Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Notes from the Pluriverse {2–6}


Why do so few people get the distinction between "rule" and "rule"? One is confining, the other is liberating. There are "laws," and then there are "laws." Some divide, others unite.

Already we behave as if we live in a world that holds only a remnant of what there actually is .... I believe the major cause of this more mental than physical rift lies less in the folly or onesidedness of our societies and educational systems, or in the historical evolution of man into a predominantly urban and industrial creature, a thinking termite, than in the way we have, during these last hundred and fifty years, devalued the kind of experience or knowledge we loosely define as art; and especially in the way we have failed to grasp its deepest difference from science.
– John Fowes, The Tree.
That there are rules is a fact of art. That the rules are immutable is not.


In a 2002 program note[1], I included a summary of that exciting/nightmarish (take your pick) period in Western music (roughly 1890–1920) and referred to it as "The Crisis" (Fragment A below). It was during this remarkable short stretch of time, that the line of European music history finally broke out into three lines of Euro-Anglo-American music history. (It's important to note that I'm using the word "crisis" here not so much in its original sense of the "turning point of a disease," but in the sense of passing through a critical point of no return. Surviving The Crisis, you can still look back and perhaps learn from the past, but any continuity, real or imagined, has been broken: you can't regain either the innocence or the ignorance of the past.[2]) At the same time that The Crisis was working out publicly in concert halls, there was a related crisis in music theory that was at work below the surface, not so much among analytical theorists but primarily among theorist-composers[3] (Fragment B). While remnants can occasionally be found, today the three lines have mostly disappeared, replaced by a riot of musics and their theories: a pluriverse of possibility.

Anyone who claims the crown is a fool.

Fragment A: Praxis
If we ignore most of the fascinating detours, forget the dead ends, remain blind to other cultures or treat them as irrelevant – in a word, if we squint hard enough at European music history – we can just barely draw a straight line that traverses a millennium and a half from the Middle Ages right down to Brahms and Wagner on the verge of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, right at that point, our straight-line project fails completely. American musicologist Charles Seeger put it this way:
Since sometime before the First World War there has been a general realization among both conservatives and radicals that the great romantic tradition of nineteenth-century Europe was in difficulties. It had become encrusted with so many bypaths that some sort of revision seemed inevitable, either to set it upon its feet again or to form from its honored remains a new style.[4]
Seeger’s student and friend, composer Henry Cowell, was not as circumspect, leaving much less room for a comfortable conservative outcome:
Let us, however, meet the question of what would result if we were frankly to shift the centre of musical gravity from consonance, on the edge of which it has long been poised, to seeming dissonance, on the edge of which it now rests.[5]
Indisputably, Schoenberg and Stravinsky at this point were at the heart of the crisis in Europe; more importantly, a musical revolution that officially began in Europe was now heavily “in the air” on both sides of the Atlantic. Seeger capsulized the beginnings with due credit to Europe and then summarized what came next with a single word:
Certainly a revolution began, but a gradual one – perhaps a series of small revolutions: first Satie, Debussy, Strauss; second Scriabin, Schönberg, and Stravinsky; then the deluge.[4]
After the “exquisite elaborations” [Seeger's words] of the nineteenth century with figures such as Debussy and Strauss, the line of history forked into three main branches. The traditionalist branch attempted to set European music “upon its feet again,” stretching the use of the old material by insisting that it wasn’t yet exhausted. As critic and scholar Eric Blom noted, Fauré, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Sibelius remained “fundamentally loyal to their key signatures.” The other two branches, setting off in radically new directions and causing riots in the concert halls, were the “atonal” branch – centered in Vienna and identified with Arnold Schoenberg – and the “neo-classical” branch centered in Paris and headed by Igor Stravinsky.
Fragment B: Theoria
In 1985, Schoenberg scholar Severine Neff was visiting her friend, composer Otto Leuning, then 87, in his New York apartment. While helping him sort through his papers, Neff spotted an unfamiliar journal called The Monist published in Chicago in 1917. When she picked it up it fell open to an article entitled "Our Musical Idiom" by Ernst Bacon [see also prior E&EN entries on Bacon]. Among other things, the article included what appeared to be a complete list of all the chords possible in the twelve-tone chromatic scale. But the year––1917––was all wrong. Prior to Neff's discovery, 1960 [Howard Hanson's Harmonic Materials of Modern Music] was the date generally associated with the first publication of such a list. As Neff later wrote,
Five years before the debut of twelve-tone music and over thirty years before proliferation  of mathematically based theories of non-tonal music, Bacon was working on order permutation, invariance, and symmetrical inversion of non-tonal music.[6]


A note on post-tonal voice leading. There is a vast area ripe for research re note {4} which I will not even try to pursue in the detail it deserves. Both Bacon and Luening were greatly influenced by Bernhard Ziehn's theories. Busoni called Ziehn "Die 'Gotiker' von Chicago," and was inspired by him to take up the study of counterpoint once again. John Alden Carpenter studied with him also. In Howard Pollock's bio of Carpenter, there is this intriguing passage:
Carpenter wrote hundreds of harmonic and contrapuntal exercises under Ziehn. Most of the harmonic exercises involved short progressions; starting from a given triad or seventh chord, he would quickly move to some distant triad via passing tones, a whole-tone bass, or some other designated way. Some of the results sounded like Wagner or Franck, some like Reger or Busoni, some like modern jazz, and some like nothing recognizable.
There is a growing literature on Ziehn, but Neoriemannians looking for some new connections during this stormy period (I believe Ziehn was not too keen on Riemann's work, but that's irrelevant) might start by looking at his 1911 Five and Six Part Harmonies with reference to the above passage quoted from Pollock.


Harmonices Mundi Mod XII


[1] The "program note" was an extended essay titled "Toward an American Music" included in a season (2002-3) booklet celebrating the forty-year residency of the Juilliard String Quartet at the Library of Congress (also the end of JSQ's residency at LC –– but that's another story). I chewed off way more than I could manage in anything less than a book. I said nothing in the essay I would retract even today, but overall the essay doesn't make the points I had hoped to make.
[2] There must have been a sense of fear and loathing for many people during this key period –– a fear and loathing that appears to survive to this day in some composers, performers, audiences, and musicologists. The Online Etymology Dictionary humorously notes that a German term for "mid-life crisis" is Torschlusspanik, literally "door-shut-panic," fear of being on the wrong side of a closing door.)
[3] Previous posts are predicated on my contention that some analytical theorists may be composers, but all composers are theorists.
[4][5] I have lost the exact citations for these quotes, but as I recall, the two Charles Seeger quotes are from Studies in Musicology II, 1929-1979 (ed. & intro. Ann M. Pescatello. Berkeley, UCal Press, c1994) & the Henry Cowell quote is from his New Musical Resources (orig. pub. 1930, but I probably used the 1969 repub. [NY], Something Else Press)
[6] Severine Neff. "An American Precursor of Nontonal Theory: Ernst Bacon (1900–1990)." Current Musicology 48: 5-26.

1 comment:

Carsonics said...

Wonderful work and enjoyable reading. Music is in the end music. Respighi might also be considered a traditionalist, but "Ancient Dances" is one of the best pieces of music ever written! Content is not a theoretical premise, it's an artistic expression and that's what matters most in the end for music and other art forms. Every composer requires the boundaries of a system in order to create, but what imaginative mind follows rules in order to create?