We are all familiar with those program or liner notes that are a step removed from generalized music theory and are about as stimulating to read as a legal brief or a software manual. When I was an adolescent and music was my heartthrob, I just didn’t get how something so sensuous could be intellectualized in such a dry way. Thankfully, in college I was awakened to the wonders of musical analysis, and of how dissecting a score could be as exciting as an expedition into a wilderness. And over the years, whether I am preparing my own compositional materials or studying a work so I can conduct it, I’ve come to appreciate what a wonderful job music does of surviving whatever constructs we assign to it.
Certainly, overarching cultural attitudes and conceptions have always influenced how composers have conceived their music and how others have critically interpreted it. The dominant music theories of the last century, and the overall gestalt of what we regard as music theory, were forged in the western rationalist tradition. In recent decades, the limitations and modalities of rationalism have been heavily debated, but I tend to think that composers and the art of music have long been a model for going beyond the rational, giving us the integration of the rational mind and the intuitive, art and science, spirit and matter. And I might need to whisper this so some of my friends don’t hear me say it, but yes, I think this is even true for some of those twelve-tone guys.
Today, I’m not sure if some of our most well-known composers have particularly innovative or deeply-conceived theory in their work. However, the theories of music that exist today or might be opened up, are not as cut and dry as what once dominated textbooks. I’ll give Harry Partch and his revolutionary tome Genesis of a Music some of the credit for that, and in showing how looking deeply inside music can open it to the heavens…a magnifying glass becomes a telescope, and it’s all about focus. Speaking of which, which one of you geniuses will help us discover the relationship of the overtone series to the structure of the universe?
Grand design such as that is everywhere in music, in its little microcosms and compositional jewels, even when it is not always unified or perfect. Music is a sublime kind of architecture, and learning how to build with new materials, without flaunting the materials for their own sake, is what distinguishes new music. The architectural dimension of music is also why the focus of music theory is so gratifying and worth more emphasis, and why we might expand our notions of music theory to examine those places, beyond the page, that music goes. For how we analyze something tells us as much about ourselves as does the result of the analysis.
Maybe if music theory is something that as composers, we haven’t been talking about enough, it’s because many of us took a step back from it. So tell us what you think Ð even if it’s only in theory.