Uniform Diversity: The Common Myth of Tonal Progress



We live, purportedly, in the age of greatest compositional liberty. The tyranny of a common practice no longer constrains us: each of us may choose the most comfortable musical identity from the celebrated diversity of contemporary styles. While Neoromantic and New Complexity composers may berate one another for poor taste or lack of judgment and curse each other’s successes, neither would dare deny the other’s right to compose as he or she pleases. This is, after all, America, land of freedom and progress.

Is the freedom to pick a side, however, truly freedom, when it forces us to define ourselves through the criteria of others? Is the progress from a common practice to a diverse one truly progress, when it compels us to choose between a reactionary, audience-friendly idiom, an exclusionary avant-garde, or a sober modernism or ironic postmodernism that hovers between these two extremes? The diversity that suggests progress hides a deeper slavery to music history itself: to our compulsion to measure our accomplishments against those of the past, to prove that we are essentially better off, freer, than we were before. In the written and spoken discourse of music theory and composition, this idea appears most frequently as an ideology of tonal progress—that is, of progress towards, or away from, tonality. Ironically, our belief in a music history organized by tonal progress is our own common practice.

Tonal Histories

Tonal progress is a broad and slippery concept. There are as many accounts of tonal progress as there are historians of tonality, suggesting that such “progress” is an illusion to disguise the historian’s prejudices in neutral technicalities. The accounts themselves are varied enough to defend any particular musical bias, yet the historian invariably relies on one or more of the following three assumptions:

One: the assumption of expanding resources, particularly beloved by composers. Some swear by the infinite harmonic palette of just intonation; others by the transformations of serial technique; yet others by the carefree juxtaposition of styles. Whether through prime numbers, permutations, or collage, however, all agree that extended tonality frees today’s composers from the restrictions of the past.

Two: the assumption of structural consolidation—that is, of tonality developing from noise or gibberish into a formal language, whether syntax, algorithm, or algebra. This is the theorists’ preferred account, of course. Textbook authors use it to justify conservative pedagogy based on the “shared language” of common-practice harmony, and to imply that such a language, lost in the Babel of 20th-century styles, is necessary for aesthetic or spiritual progress. Others, seemingly more progressive, try to dress the tonal progress of old in new clothes by arguing that more recent composers, at least the good ones, also speak a unified tonal language, albeit one with a different grammar. The idea is the same: whether in support of old composers or new, the theorists use tonality to glorify “their” music as the accomplishment of an artificial speech more meaningful than speech itself—structure born of disorder.

Three: the assumption of audience accessibility, to give each account of tonal progress a moral. Technical considerations aside, tonality is something easy to like. Drawing professional analogies, a composer may work as a scientist in a musical research program that ignores the public, as the priest for a community needing musical guidance, or as an entertainer ready to satisfy the desires of the masses. Musical ethicists, depending on the argument, depict these options in the light of various types of progress: progress from the dark ages of obligatory pandering, soulless detachment, or selfish creativity. But whether it is the duty of modern composers to serve or their privilege to remain aloof, they must acknowledge an audience that will love the classic tonality and loathe its modern descendants.

Tonality as the blessing of compositional abundance; as the achievement of a perfect system of expression; as a pleasure that precedes knowledge—these three assumptions encapsulate some of our strongest feelings about the nature and power of music. Together, they support a broad musical discourse, and it is difficult to make an argument about music without relying on at least one of them for support. Their wide circulation creates the impression of essential truths: they are the ideas we cling to most tightly, in fear of the void that their absence would leave. Yet tonal progress remains, for all its power, based on assumptions that are flimsy and impermanent. We are not the privileged recipients of a gift from nature, but the victims of a recent hallucination.

The Origins of Tonal Discourse

Musicians have not always taken tonal progress for granted. They could not have: the archive, disciplines, and institutions that make it possible to organize, discuss, and propagate a tonal music history are barely two centuries old. The idea of tonal progress makes no sense without a canon of great works to support it, music criticism to write it, and conservatory to teach it; these did not exist before the 19th century. Once established, however, they generated a discourse—indeed, a vocabulary—that has remained essentially fixed since its inception. In 1844, the theorist François-Joseph Fétis used the terms “unitonic,” “transitonic,” “pluritonic,” and “omnitonic” to describe the expansion of harmonic resources through European music history. In the mid-19th century, German theorists described their contemporary music—Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner, Liszt—in terms of harmonic coherence: advocates argued that the new music shared the language of Bach and Mozart, while detractors dismissed it as meaningless noise. Finally, we can hear the murmurs of the disapproving audience in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s reviews of Beethoven’s work, which defended the composer’s genius from an incompetent public. Such continuity in the discourse of tonal progress suggests that the institutions of music education and criticism speak for us far more than we speak for them: they train us to believe in what they cannot prove. Our deepest feelings about music turn out to be little more than an imprisonment without walls.

Dismantling Tonal Discourse with the Body: Helmut Lachenmann and La Monte Young

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Helmut Lachenmann

Perhaps in the future, once the institutions of the music school and review become marginal forces in our lives, we will move on to fresh (and, most likely, equally ridiculous) debates. By then, the history of tonality may seem as quaint and amusing as the music of the spheres seems to us now. But what can we do in the meantime? Of course, we could stop writing about music altogether, but music cannot—and will never—speak for itself. If tonal progress is, in fact, a myth maintained by a tremendous act of will, is it possible to acknowledge its power without becoming its casualty? This question lies at the heart of the polemical aesthetics of La Monte Young and Helmut Lachenmann, two composers whose radically different sonorities disguise a common interest in breaking the illusion of tonal progress in sound and word. Both of them dispel the illusion by reminding us of the bodies of performers and listeners; in our common practice, such bodies are incidental transmitters and receivers of tonal ideas, as easily forgotten as a conventional instrument.

It is no coincidence that when German composer Helmut Lachenmann describes composing as “building an instrument,” he shifts the locus of musical meaning from sound itself to its physical impulse. For Lachenmann, the expansion of tonal resources amounts to nothing more than a historically-conditioned mode of listening. As a clear manifestation of tradition, tonality is part of the musical “magic” which must be “broken in the name of a creative will.” This is not a matter of writing atonal music, which remains at the mercy of tonal categories and musical tradition. Rather, it is a matter of emphasizing the latent physicality of musical material, to subvert conventional acoustic interpretations. In an inversion of traditional practice, tonal content becomes gesture’s accidental side effect, the acoustic noise masking the unexplored possibility of bodily syntax. Lachenmann’s musical body language liberates the performer and audience through play, subverting the assumptions of tonal progress without contradicting them, and outlining a novel and generous approach to composition.

Lachenmann’s analysis of his second string quartet, Reigen seliger Geister (“Round of the Blessed Spirits”), emphasizes this play of gestures through its wealth of physical description. First, the composer summarizes an evolution of gestural motives: “In terms of sound technique, the work … emerges first through flautato gestures, while the mapped-out sound word gradually transforms itself into a diametrically opposed landscape of quite differently structured pizzicato fields.” He then defines the “basic” flautato meticulously, specifying not only bow speed, but also the left hand’s grip, the direction of bow movement, and the point of contact on the string. By adjusting these parameters, the flautato technique becomes “a sonic center—a central depot and hub for a characteristic wealth of variations of noise and sound. It mediates between absolute tonelessness on the one hand and full C-flat major consonance on the other.” Lachenmann is not interested in ignoring tonality; such deafness is impossible, or irresponsible. By using gesture as a unifying principle, however, he dismantles tonality by finding common ground in sounds with nothing in common acoustically. He renders the body audible and tonality powerless to speak.

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La Monte Young
Photo: Marian Zazeela

Young’s philosophy inverts the relationships set forth by Lachenmann. While Lachenmann breaks tonality through the activity of the performer’s body, Young breaks the listener’s body through submission to “chords of intrinsically infinite duration, amplified to the threshold of aural pain.” The notion of expanding tonal resources becomes meaningless in a sound environment that precludes referential listening. Likewise, the imposition of structure becomes unnecessary; the environment’s stasis provides its own variation, like the wind blowing through the log cabin in which Young was born. In Young’s aesthetics, taste becomes secondary to catharsis, given his faith in the power of constant tones to induce ecstasy. A continuous sound environment sweeps away any tonal difference to measure and compare, leaving only a physical space to wander and mental state to explore.

Lachenmann wants to render the body audible; Young wants to render sound corporeal. To this end, he turns his TriBeCa loft into a Dream House, to embody a “continuous” work that will “ultimately exist in time as a living organism with a life and tradition of its own.” This work is a sustained chord of thirty-two sine waves, its harmonic construction and relationships defined in a 107-word title, The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119. The title doubles as a comprehensive, if esoteric, analysis—a tonal Kaballah. If the frequencies live, however, it is not through the theorists’ ruminations, but rather through the tones’ appropriation of the listener’s body: as Kyle Gann writes, “Walk into The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry and you’ll hear a whirlwind of pitches swirl around you. Stand still, and the tones suddenly freeze in place.” Further description is impossible, because a body that speaks or writes is no longer a vessel of devotional listening.

New Freedom

Helmut Lachenmann and La Monte Young awake from the empty dream of musical diversity to discover the resonant body, sculpted into dynamic instruments or static environments. In either case, the new body invents music beyond the noise of tonal progress. Young and Lachenmann may renounce the freedom to define themselves through common categories, but they find a greater freedom instead: freedom from the 200-year-old nightmare of tonality that continues to haunt our music.

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Alexander Ness is a doctoral composition student at New York University. A recent piece of his for solo viola, Shruti, is available on the language of, a new CD from quietdesign records. He is currently working on a dissertation on the origins of Western music pedagogy.