable, then perhaps the problem is as much yours as it is mine.

    Well, not really.

    I don’t think anyone has a hard time with the idea. I mean – duh, most people don’t like modernist music. Hell, take any genre and still, most people don’t like it. No genre has more than a plurality of listeners.

    You can take any three composers of relatively similar vernaculars and find someone who’ll say the same damn thing. Glass, Adams and Reich. They all sound the same. Slayer, Sepultura, and Metallica. They all sound the same. For some people, anything outside of their “home” genre sounds the same – The Kinks, Public Enemy, and Burl Ives. They all sound the same.

    Whatever.

    (yawn)

    More to the point my man, why participate in a forum where the bulk of conversation is about styles of music you don’t appreciate? You’re just tilting at windmills. That’s like me spending all day commenting at a vegan website about the greatness of bacon. Which is great, as any sensible person knows, but I’m not gonna convince some hippie freak of that. Why bother?

    The internet has created a strange sort of character – one-issue voters, so to speak, who can’t sit on the sidelines even if there’s not so much as tangential relation between the subject at hand and their “thing” – whatever that thing is. Peruse the comments at Huffington Post, you’ll find certain people that, no matter what the subject is – anything from Rumsfeld’s firing to Britney Spears’ crotch – somehow it drives them to post about how “evil” they think Israel is. It’s kind of like, if when discussing the titling of work and it’s effect on marketing, someone used it as an opportunity to remind everyone that they think all modernist music sounds the same.

    Whatever.

    (yawn)

    As to whether anyone here is fooling themselves about anything… let’s tackle this one:

    Ives made a good point about that when he asked “What does sound have to do with music?”

    What Ives was asking there is what does sound – as in how a piece sounds, it’s manner of composition / organization – have to do with music – as in it’s spirit, the impetus, the muse, the message… however you want to define that indefinable raison d’être. Taken in the context of his writings and various other statements, it’s quite obvious that what he was asking was “What does the sound have to do with the music?” – but he didn’t use those exact words, so people like you get to take it the ol’ statement out of context and assign whatever meaning fits their views to it.

    To Ives, that “sound” (manner, method, style) didn’t matter. Yet you are here, week after week, insisting that only certain “sounds” are music while others are not. Turns out you actually disagree with Ives. Go figure.

    Back to the main subject: if your piece has no extra-musical meaning, whatever – title it anything, who cares? Might as well give it something snappy and memorable and attention-grabbing.

    Cashing in on an emotional event, though… it’s a little unseemly. At least Penderecki had a little temporal distance – the Threnody came a good decade after Hiroshima. Certainly better than the 20,000 people who managed to post a chamber symphony to mp3.com with the phrase “9/11″ or “WTC” in the title by 9/12/01. Really, if you’re just going to rehash something you had in a shoebox, give it at least a month or two. Do try to make it believeable.

    Seth Gordon

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  23. EvanJohnson

    We’re always talking about harmony and dissonance as the thing that makes our music inaccessible, but I think the impact of rhythm is way underappreciated. One of the things that much contemnporary music has done away with is the idea of meter and groove, which underies music from pretty much every other time and culture.

    This idea comes up every so often, but it’s an oversimplification. Rhythm doesn’t exist in a vacuum, in any style. It’s articulated not only, or even primarily, by regularity of attack pattern but by tonal and harmonic factors and by phrasing patterns.

    Look at Schoenberg – his rhythmic practice is traditional to the point of stultification at times; he wrote waltzes, gavottes, gigues, and marches. But that hasn’t helped his popular reputation much, and they can be hard to hear not just because the rhythmic language is sometimes mildly distorted but because it is isolated out from those factors that make pulse patterns into rhythm in common-practice music.

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  24. pgblu

    Rhythm
    Hi Evan,

    It’s going to sound like I’m disagreeing with you but I think you’ll find that this just amplifies your larger point. About Schoenberg op. 25 I refer you to Martha Hyde’s article “The Roots of Form” (Journal of Music Theory, I think… check JSTOR), where she argues that the rhythmic structure of things like the op. 25 Minuet are not devised primarily according to minuet tropes, but according to a temporal conception of the row procedures.

    Your comment conveys the impression that Schoenberg’s rhythmic thinking is a little more conservative, or shall we say a little less imaginative, than that. Whether this rhythmic approach ‘works’ or not is a different question — it certainly does not invoke the categories of “harmonic rhythm” that we know so well from 19th-century listening, so that’s a stumbling block for perception — but it seems that composers engaged in the serial project was already concerned quite early on with the repercussions of serial technique on other parameters, and it was not just Webern.

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  25. EvanJohnson

    Yes, of course – at this point, I’m sure absolutely nobody else is interested – but of course Schoenberg wasn’t writing minuets and gigues in the 17th-century sense; neither was Bach… but my larger point is that those pieces don’t lack for regularity of attack or for rhythmic tropes that wouldn’t give anybody in the Western world pause if the pitches were different. At this point I think we’re vociferously agreeing with each other.

    I know of that article, and you’re right to bring it up to point out that my rhetoric in my previous comment was a little too pat. But whatever the origins of the rhythmic practice of those early serial pieces, it’s hard to argue that — if you were to abstract out the attack points and accentual patterns — they would give anyone any trouble.

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  26. philmusic

    In all this discussion about consonance and dissonance I think you are overlooking the social context of performances. In High school we define our friends and those we avoid by they music we listen to. As to the idea that consonance rules consider this:
    In dance clubs the segue between songs where the 2 songs/beats overlap till they become1 is extremely dissonant and rhythmically disjunct and no one seems to mind. I think many folks who dance to this would be surprised how strange and interesting those parts are. As for Schoenberg’s rhythm I am always happy to see his works discussed and it is always interesting to see how that the same facet can be interpreted in have so many different ways. As for his “popular” reputation last time I looked his music was in the repertoire of every major opera company and symphony.

    Phil’s page

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  27. philmusic

    “I am always happy to see his works discussed and it is always interesting to see how that the same facet can be interpreted in so many different ways.”

    oppsey

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  28. pgblu

    Colin: Are you going to elaborate on this mysterious statement? I know you were waiting for someone to ask. How does it affect your composing?

    “The two interpenetrated issues that have come up in this discussion–being a nominally ‘super-free’ citizen of the most powerful nation in the history of the world and being unable to stop the accretion of associations (i.e. Kreuzspiel and the cross) that attach themselves to human creations–are really two of the most interesting things to me.”

    Are your pieces about not being able to be about just one thing? Is that something something can be about? What’s THAT about? Maybe a little challenging to discuss in this forum, so I’ll gladly wait till next Wednesday.

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  29. JKG

    Dance segue consonance…
    Anyone familiar with Grateful Dead handling of live segueways will know there is a paratonal relation between songs – especially thanks to Phil Lesh’s tutelage under Varese. Also, you’d note any dissonance caused is in direct proportion to the modal contrasts from the ending of one song and the beginning of another. Phish and Widespread Panic do exactly the same thing (live, mind you). A certain amount of noise/dissonance is to be expected from a rich texture, but when everything is dissonant, the harshness loses relevance and becomes more and more meaningless – not unlike a completely consonant with no stresses, poetically worthless.

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  30. amc654

    I’m afraid I can’t really speak to the specifics of the post, JKG (re the Greatful Dead, Phish, etc.), but it raises an interesting question: there’s at least an implicit assumption in your question/comment (as well as in several of the various posts above) that consonance & dissonance are absolute entities. This seems a rather problematic presumption to me.

    Surely consonance & dissonance are purely relative, contextual terms. In a larger sense, that context is generational, linked to the music of various eras. (To take a somewhat simplistic example, the music of Debussy was ‘dissonant’ to late 19th/early 20th century ears, but sounds (for the most part) quite ‘consonant’ to ours; or to prove it’s not merely a 20th century phenomenon, we could, say, have a look at the Council of Trent and the surrounding repertoire …) In a more local sense, consonance and dissonance are, it seems to me, completely dependent on the specific context of a particular work (or perhaps a body of work, in some cases).

    So I suppose in some sense I completely agree w/ your closing statement, JKG. Some move to/from dissonance does seem useful, but I’d clarify to say that something you might hear as brutally dissonant might in fact be ‘consonant’ to my ears (or something like that?) or at least be operating in the way that something like ‘consonance’ might operate in a more traditional context.

    Reply
  31. JKG

    Yes, to each his own…
    Thank you, amc. Yes, I certainly agree with contextual standpoint. If you substitute the word “meaning” for “context,” I agree with you even more. When a work is wholly consonant to one person’s ears, it is possibly meaningless to another person. Conversely, if a work is largely dissonant to one person, it may be completely meaningful to another. I do not begrudge the Pierre Boulez’s of this world – yet no matter how hard it is foisted upon me he is one of the musical geniuses of our time, I’ll never buy it. I use poor Pierre simply as a good example of music that to me is entirely meaningless and not worth the time to listen to. In my opinion, he is not much of a musician, much less a composer, and I would tell him that to his face. On the other hand, I certainly do not expect others to share my views, as indeed they may find in Boulez items of interest which I will never be gifted to know, Just because he is a “great composer and conductor” to certain critics (and other brown-nosers) does not mean in the least that I have ever been impressed with his world view or his music. You are right to maintain the ambiguity of consonance/dissonance – yet I have a question; how come its perfectly fine to embrace what is out of bounds of the average person’s existence, and then to look down with scorn upon traditional views of artistic meaning as if those norms were worthless with regard to meaning? Is it the sheer commercial aspect of popular music which is so offensive? Is there a socialist tact to aesthetic political correctness? I would be very interested to read, along the lines of this topic of meaningfulness, the history of elitism in serious art music. I roll my eyes every time I read or hear a composer complain that the audience just doesn’t “get it.” Those composers really don’t have a clue, do they?

    Reply
  32. GJBerg

    Quoting from AlexRoss post.
    *** Paul Griffiths has this to say about “Kreuzspiel” in Modern Music and After: “One might even speak of a conversion, especially when what exhilarated both Stockhausen and Goeyvaerts was the spiritual dimension of their work: the possibility of liberating, more than creating, sound structures which would have nothing human in their composition, which would be images of divine unity….” ***

    This is it in a nutshell. Messages from mad men!

    Could there be such sound structures? Would we ever recognize them? Are we fit for it?

    Personally, I think it inhumane and exhibit an artistic megalomania that is laughable. In political spheres I would call it dangerous. But this is art so we can relax. Sensibility rules…eventually.

    What if music is nothing but a story with which we attempt to reassure our belief in ourselves: E.g. Yes, we are alive and yes, we can listen sympathetically. Real basic stuff.

    If this is the case the tropes, by which this gesture of reassurance is conveyed, are of vital importance. These tropes might hold the entire structure of musical meaning.

    Only one thing is missing then and that is the story of being alive now. That is, we are not between times but within time.

    Reply
  33. philmusic

    AMC

    What your saying about dissonance/consonance, that it is relative and generational is true -except for what we understand as basic music theory intervals etc. Of course Jazz theory does not see it the same way. For example, a Major 7th chord is not a dissonance in Jazz harmony.
    br>
    Perhaps some of the bloggers here don’t share exactly the same theoretical background and language to discuss music. Different schools use different language to define the same objects. This can lead to many unintended misunderstandings. That shouldn’t be a problem but I don’t know what “paratonal” means. Unfortunately, there are some biases here for a very limited harmonic pallet. br>
    Anyway Penderecki’s Threnody… would have been performed no matter what he called it and not because of his title, but rather because of his State support.

    Phil’s Page Text

    Reply
  34. philmusic

    ” I think many folks who dance to this would be surprised how strange and interesting those parts are.”

    quoting myself!!! Oh Gadd!!!!

    JKG My post refered to the dancers or listeners-not to to the composers.

    Phil’s Page

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