"Maybe I Should Just Write Tonal Music and Be Done With It"

March 21, 2017

OR: BEAUTY, TONALITY, AND THE PLEASURE CENTERS OF THE BRAIN

 

Please permit me to tell you a story:

 

Once upon a time, my husband and I were on the subway home from some thing or another and I saw on Facebook a violinist friend (Nicole Parks is the bees knees) had just produced a multiphonic on the violin. The conversation that spawned covered what a multiphonic is, how one is produced, especially on a string instrument, how one is notated, etc., which snowballed into a discussion about new music, and, right when we were about to walk through the door to our building, he dropped this bomb upon me: "I don't think I've ever heard an atonal piece I thought was pretty." 

 

DON'T PANIC. The follow-up words are summarized thusly: "I don't think the crunchy, ugly, non-melodic, serial works of the early 20th century are 'pretty,' I just find them 'interesting,' which I would take over 'pretty' any day of the week."  AND, more importantly, "Pretty music does not automatically equate to good music." These statements were made after many gasps gasped & pearls clutched, and more minutes of my heavy breathing into a paper bag (j/k that's hyperbole...).

 

Now, I have many issues with the term atonal and the connotations it has acquired, and it carries a very specific meaning to me as an educated musician, which is why I was so scandalized by the original statement. It seems that it is almost always used as a damnation, spat out of the mouths of folks who don't like a certain style or sound world (as if the term meant a rejection of pleasing beauty: "anti-tonal," if you will). The problem here is that the condemners are using a very general term to refer to a very specific aesthetic. Since it is the negative form of the word, I think it prudent to define what it means to be "tonal" in the first place. A quick refresher: tonality is a system for manipulating chords into a progression that manages tension and release. The defining element is the concept of functionality - each chord is placed within the sequence to aid the progression to greatest tension into final release. Thus, atonal music is simply music that does not possess this functional quality, and creates tension and release in other ways.

 

 

Guess what: Irish folk songs aren't functionally tonal. Much film music is built on gestures and non-progressive chords. Gregorian chant and the gorgeous pieces of the renaissance are atonal (literally written before tonality was even a thing). If you, dear reader, have never heard Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending or Five Variations of 'Dives and Lazarus', listen immediately, before you go any further. Both of these works are modal, not functionally tonal. Or, for something from the last 20 years, Sir John Taverner's 2002 work Mother and Child is one of my weaknesses, and he barely uses triadic chords, much less in a functional progression. There is so much music that is absolutely STUNNING that does not require this particular harmonically-driven tension and release. I understand not finding works of Boulez or Berg or Bartok or Foss or Schwantner or Stockhausen and even Schoenberg *beautiful* in terms of convention, pleasing classical styles, and moving progression-based tradition. But using "atonal" to curse a piece of music is like using the word "brick" to curse a building. There are an infinite number of ways one can use bricks in a structure; "brick" is just a set of materials, much like "atonal" is just a category. 

 

Marques and I came to a resting point in the discussion. HOWEVER, it was the second episode in this now long-winded tale that gets to the heart of the matter:

 

Once upon a time Marques and I were taking about this again, and I mentioned Berio's Sinfonia, the third movement of which is one of my all-time favorites. I find it to be a brilliant exposition of virtuosic craft as well as an overwhelmingly interesting (there's that word again) piece. While not wholly "beautiful" per se, the few moments of pristine clarity in the midst of the tumult have beauty by comparison. So, I found a recording of Boulez conducting Chicago (linked above). And I made the mistake of scrolling through the comments. And I happened upon one Roland Buck, who opened with this claim:

 

"The second half of the 20th century was a dark age in classical music. The music was atonal, serialist, harshly dissonant, and soullessly abstractionist. For want of a better term, I will call this kind of music "20th Century Modernist." This music is boring and unpleasant and concert audiences hated and hate it. It almost killed classical music. Berio and Boulez are two of the worst malefactors who imposed this kind of "music" on concert audiences. Fortunately the 20th century is over and 20th Century Modernist music is rapidly becoming old hat. Young composers are again composing music that is consonant, tonal in the broad sense, and has powerful, often beautiful melodies. Look for example at one of Berios' students, Ludovico Einaudi.  21st century music is on the way of being very different and much better than the music written during the dark age. (Actually Max Richter is a better example.)"

[the hyperlinks are mine in case you fine folks aren't familiar]

 

Unsurprisingly, this instigated an avalanche of opinion volleyball between him and several others. Feel free to read the full exchange using the link provided above, but the gist is that Mr. Buck is strongly of the belief that only "broadly" tonal music is good music. Aside from the standard grievances against "atonal" music being sharp, ugly, and "soullessly abstractionist", there was one comment that opened an entirely different can of worms:

 

"A necessary condition for music to be good music is that it has to stimulate the pleasure center of people's brains. If it does not do so, it is not good music."

 

<deep breaths>

 

He qualifies this statement by claiming his "broadly tonal" music to bring universal pleasure and that "soullessly abstractionist" music to bring universal displeasure, with which I wholeheartedly disagree. But I think, in a way, he isn't wrong: at its core, music is an art form, an expression of ourselves as human beings. We create art to communicate that which language cannot, and to invite our audience into a world outside of their own. For me as a human being, I'm fascinated by other human beings, and becoming familiar with another's art is to become familiar with them beyond a Facebook page or a coffee date. So, is the purpose of music to stimulate pleasure centers of the brain? Maybe this is a bit narrow. But another's artistry, in whatever form it takes, stimulates my pleasure centers. I am pleased when I recognize a high level of craft and ingenuity and honesty and passion, whether or not I like the art itself.

 

Where Mr. Buck falls short, I think, is the false belief that him "liking" a piece of music is the same as it being a "good" piece of music; and specifically his abuse of the term "atonal," especially when it is used as evidence to support a claim that a piece of music is bad. The truth is, good and bad are relative - one can make these judgements based on interpretations of objective evidence. Like & dislike are personal - they can come from any metrics one wishes. The term "atonal" merely helps describe, categorize, and discuss a piece. Ergo, pleasure or displeasure do not equate to good or bad. Craft is a separate judgement from like or dislike. "Good music" has any number of definitions, and any number of validations for those definitions, and any evidence can be used for backing up any side. All of it ( All. Of. It ) is a matter of perspective.

 

I'm interested in your thoughts, dear readers. Am I wrong in any of this? Do YOU have any pieces you dislike that would be considered "good music" or vice versa? (We all like some bad music, let's be real.)  I realize this debate is neither new nor any closer to being "resolved", if even it can be. I do know that open-mindedness is a powerful thing, and that sometimes newness can change our ways of thinking just as it can reinforce that which we already believe.

 

What do you think?

 

My love as always.

 

Kevin

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