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Ravels Radical Rivalry

The Future of Music

The Future of Music   

11 members have voted

  1. 1. Is Atonality dead (or at least dying off)?



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Not in the slightest. As we look for new ways to explore sound, tonality will be and is being stretched to its fullest potential. That's my somewhat biased opinion.

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Well, my biased opinion is that atonality can only interest the ear as long as it is a thing of pure mystery. I believe that we have overstayed our bounds in that practice and it is becoming weary. I think people are looking for reprieve in going back to some or all of the tenants of tonal music. I am not saying we are jumping ship and reversing course back to the old days hundreds of years ago. What I am saying is that we can look forward to new innovation in music that comes with lyrical and melodic writing with a tonal center and a lush or pleasing harmonic structure in whatever form that might take (the sky is the limit). 

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If the sky is the limit in the tonal direction, then the same can't be discounted for the atonal or experimental direction. I disagree that mystery is the defining aura factor of atonality, simply because atonal harmony (mostly atonal polyphony) has its own very important functional purpose. Defining timbre partials, and patterns makes it a wonderful thing to study. The beauty of it is the lack of traditional beauty.
That being said, there's no reason why one has to be totally disjunct from the other, as many composers have combined the two practices with terrific results. I'm a believer that they are wonderful compliments to each other, as well as both being beautiful art forms in and of themselves.

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I'd say it's on the decline at the moment but I don't expect it to go away.  That said, I think the days of the mid-twentieth century avant-garde's self-believed supremacy are gone for good, something for which I shed no tears at all.

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18 minutes ago, Monarcheon said:

If the sky is the limit in the tonal direction, then the same can't be discounted for the atonal or experimental direction. I disagree that mystery is the defining aura factor of atonality, simply because atonal harmony (mostly atonal polyphony) has its own very important functional purpose. Defining timbre partials, and patterns makes it a wonderful thing to study. The beauty of it is the lack of traditional beauty.
That being said, there's no reason why one has to be totally disjunct from the other, as many composers have combined the two practices with terrific results. I'm a believer that they are wonderful compliments to each other, as well as both being beautiful art forms in and of themselves.

 

Well, I would say that it is all in the eye of the beholder and that it determines what we are after when we describe beauty. I might add that although I think that we are running away from atonality as a singular practice in a full sprint we may have discovered some sounds, techniques and ideas along the way while dabbling in that practice that could prove useful in future music. Overall though I think we are wanting to hear tonal melody and harmony and more of a traditional sense of direction and development again. I think stuff like Xenakis and Penderecki is an oddity. It was shocking or attention grabbing while it was fresh, but now that we have known that and become accustomed I think it is tiring and limiting.

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It sounds like atonality is being used as a placeholder for a whole bunch of ideas that spring from modernism: exploration of dissonance, non-triadic harmonies, disjunct melodies, rhythmic complexity, polytonality, etc. I can write a piece that lacks a tonic but uses nothing but lush triadic harmonies. It's tricky, since triads have expectations attached to them, but possible.

Now, do I think that modernism has less of a hold on concert music now than, say 30 years ago? Yes, absolutely. Coming from the wind ensemble world, the emergence of Frank Ticheli and Eric Whitacre as serious and respected composers is a reflection of this. Compare two works, one from 1950 and one from 2000:

Persichetti - Divertimento for Band (1950): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUO1AJ5lGmk

Whitacre - October (2000): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EoUAbODO34

The Persichetti, while not particularly dissonant or ugly, features polychords and other devices absent from the Whitacre.

But, to Monarcheon's point, the same composer now can draw from a variety of different sounds. Compare Ticheli's Postcard to his Rest. Completely different dialects, same person.

Postcard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pqcxw9grLig

Rest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMk_USP0jy0

1 hour ago, Ravels Radical Rivalry said:

Overall though I think we are wanting to hear tonal melody and harmony and more of a traditional sense of direction and development again.

I would ask at this juncture, who is we? Composers, concert musicians, people who listen to concert music, the public at large?

Addressing the various groups in turn, most of the public at large will struggle with concert music. The level of complexity and depth in even a Mozart or Haydn symphony is far greater than what one gets listening to pop music on the radio. Go back to the Baroque on the one hand or the late Romantic on the other and they'll be lost. Fact of life.

There is a significant subset of the public that will get concert music. Let's say 20%, give or take. Mozart and Haydn are easily accessible. Wagner is a stretch. Debussy is loved for his wonderful colors and textures. The Rite of Spring is about as much as they'll really be able to take. They tolerate things like Penderecki because they're told they should like it. This is the group that symphonies aim for when they program. Note that a lot of symphony orchestra programming is still pretty conservative.

I don't think it's possible to lump composers or concert musicians into a single we. Personally, I can listen to and enjoy everything from Mozart on the hand to Penderecki and Ferneyhough on the other. I don't necessarily want tonal music or traditional development, but neither do I have a prejudice against it. That, I believe, is the difference between today and the mid-20th Century. If Eric Whitacre writes October in 1950, he gets laughed at. He writes it in 2000, he gets lauded.

Nothing is going away, but we as composers have unparalled freedom to reach for the compositional tools that suit our needs. It is truly an exciting time to be writing music.

Edited by Adrian Quince

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49 minutes ago, Adrian Quince said:

I would ask at this juncture, who is we? Composers, concert musicians, people who listen to concert music, the public at large?

I wouldn't say composers in general is my "we". I would say a lot of composers are getting tired of being told they have to do certain things or are tired of being directed in a specific direction that favorites going against the norms of previous centuries. or I suppose that composers are also tired of organizations favoriting programming and commissioning music that fits a certain mold and I think that is waining anyways. I think in colors. I think some of them think in colors to. You want music that will open the mind -optimistic, exciting, colorful, positive, happy, touching, beautiful. You want things to sing to you. I don't think that in order to further our musical language and ideas we have to accept certain concepts of modernity or refuse certain concepts of traditional beauty. In other words, I don't think that modernism, atonalism or any of the concepts in between and potential creativity and beauty are exclusively singularly synonymous. There is a lot of dirge and noise coming out of the 20th century. Believe me, don't misquote or misunderstand what I am saying. I am a 20th century kind of guy, but that doesn't mean that I don't recognize that the majority of what was held in esteem and considered the revolutionary ideas of music of the time was just a load of garbage (excuse my intentionally censored french). I don't understand the thinking that doesn't allow for traditional concepts to be used in different manners for revolutionarily incredible new music. It is possible to do this. It is being done. 

I would say that my "we" is just in general anyone who listens to a higher musical form. Anyone. People who listen to and enjoy Beethoven's symphonies. People who listen to Barber's adagio. People who love the opera. People who can find peace and serenity in some of Messiaen's music. In a living room, in a concert hall, in the bathtub or in a studio punching out ideas. My "we" is people who want accessible music that speaks to them. It is not glorified pop. It is not watered down requiems. It is just stuff that sings and brings excitement. That is not limiting. People are tired of composers trying to shove Metastasis, Black Angels or Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima down their throats. 

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1 minute ago, Ravels Radical Rivalry said:

I don't understand the thinking that doesn't allow for traditional concepts to be used in different manners for revolutionarily incredible new music.

That thinking was a product of the 20th Century and it is rightfully dying. I'm going to quote myself here for a moment, emphasis added:

"I don't necessarily want tonal music or traditional development, but neither do I have a prejudice against it. That, I believe, is the difference between today and the mid-20th Century. If Eric Whitacre writes October in 1950, he gets laughed at. He writes it in 2000, he gets lauded."

The philosophy of modernism is dying, if not dead, yet the tools remain behind and useful for the right situation.

5 minutes ago, Ravels Radical Rivalry said:

There is a lot of dirge and noise coming out of the 20th century. Believe me, don't misquote or misunderstand what I am saying. I am a 20th century kind of guy, but that doesn't mean that I don't recognize that the majority of what was held in esteem and considered the revolutionary ideas of music of the time was just a load of garbage (excuse my intentionally censored french).

When it comes to the 20th century, especially concert music from 1950-present, we do not have the benefit of history and generations of people before us to help sort the diamonds from duds. Look back at the second, third, and fourth tier composers from the various eras. There is, was, and forever will be a lot of dreck being produced. Some of that dreck will come into fashion for a brief moment, then fall out again.

I'm going to be critical for a moment of someone who's very popular in symphony circles right now: Mason Bates. I find his music to be, for want of a better term, musical junk food. It takes the surfaces of orchestral music, combines it with some accessible electronic sounds, and voila, it puts butts in the seats of the concert hall. When I look beyond that for anything deeper and more profound, I find nothing. If there is another layer to his music, it escapes me.

Will anyone be listening to Mason Bates a century from now? I doubt it. The point is never to confuse fashion with wisdom, especially in music.

20 minutes ago, Ravels Radical Rivalry said:

People are tired of composers trying to show Metastasis, Black Angels or Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima down their throats.

I'm going to have to defend one work that has particular resonance with me since I am part Japanese. Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is harsh, jarring, ugly, and pretty much every epithet one can hurl at a modern work. It is also a perfect artistic impression of its subject.

What exactly should a piece of music about an event that vaporized 20,000 people in a second and killed 100,000 more through burns and radiation poisoning sound like? It is not, nor is it intended to be, listenable. It is intended to force the listener to contemplate the consequences of the most frightening technology ever developed in the history of mankind. It turns the unimaginable into a visceral sonic punch to the gut. It forces the listener to think about the fact that we have developed, and used, a piece of technology capable of eradicating all life on the planet Earth in a matter of minutes. When I think about the magnitude of that, it occurs to me that Threnody may not be dissonant enough.

That said, both the piece and the train of though that goes along with it are best approached occasionally. It is a heavy piece for a heavy event--a musical outlier for (hopefully) a historical outlier.

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18 minutes ago, Adrian Quince said:

I'm going to be critical for a moment of someone who's very popular in symphony circles right now: Mason Bates. I find his music to be, for want of a better term, musical junk food. It takes the surfaces of orchestral music, combines it with some accessible electronic sounds, and voila, it puts butts in the seats of the concert hall. When I look beyond that for anything deeper and more profound, I find nothing. If there is another layer to his music, it escapes me.

Will anyone be listening to Mason Bates a century from now? I doubt it. The point is never to confuse fashion with wisdom, especially in music.

1 hour ago, Ravels Radical Rivalry said:

Yeah, Mason Bates hasn't been one of my examples of positively encouraging, profound music from this era. Mason Bates to me might be a tad enjoyable sometimes, but is essentially that glorified pop that I mentioned earlier. There are pieces that get recognition that I haven't found any substance in. There is one that skimmed the surface of my radar though. Just not a huge fan yet. 

 

18 minutes ago, Adrian Quince said:

I'm going to have to defend one work that has particular resonance with me since I am part Japanese. Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is harsh, jarring, ugly, and pretty much every epithet one can hurl at a modern work. It is also a perfect artistic impression of its subject.

What exactly should a piece of music about an event that vaporized 20,000 people in a second and killed 100,000 more through burns and radiation poisoning sound like? It is not, nor is it intended to be, listenable. It is intended to force the listener to contemplate the consequences of the most frightening technology ever developed in the history of mankind. It turns the unimaginable into a visceral sonic punch to the gut. It forces the listener to think about the fact that we have developed, and used, a piece of technology capable of eradicating all life on the planet Earth in a matter of minutes. When I think about the magnitude of that, it occurs to me that Threnody may not be dissonant enough.

I would be fine in your defense and your reason for doing so if we were on agreement that this piece is actually music. I think if you want to say that this piece scores the event it references very well with noises and sounds then I would give you that. It is a good representation in noise of the harshness and total destruction of the event, but it isn't music. It serves as a single medium score or soundtrack. Void of images or film it is kind of silly. This is my opinion though. I would like to put forth a contrasting piece for a similar idea. The bombings in Hiroshima were awful. The attack on 9/11 was awful as well. Two equally devastating events in human history. However, we have two pieces depicting these events. We have Penderecki's Threnody and we have John Adam's Transmigration of Souls. In my opinion two drastically different approaches and results. Adam's piece is hauntingly gorgeous. It is almost too much to handle. It evokes the memories and the emotions of the event and the devastation that was felt by the entire country but also specifically the individual victims. It also pays very respectful homage to those victims. It is monumental. It is astonishing. It is magnificent music with direction and purpose. I don't think the same of Penderecki's piece. Adam's piece accomplishes that perfect artistic impression of subject manner while still remaining art and music and not just noise.  

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1 minute ago, Ravels Radical Rivalry said:

I would be fine in your defense and your reason for doing so if we were on agreement that this piece is actually music. I think if you want to say that this piece scores the event it is references very well with noises and sounds then I would give you that. It is a good representation in noise of the harshness and total destruction of the event, but it isn't music. It serves as a single medium score or soundtrack. Void of images or film it is kind of silly. This is my opinion though. I would like to put forth a contrasting piece for a similar idea. The bombings in Hiroshima were awful. The attack on 9/11 was awful as well. Two equally devastating events in human history. However, we have two pieces depicting these events. We have Penderecki's Threnody and we have John Adam's Transmigration of Souls. In my opinion two drastically different approaches and results. Adam's piece is hauntingly gorgeous. It is almost too much to handle. It evokes the memories and the emotions of the event and the devastation that was felt by the entire country but also specifically the individual victims. It also pays very respectful homage to those victims. It is monumental. It is astonishing. It is magnificent music with direction and purpose. I don't think the same of Penderecki's piece. Adam's piece accomplishes that perfect artistic impression of subject manner while still remaining art and music and not just noise. 

This touches on a fundamental question: What is music?

For the purpose of the discussion, let me propose as objective a definition as I find possible: Sound and silence organized relative to the dimensions of time and/or pitch by a conscious mind to express an artistic intent. This excludes prose and poetry, as they do not have a specific relation to time or pitch, and also excludes technical organizations of sound, such as dial tones or modem signals.

It also brings along an interesting edge case: Is 4'33" music? There is no organized sound in the work, only a dictated period in which no sound is to be intentionally created. Logically, this means that every moment of silence in human history is also a piece of music. This, personally, I cannot accept. But enough dancing on the knife's edge...

By the proposed definition, Threnody would definitely be music. There's sound, there's silence, and it's organized to express an artistic intent.

This brings us to the next question, inside the objective definition, how do we personally differentiate music from noise? This is where the ability and willingness of the listener to engage with the principle of organization in the work come into play. The ability part mainly comes from education and past exposure. If I take a four-year-old and put on the chaotic part of The Rite of Spring, they would likely find it as objectionable as you find Threnody. The organizing principle behind the music is beyond their education and experience.

The willingness to engage with a piece of music is more interesting to me, as I see it having both physiological and psychological dimensions. Certain reactions are hardwired into the human nervous system. Dissonant sounds excite a nervous response. Loud sounds excite a nervous response. Each person has an innate level of stimulation that they can experience before it becomes "too much". This level can be increased to a degree by education and experience, but there will always be some people for whom certain sounds are simply overwhelming.

There's a parallel here between music and food, at least food here in California. There's been a distinct trend in food the last few years to make everything hotter and spicier. Give me hot and spicy and I'm really uncomfortable for the rest of the day. My body just revolts, despite my repeated attempts to expose myself of hotter and spicier foods on the theory that I will develop a palette for them.

Another dimension to the willingness to engage a piece of music is the listener's opinion of the validity of the organizing principle. One might tolerate the sounds of a work but still think the principle by which it is organized is bogus.

In the case of a piece like Threnody, one's willingness to consider it music (or not) speaks less to the work and more to the listener. That is a wonderful thing! What a dull, dimensionless existence this would be if all seven billion people on the planet thought the same thing about everything.

On a side note, I would invite you to consider for a moment that the implications of the bombing of Hiroshima and the 9/11 attacks for the future of the human race could not be more different. I do not mean at all here to diminish the lives lost in the 9/11 attacks or to imply that the were not a grave crime against humanity. If anything, 9/11 has touched me much more personally as I was alive when it happened and know people who lost loved ones. That said, Hiroshima is a moment of unparalleled historical significance, a point of no return. It is the culmination of half a millennium of better killing through science that stretches all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci. Never again will the human race live without the specter of being wiped out in a matter of minutes. The 9/11 attacks, while tragic, do not carry the same dire implications for the continued existence of the human beings as a species.

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My grand prediction is as follows:

 

People will continue to do whatever they want in the future and this includes writing music you don't like.

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