Saturday, November 14, 2015

Kyle Gann on how atonality in music as an expression of anxiety--

As Philomel, Sinfonia, Gruppen, and Piccola Musica Notturna show, even 12-tone organization is not the issue. It strikes me that the deciding factor is whether or not the listener senses that there is some organizational factor that you’re supposed to be hearing that can’t be located by ear, whether the meaning of the piece is buried somewhere underneath the surface. That quality seems to be more what Holland objects to about Perle than the mere lack of tonality. I was dumbfounded by the quotation Alex Ross in his book unearthed from Boulez; asked why the serial pieces of the ’50s never became standard repertoire, the meister admitted, “Perhaps we didn’t pay enough attention to how people listen.” In general, and as evinced by a thousand film scores, atonality tends to express anxiety, and much of the music, like Sun-Treader, that freely acquiesces to that is extremely effective. But Wolpe’s output is Exhibit A that music can be relentlessly atonal and also whimsical, jaunty, and attractive.

The way Leonard Meyer put it half a century ago was that the problem total serial music was facing was that understanding the rules of the precompositional process was not the same thing as understanding the end result.  You can't any more appreciate a piece of serial music because you have grasped the tone row than you will appreciate Beethoven's Eroica simply because you know what the key of E flat is.

Gann's pointed out the obvious, but as a teacher of mine used to put it, don't underestimate the obvious.  Atonality has been great as expressing emotions like dread and anxiety and fear.  Erwartung isn't exactly camping out in the emotional/social realms of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

As polemics go, though, there's another polemic that can be made and has been made about when atonality does and doesn't stick but we may save that for some other post.


CoffeeMatt said...

I've long thought that atonal serial music was (analogically at least) parasitic upon non-serial tonal music. That is, like the devil's work, it is the twisting of the natural created order rather than some new innovative thing. Film score composers, ever practical rather than philosophical, came to realize this and put it to good use, writing anxiety and even schizophrenia-inducing soundtracks when appropriate. As you said in your example, being able to discern the tone-row doesn't get you any further than realizing the Eroica is in Eb. I've always been astounded when academics wonder aloud why nobody wants to listen to serial music. The obvious answer (that it makes them feel like crap!) seems to always escape them.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Taruskin's argument has been that the early atonalists can't be understood without looking at the explicitly mystical and religious/apocalyptic beliefs they had that motivated their work.

For instance, Taruskin proposed that whatever flaws you might find in Messiaen's music his Catholicism was not in question. In Defining Russia Musically Taruskin proposed that the apocalyptic hopes of a Scriabin or a Schoenberg have to be born in mind. They believed they had a divine mission and transcending tonality was in some sense a glimpse into the divine that transcended conventional human understanding. If Francis Schaeffer had ever committed to understanding the atonalists on their own terms he might have proposed that the early atonalists were above the line of despair, questing for a transcendentalist artistic experience not communicable by language.