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CLASSICAL  May 2005

CLASSICAL May 2005

Subject:

Hoffman on Tonal Music

From:

Jon Gallant <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 17 May 2005 12:42:48 -0700

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For those who did not rush out and buy the current issue of the Wilson
Quarterly, here are excerpts from Miles Hoffman's thoughtful account of
the virtues of tonal music.

   "The structure of music, its essential nature--with many
   simultaneous.  complex, overlapping, and interweaving elements,
   events, components, associations, references to the past,
   intimations of the future--is an exact mirror of the psyche, of
   the complex and interwoven structure of our emotions.  This makes
   it a perfect template onto which we can project our personal
   complexes of emotions.  And when we make that projection, we
   hear in music our own emotions---or images and memories of our
   emotions---reflected back.  And because the reflection is so
   accurate, we feel <i>understood</i>.  We recognize, and we feel
   recognized.  It's a kind of illusion, but it's a beautiful one
   and very comforting.  And, in fact, it's not entirely an illusion,
   because even though the specifics may differ, we all share the
   same kinds of emotions.  ...We're linked with the composer of
   the music by our common humanity.  And if a composer has found
   a compelling way to express his or her own emotions, then to a
   certain extent that composer can't really avoid expressing, and
   touching, ours as well.

   ...Furthermore, the very "movement" of music, its rhythmic
   movement through time, carries inevitable associations with life,
   with positive forces and feelings.  Life is movement and movement
   is life....Music gives meaning to time.  If all those overlapping
   and interweaving elements and events in a piece of music indeed
   mean something, if they remind, reflect, comfort, inspire, or
   excite--then, by definition, the time it takes for them to do
   all that means something too.  ...And though it may be just a
   self-contained fragment of time, a little world of its own,
   within that fragment time is used, arranged, and manipulated so
   that the passage of time makes sense."

   "...The special function of dissonance in tonal music is to
   provide tension, and that tension, in whatever degree it is
   established, is always resolved by a return to consonance.
   Indeed, the true genius of the tonal system is that in any given
   piece it enables a composer to combine the power and momentum
   of harmonic progression with the simultaneous manipulation of
   melodic material, in ways which create the impression of a
   <i>narrative</i>, a dramatic structure complete with characters,
   rhetoric, direction, conflict, tension, uncertainty, and ultimate
   resolution.  So, pleasing sounds, sriking contrasts, coherent
   dramatic structures based on expressive musical elements that
   form clear (if sometimes complex) relationships and patterns--for
   more than 200 years this remarkable system served as the unquestion
   foundation of Western music.  ...Is it fair to say that the
   powerful and perennial emotional appeal of tonal music reflects
   its extraordinary capacity to meet our oh-so-human musical
   expectations, to satisfy our longing for beauty, comfort, and
   meaning?  Yes indeed."

This account implicitly underlines the deficiency of Schoenberg's 12-tone
system.  If all 12 tones of the chromatic scale have equivalent significance,
and if no distinction is made between consonance and dissonance, then
there is no harmonic landscape against which movement can seem to occur;
or within which a feeling of narrative (with contrast, conflict, tension,
and resolution) can be conveyed.  If emotional content of certain
intervalic relations is hard-wired in the human mind---e.g., the
distinctions between minor third and major third, consonance and
dissonance---then the 12-tone system deliberately omits most of the
emotional associations that permit music to create a feeling of narrative.
I think that is why 12-tone music so often sounds like a journey through
an Arctic plain during a blizzard.

Of course, sufficiently ingenious composers can contrive a limited sense
of narrative out of other elements, such as rhythm, instrumental texture,
volume.  But this is difficult to do convincingly without the powerful
underlying element of harmonic structure.  More commonly, modern composers
have avoided strict Schoenbergism and have tried to create the impression
of a tonal centre within atonal (but not 12-tone) idioms, or in idioms
which combine atonal and tonal elements.  The latter approach, with a
much more pronounced tonal element, has fortunately come back into fashion
since around 1980.  [I pass over minimalism, a gimmicky phase.] As a
result, audiences will eventually begin to come back to concert halls,
and to modern CM more generally.

Someone brought up the old saw that "they didn't understand Beethoven
either".  As Hoffman points out: "Beethoven was NOT misunderstood in his
time.  Beethoven was without doubt the most famous composer in the modern
world in his time and the most admired.  And if there were those who
didn't "get" his late string quartets, for example, there were plenty
of others who did, and who rapidly accepted the quartets as masterpieces.
In fact, the notion that great geniuses in the history of music went
unrecognized during their lifetimes is almost entirely false.  It's
difficult to find an example of a piece we now consider a masterpiece
that was not appreciated as such while its composer was alive or within
a relatively short period after his death."

Schoenberg's 12-tone "Serenade" was written in 1924; Boulez' fulminations
about the superfluity of everything other than serial music date back
to the 50s, and he founded IRCAM in 1970; Stockhausen's "Gruppen" dates
back to 1959, and he has been writing his helicopter quartets and his
cycle of unperformable, egomaniac operas since the 70s.  Enough is enough.
The experiment has been conducted.  However, since it took 50 years for
Schoenberg, Boulez, Stockhausen, & Co. to make make modern CM truly
detested, it will take 50 years for the process to be reversed.  If my
watch is right, we should see evidence of this by about 2030.

Incidentally, I personally find certain non-tonal music (e.g., Ligeti,
Norgard and some of his younger Danish colleagues) very persuasive.  But
I am not at all representative of the music-loving---or rather #potentially#
music-loving---public.  More typical are some friends of mine who listen
to serious music but grimace---one of them actually donned earplugs at
a concert---at the first sign of what used to called the avant garde.
Yet these individuals do NOT necessarily grimace at, let's say, John
Adams or Aaron Jay Kernis or Jennifer Higdon.  Give composers like them
and listeners like my friend until 2030, and we will see what develops.

Cheers///

Jon Gallant                and                    Dr. Phage
Department of Gnome Sciences
University of Washington

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