The Music Theorist’s Immunity Challenge

I’m not made of steel. When my impatience with performers and audiences who don’t cotton to new music becomes too tiresome even for me, I need a change of pace. I need to go after a community that has an even harder time justifying the necessity of its existence to The Man than we composers do. I need to lower my sights and take aim at the theorists.

Some time ago I wrote on NewMusicBox that a composer of contemporary concert music would be the first castaway to be eaten in a hypothetical desert-island scenario. This assumes, however, that no music theorists are stranded on that unforgiving spit of land as well. I would need only to point at my scholarly colleague and raise my eyebrows as if to ask “do you know what these people actually do?” to get to the next meal. There will be plenty of time between lunch and dinner for me to make my final peace.

No offense intended, of course. Some of my best friends are theorists. They’re all exceptionally intelligent people and consummate musicians, no doubt about it. My gripe is with the music theory community as a body—a logy, sluggish beast that, like many mainstream classical music ensembles and listeners, seems about fifty years behind schedule. Of course there are theorists who specialize in postwar music, and I’m very grateful for their important contributions. But how many Mozart scholars do we need? How many Schubert experts? How many Wagnerians, for crying out loud?

These questions aren’t rhetorical; they have a very simple, if open-ended, answer. We need as many as it takes to create and disseminate a corpus of research that can inform performance practice. Developing frameworks that enable players to approach old music in a new (but authentic) way is a guaranteed path to relevance. The formulation of these frameworks is only half the battle, though: I’d submit that theorists who study traditional music are obliged to make their findings available to performers, to involve themselves, in fact, with players just as intimately as composers do. Nothing makes me care less about 19th-century music scholarship than not getting to hear it come to life in the concert hall. Regrettably, performers tend not to seek out cutting-edge theory on their own steam, so the onus, as I see it, is on theorists. Proselytize.

Or, if you’re uncomfortable with that, take a look at some new music. That’s the other way to be relevant: write about what’s going now or what happened in the recent past. Imagine, for a moment, how rich and fascinating the theory world would be if even half of the Beethoven scholars in the country suddenly chose a new composer to study, one born after 1925. Imagine, moreover, what would happen if theorists took on both of these proposed functions—if they chose to act as both performance practice guides and observers of new compositional activity. It would be about the best thing to happen to composers since the theorists clambered ashore off the wreckage of our ruined ship.

23 thoughts on “The Music Theorist’s Immunity Challenge

  1. rtanaka

    Theory will always be somewhat behind the times because “the rules” are usually something that’s noticed after the fact. The tonal theory we have now is something that emerged as a result of theorists discovering recurring patterns within the output of Western composers. By definition, a theory is a “useful generalization” that allows people to predict future occurances through a found consistency. So Hydrogen and Oxygen combined makes water, always, and the idea of it is useful. If you know that the V will eventually cadence to the I, then you won’t have to freak out too much when playing anything written before the 20th century.

    The problem with doing this in new music is that we’re living in a pluralistic society now and it’s very unlikely that you’ll find these sort of clean, clear-cut patterns, even among individual composers. And maybe the relationship between theorists and new music composers are naturally antagonistic, since a successful theory implies that there is a level of similarity among certain groups of musicians. If you’re trying really hard to be “original”, this might not be something welcome.

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  2. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    I am deeply interested in theory, as I’m sure all self respecting composers are. But I can’t help but agree with Colin that there is little to be added by specializing in Beethoven’s music. Not to dissuade anyone from studying whatever they choose to study- that is for everyone to decide.
    But Beethoven was in the business of creating something new, something that was moving to him in a powerful way. Theorists- again, not to disparage- are in the business of deciphering the recipes which Beethoven used to create such a potent sound. This is a matter of identifying and tracking rules throughout genres of music. It is like grammar, and suddenly things fall apart when Gertrude Stein begins publishing, and what do we do? Ignore her?

    Beethoven is, I would argue, still very relevant for theorists and composers alike. We are all descendents of a tradition which underwent a major transformation with Beethoven. But that said, is it really worth our time tracking the influence of his music through the works of Ben Johnston? Giacinto Scelsi? Joji Yuasa? All of these composers have worked with “rules” of their own, and that is just the point: they have tried to identify a unique path for themselves in music, just as Beethoven did. All four of these men have worked within distinct guidelines they set for themselves, although all four inhabit different musical spaces. Perhaps it is not their “grammar” which should be our starting point as theorists and composers. Perhaps it is their attitude towards the “grammar” of their time which is theoretically the most interesting…. Just a thought.

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  3. Colin Holter

    Good point, Mischa–and I’d go on to question whether ascertaining compositional “patterns” among communities of contemporaries is really all we expect theorists to do. Rather than come up with rules that generalize about how a bunch of composers born around the same time make music (à la Schenker), I think the successful analyses of recent music take each piece as its own world, maybe commenting on certain structural similarities between that world and another comparable one by another composer.

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  4. pgblu

    Either/or
    I would certainly stick up for the Beethoven scholars in the theory community — since few of them probably visit this site. There is still quite a lot we don’t understand about LvB, and trying to formalize “decision matrices” for his contemporaries is a worthwhile and important task. Still lots of information to synthesize here, and perhaps quite a lot still to uncover.

    This does not diminish the point that theorists ought to try and tackle contemporary music. In fact some do. An upcoming issue of Contemporary Music Review will be addressing issues of very recent music by Mathias Spahlinger and Nicolaus A Huber, for example. That journal has a long track record of trying to tackle such material, as many of you know.

    Why do we think of contemporary music theory and historical music theory as one and the same discipline? Must be a shortage of funds, and/or bureaucratic convenience — I certainly wouldn’t want a Beethoven specialist to feel compelled to expand her horizons by writing about my music. Both disciplines ought to be a creative (read: ‘messy’) mix of musicology, theory, speculation, philosophy, and more speculation.

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  5. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    I definitely wouldn’t want to condemn anyone who finds that his or her passion lies in analyzing Beethoven, etc. Perhaps my worry deals more accurately with educational institutions that tend to give notably less attention to music of the last 60 years….

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  6. rtanaka

    What it usually boils down to is that people analyze pieces that they happen to like, I think. I don’t think you can really demand people to take interest (especially in something so esoteric as music theory) unless they feel strongly connected to it somehow. There’s nothing stopping people from analyzing Beethoven if that’s their thing, really…

    It seems like lot of the theory articles now come from the composers themselves. Who better to explain the rules than the person who made the rules? If its something so personal and unique, then I kind of doubt that another person could do justice to what’s going on inside.

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  7. EvanJohnson

    Who better to explain the rules than the person who made the rules?

    Just about anyone, actually, since music theory is not concerned with the “rules” of the production of music (that’s the domain of musicology, musical philology, or composition) but of the “rules” that govern its inherent functioning and independent existence, which of course are rarely the same thing.

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  8. rtanaka

    Well, people rarely analyze anything unless it peaks their interest in a strongly emotional manner — I think that a lot of composers make the mistake of assuming that people would or should go way out of their way to understand the internal structures of a piece, as if learning about them would appreciate the value of the work. In my experience it has been the opposite — I wrote a few theory papers on phasing process and the like, but learning about how it really worked tended to demystifies the process and I was more made aware of its limitations and shortcoming more than anything. In a lot of ways it gave me the justification to move onto other things — it’s the same idea as learning the kinks of tonal theory so that one can move beyond it.

    Bottom line, if you think you can dictate what sorts of things people want to analyze in their own time I think you’ll be sorely disappointed. People theorize about whatever they want, and it’s really beyond the composer’s control unless they write something so compelling that it forces people to want to know more about it. As with most things, it always starts with writing something that people like, then everything else follows suite.

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  9. rtanaka

    Although self-analysis seems to be looked down upon by some circles, I think that the process of it can be useful for helping the composer to articulate what they’re doing in their own work. I recently wrote several pieces where I assigned a tone-row for each instrument involved, where the tone row just repeats itself indefinitely, over and over and over. This was sort of a snarky commentary on Western society where people often try to be “open-minded” but at the same time be resistant to change in their own individual situation. When you can explain the structure of your own works in the manner, I think it makes it a lot easier for performers to put more thought into the work that’s being played.

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  10. jchang4

    I think that a lot of composers make the mistake of assuming that people would or should go way out of their way to understand the internal structures of a piece, as if learning about them would appreciate the value of the work. In my experience it has been the opposite — I wrote a few theory papers on phasing process and the like, but learning about how it really worked tended to demystifies the process and I was more made aware of its limitations and shortcoming more than anything.

    Strange that you should feel that way because my experience with theoretical analysis has been quite the opposite. Granted, I rarely ever put to paper a formal theoretical dissertation, but as a performer, in my playing, and especially in memorizing a piece, theoretical analysis, and by this I mean the discovery and discernment of patterns and structure, is absolutely unavoidable. And everytime I notice something new, it only serves to peak my interest. I’m not sure what it is that you mean by “limitations” and “shortcomings.”

    As for “learning the kinks of tonal theory so that one can move beyond it…?” Wasn’t it Schoenberg who said that there is still a lot of good music yet to be written in the key of C? I think it is still true today. It’s like people who think you can’t write good concertos anymore, cuz the medium is supposedly moot. Maybe YOU personally can’t write a good concerto, but that’s not necessarily true of all composers. Maybe you just have an old and inflexible idea of what the concerto [or what (insert any number of other things)] is supposed to be.

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  11. rtanaka

    In the paper I wrote, I pretty much obsessively dissected the phasing process and found that if you do an interval content analysis of the resultant patterns you’ll get an overall arching palindromic structure, with the second half mirroring the first half. This is a pattern that is consistent, and it works for any given pattern, including Piano Phase, so it can be said to be a generalization that holds true in all contexts where the technique is applied.

    At least for myself, it explained to me why strict phasing pieces tended to get a little bit boring during the second half, and why I think Reich eventually abandoned the strict approach of the process during his later works — the process is very predictable in a lot of ways, with predictable outcomes, and you can actually hear it. When I first started practicing the technique I used to try to obsessively hit every single pattern, but after that I realized that it’s not really necessary to do so. That really was a load off my plate.

    Course my paper was just about a technique in abstract terms, devoid of any historical context. It’s dry, boring, and very scientific, so it probably won’t inspire people to want to play Piano Phase, probably the opposite because it points out that the piece gets kind of redundant after the first few patterns. It wasn’t something “unpredictable” or “ever-expanding” as I first thought it was when I started. It’s deterministic, follows a certain logical outcome, and eventually circles back on itself, just like tonality. It’s still a useful tool, but it’s not an end in itself, I realized.

    I’ve read a couple good theory articles that were inspirational, but I think it’s because it points out how the composer was able to work within those rules and come up with some interesting material. Instead of letting the rules dictate their output, they learn how to play with people’s expectations of how the rules work. Like say, Mozart is the master of this sort of thing — everything makes “sense”, but at the same time he’s very clever with how he utilizes the rules to come up with some pretty interesting ideas.

    Funny you should mention C, because I just finished a String Quartet in C major. It follows all the rules of tonality pretty strictly, except when it doesn’t, then it sort of sounds kind of awkward and funny. Hmm, I think lately everything I’ve been writing seems to have a kind of sarcastic flavor to it. Here’s your tonic, pal!

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  12. jchang4

    Re: Ryan’s comments
    You know what doesn’t make sense about what you’ve said on this column? The fact that you make a point to point out that theory is descriptive rather than prescriptive, but then turn it around when you start talking about utilizing these theoretical methodologies (like tonality and phasing) in your own work… suddenly there are all these “rules” than you “must follow.” That’s fucked up man. I still don’t understand what you mean by “limitations.” I think you’re imagining them.

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  13. rtanaka

    Sorry, I should be more clear. When you compose by “rules”, they are usually prescriptive, in the sense that you set up “boundaries” for yourself then try to work your way out of them. So in the earlier 12-tone piece I mentioned above, I set up a hard-fast rule for the work — four 12-tone rows that never ever changes, and I was very strict about this. (As far as I know, there aren’t any “mistakes” in them, since I’ve edited them all out.) But since the pitch material is all determined for me, this allowed me to focus more on harmony, gesture, and orchestration. I think it was Ligeti who said that the more limitations you put on yourself the freer you become or something along those lines.

    But in historical terms, theory is usually descriptive. If I compose intuitively then supposedly I’m not abiding by any “rules” per se, but analyzing myself later on I usually find influences or ideas from previous styles. Umm, this might sound kind of tacky but when I improvise I notice that I separate the keyboard into black-keys (pentatonic) and white keys in sort of a East vs. West dichotomy. That’s just me, after all, and that’s what I’m exemplifying in my own work.

    When you do a lot of composition you inevitably run into these grey areas…it’s very hard to explain to people which is probably the reason why most people think composers are nuts. (Which we are.) And the “limitation” thing is just something of my own personal experience. I had an idea in my head that phasing allowed me to generate an endless amount of material and was probably why I had obsessed about it for so long. Writing that paper just helped me grow out of it, that’s all. It’s depends what sorts of things you’re writing or reading.

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  14. jchang4

    I guess I just took offense when you called the specific theoretical methods limited. It’s not the “methods” that are limited, because there’s really no such thing as method. What’s limited are the parameters that you’ve set for yourself. And why limit yourself? I don’t think you fully understand the implications of whatever it is that Ligeti supposedly said. Just because you are given a form to work within, doesn’t automatically mean that you are being limited in any way; it doesn’t mean that you will ever be able to deplete the possibilities within that form. It’s not about setting strict limits for yourself and trying to stick to them to the letter. It’s about being an artist… being able to do amazing things with the “limited” tools that you are given. A good artist can make good art even with the cheapest, crappiest brushes and watercolors. And I’m not necessarily saying that tonality and phasing or whatever are “crappy tools.” I’m suggesting that maybe you are the crappy one in the equation. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s something worth thinking about. Pianists live this. We don’t get to play “our instrument” for every performance, for every rehearsal. We have to adjust to different pianos all the time. It’s not about the piano. It’s about the pianist. So, it’s not about the “method,” it’s about the composer.

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  15. rtanaka

    My comments weren’t aimed at you, but at particular people that I’ve met who convinced themselves that systems have the ability to generate “new” material endlessly in an autonomous fashion. (And I was one of them at one point in time, so I know about it very well.) This idea has been highly influential on the avant-garde, and a lot of the times is the basis of what’s now known as conceptual art — the idea that all the composer has to do is create a theory then let it run indefinitely as a piece-in-itself. I gave this approach up fairly quickly because I felt it detached the composer from the process a little too much.

    I agree with you for the most part. I never said anything about methods being “crappy”, but that they are just limited. And as you implied, it’s largely up to the composer to come up with ways to generate new material — just because the English language only has 26 alphabets doesn’t mean that everything worth writing has already been written. But it would be unreasonable for me to expect a pianist to play a quarter-tone unless the instrument itself was prepared or tuned in an alternate matter. That’s sort of what I meant by “limited” — if you’re working within a certain framework then you have to acknowledge that there are certain things which are not possible.

    Tonality is great for harmonic progressions and counter-point, but if you’re interested in rhythm, jazz and non-Western musics are usually stronger in those areas. What I’ve noticed over the last few years is that a lot of the composers who knew how to write interesting rhythms were almost always borrowing ideas outside of the classical music stream. I don’t think it’s offensive to point out the fact that maybe other genres have greater strengths in areas that our medium has largely left undeveloped — it just means that we have to look beyond ourselves in order to see what sorts of possibilities might be out there. :)

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  16. rtanaka

    So the piece in C major came about after talking to some jazz guys who said that classical musicians have trouble playing syncopation because they’re so used to emphasizing the 1s and 3s within the bar. I thought it might be funny to write something that (mostly) followed the rules harmonically, but place emphasis and cadences in all of the “wrong” places. So lots of syncopations, bad voice-leadings, weird orchestrations, and deceptive cadences to the vi which loses its deceptiveness since it’s used over and over anyway.

    Course it’s a commentary on classical music in general, but it’s also a depiction of my awkward attempts to imitate jazz improvisation even though I’m trained in classical music. I’d like to think I got a bit better since, though.

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  17. jchang4

    I feel a sick need to respond to that…

    My comments weren’t aimed at you

    [Gosh. Really? Cuz I could've sworn you said explicitly that: "This is aimed at Josephine Chang."]

    Yes, I am and was aware that your comments weren’t aimed at me or anyone else in particular. However, does the fact that you weren’t attacking me personally mean that I’m not allowed to get even slightly pissed when I sense that a composer may be trying to place the blame on any- and every-where but himself?

    if you’re working within a certain framework then you have to acknowledge that there are certain things which are not possible

    THAT is what I was looking for. Was that so hard? I will give you that one. Sure. It still begs the question: why write in that style if you find it stifling? What is it that you are trying to say exactly? That question is so key that I’m going to type it again. What is it that you are trying to say exactly? If the stifling style is able to serve your purpose/message, why go around calling it so? It has done its job, has it not? It has served to express whatever it is that you wanted to express, yes? I still get the sense that you’re not quite getting my point here. I would not blame the chromatic scale for not having quartertones. It’s not the chromatic scale’s fault. Neither would I blame the composer for not being able to write quartertones within the chromatic scale. That is not the composer’s fault. BUT, it is the composer’s fault for not writing quartertones if and when it is a part of his/her message. Does that make sense? I still feel like you’re trying to blame your weaknesses as a composer on outside sources. I get the sense that you’re not really sure what it is that you want to say in your work. You’re looking here and there, trying this and that… it’s almost as if you haven’t found your voice/message yet. I’m frankly surprised at some of the questions/comments that some composers have on these pages. It almost sounds like y’all don’t have it all quite figured out yet. And that is simply unacceptable :)

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  18. rtanaka

    I’m the last one here to blame the audience if my piece isn’t “successful”, and I’ve argued my mouth against that sort of mentality over and over here. If it sucks, it sucks, and I know I’ve written lots of that during my lifetime. But the whole reason why I started studying other forms of music was because I was put off by a lot of the passive attitudes a lot of classical composers had of the audience — i.e. waiting around for them to “come around”, which they never do. Like I said, I agree with you on this.

    Jazz and pop musics have a much greater reception to the general public and I think this is pretty much undeniable. I’ve found that a lot of it had to do with rhythms and improvisation, which the two are very much lacking in the classical music world at this point in time. I think things are getting slightly better now, but I do remember being actively discouraged by some people to study those things just because it didn’t fit into the classical/new music “mold”. I consider this narrow-mindedness to be a problem and is partly the reason why the medium is struggling so much as it is now.

    If you need a clearer explanation of the “message”, then it’s basically this: I’m making a self-parody out of the styles that I employ. The 12-tone quartet makes fun of people who jump from idea to idea but largely end up going in circles. So you have 4 individuals with 4 tone-rows repeating the same sorts of things over and over but largely unaware of it because they’re only really listening to themselves, not each other. The piece is C major makes fun of the heiarchical systems of tonality — attempts and failiures at escaping the system and sort of the absurdities that tend to result from it.

    In my own experiences, I think this is what often comprises of living in Western society. Not everyone might agree with my opinion or “message”, but I do my best to make things clear both to the audience and performers alike, and try to be very honest about my intensions. Now here is usually where someone will accuse me of trying to stifle the subjectivity of interpretation. Who am I to tell the audience what to think of my own work? I dunno, I’m the composer, why shouldn’t I be able to say what my work means to me?

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  19. rtanaka

    Then again, if you’re dissatisfied with what composers are writing nowadays, it might be time to compose your own pieces. Musicians who think they know better often become composers or improvisers themselves, and I’ve known a bunch who made that switch. What better way to bridge the composer/performer divide than to it yourself?

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  20. pgblu

    Jazz and pop musics have a much greater reception to the general public and I think this is pretty much undeniable. I’ve found that a lot of it had to do with rhythms and improvisation, which the two are very much lacking in the classical music world at this point in time. I think things are getting slightly better now, but I do remember being actively discouraged by some people to study those things just because it didn’t fit into the classical/new music “mold”. I consider this narrow-mindedness to be a problem and is partly the reason why the medium is struggling so much as it is now.

    This narrow- mindedness no less than any other! And once again, you’re taking your personal experiences and making them seem a lot more universal than they actually are.

    Your point that more performers ought to try composing, and vice versa, is undeniably valid. It becomes no more true, though, if you bring it up on every single thread on this site. Is there anyone here who actually disagrees with you on that?

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  21. jchang4

    I don’t even know what just happened here. But clearly there’s been some really unfortunate misunderstandings. Or, to paraphrase Chris Tucker, you are clearly not understanding the words that are coming out of my mouth… and I am willing to acknowledge that I may have misunderstood your remarks as well. I was mincing your words, and perhaps should not have. Even so, I see no reason to retract my statements. I still believe that those ideological subtleties are what make a good composer good. Sorry for trying to push my dogma onto you.

    Since it is obvious that neither of us is willing to throw the towel in [which is, quite frankly, not surprising ;) ], I’m not even going to bother pursuing what has clearly twisted into something very, very strange. I just want to clarify three things: (1) I am not dissatisfied with what composers are writing nowadays, (2) I do not think that I know better [which, I'm sure, is what you were insinuating], (3) I know I have nothing to say as a composer, so I choose not to go there.

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