Thursday, December 18, 2014

800 Words: A New Tonality - A Bad Composer's Manifesto pt. 1

So what’s Evan been doing instead of blogging?

Well, he’s been trying to write music. Writing music involves mostly looking at internet gifs, until an idea comes his way, and he writes jots it down, one cool chord at a time. Sometimes it’s just one cool chord a day if he’s lucky.

I write music so that I can hear the music I want to listen to. As I’ve too often said, popular music went in one direction, classical music went in another, and the two had the kind of divorce that requires restraining orders. Today, they live on opposite sides of the earplanet. One side of music, not just what we think of as classical music, involves extreme complexity of the type which announces that it is above the din of mass crap - which is very nearly the same as announcing that it’s as much a slave to it as anyone who thinks music begins and ends with Taylor Swift. The other involves extreme simplicity - the reassurance that everything is awesome, nothing but earwigs, a weightless one-dimensional product designed to assure the consumer that his spirit needs no challenging examination. The true challenge to a general public is ignored, and what’s left will be unmemorable to public past the one they had. I know that every generation believes itself the last wave of greatness, but I can’t help wondering that with the death of Alfred Schnittke, Western Classical Music lost its final giant. We have a number of promising little leaguers, but even among the older generation, is there a single composer today whose work can reliably make us both laugh and cry aloud? We still have at least a few musicians in other genres who can - Stephen Sondheim, Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Tom Waits - but songwriter is something so different from music that the two genres deserve completely different terms. One is music, the other is something else, perhaps equally great in its way, but not music as it used to be understood.

So it’s time to put up or shut up. Show people how to write the kind of music you want to hear. what’s that music?

Well, start with this: composers have lost sight of one of the only two weapons in their arsenal that no other musical genre can touch for interest. While the desire to create new forms of music, both in the temporal sense and in the sense of new instruments, is thriving as much as ever before, the desire to create new harmonies is moribund. We’re fundamentally either stuck in the three-chord American popular vernacular, or drowning in the atonal soup. In its place is a passion for rhythm.

I have nothing against rhythm, I love a good beat as much as anyone else. But we’re inundated by rhythm, saturated by it. Rhythm is order, and the easily accessible rhythm of the American popular tradition is what revs us up to go in the morning, propels us through our work days, and gives us the energy to go out at night. Anything that isn’t animated by a commanding beat reminds us of the fundamental fact of our lives - that we’re exhausted, and something more contemplative will put most people to sleep. In a world where every option is available to us, what chance is there to reflect on them?

Harmony is the haunting flavors of our earpallete that open up when we are able to examine our lives. Every chord gives us its own emotion, its own sensation, a perfectly placed chord can build us up, destroy us, and build us up again. This series of sensations is called ‘harmonic rhythm.’ Every piece of Western Classical Music is its own harmonic drama, in which a tonality is met by a dominating opposite, with which it must do battle, and either emerge triumphantly from the struggle, or slump down in defeat.

But beginning perhaps with Mussorgsky, or perhaps as far back as Liszt or Wagner, or perhaps even with Glinka, a new tradition emerged. One who’s center of gravity was farther East than classical music’s main centers like Vienna, Munich, Leipzig, Prague, Rome, Venice, and Paris. In this version, development of harmony didn’t matter nearly as much, all that mattered was the harmony itself - free floating and able to be used for whatever poetic purpose the composer wished. No longer was tonality a kingdom on which warlords did battle, it was a republic in which all chords may have their voices heard if the composer so wished. But like all republics, the distance to autocracy is very closeby. What began as a republic became a totalitarian dictatorship masking itself with the temptation of a true democracy. In the world of atonality and especially serialism, no voice is heard but an unending sameness. Some particularly gifted composers are able to work such a system to their advantage, but why did they have to? Wouldn’t composers as gifted have created something far greater without so many strictures?

And so the great art of music, like its analogue counterparts of previous eras, went underground in Western Countries. Our greatest music is almost always more prized for for its electronically amplified lyrics than for its music, just as our greatest plays are movies, our greatest art is photography and animation, and perhaps our greatest novels are television shows.

No comments:

Post a Comment