Thursday, December 27, 2018

at Future Symphony Institute Roger Scruton makes a case for counterpoint as musical art and discipline

Now I differ with a couple of contributors to the Future Symphony Institute articles on a few things.  I disagree with John Borstlap on a few things, for instance, but I do appreciate the goal of working to sustain and continue what's colloquially known as the discipline of classical music. 

I can't help but suggest that the "non-imitative" contrapuntal writing of Charles Ives that a commenter going by Marc might be referencing would be called "quodlibet", a technique in which a number of traditional or popular melodies are juxtaposed in some humorous contrapuntal way.  Peter Burkholder has a superb book on Charles Ives and his musical borrowings I learned about through the blogging of Kyle Gann, to whom I feel a happy urge to thank since it was through him I learned of the book.

There have been a lot of cycles of fugues in 20th century up through our time.  Whether it's the cycle of preludes and fugues Zaderatsky composed on telegraph cards in the Gulag in the 1930s or Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis or the Shostakovich cycle or the Shchedrin cycle or more recent cycles by Henry Martin, Nikolai Kapustin or even more recently by Michelle Gorrell counterpoint is a discipline that spans the world.  Just in the last thirty some years there have emerged no less than half a dozen cycles of preludes and fugues for solo guitar, however belatedly these have emerged compared to keyboard-based precedents spanning from Bach to the present day.

It would be nice if the fugal idiom as practiced by Anton Reicha got a bit more attention, another composer whose work I learned about thanks to the blogging of Kyle Gann. 

I find myself disagreeing with Scruton and Borstlap about any number of things when they stay abstract but when Scruton gets more specific and concrete in his writing about music I am more apt to agree with him.  I thoroughly agree that musicians who steep themselves in the polyphonic traditions will benefit in the tools they learn for composing. 

If Scruton wanted to ... branch out a little bit, he could suggest that some rudimentary mastery of melodic line against melodic line is something we not only hear in the great composers of what's called classical music, it's also something we can hear in the more memorable entries in popular music.  There are moments of contrapuntal juxtapositions in Ellington works such as "Dusk", for instance, and polyphonic possibilities that are often latent but easy to discern in the works of Thelonious Monk.  Even if we cast the net into the waters of pop music there are antiphonal elements in songs by the Beatles and canonic and imitative passages in any number of songs by Stevie Wonder. 

In other words, whether fans of popular music may recognize it or not, there's contrapuntal traditions and practices even within popular song.  It may come more in the form of a call-and-response paradigm with Lennon and McCartney, for instance, but the principle of interlocking melodic fragments whose musical effect is more than the sum of separable parts can be heard. The end of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" is really full of different melodic riffs that relate to each other as subject to countersubject.  The voice-leading might not meet with the approval of 19th century era pedagogues but it would be useful to invoke a scornful warning from Haydn that there are a lot of pointless rules that aren't necessary for a person with a well-trained ear and a developed sense of taste.  In my personal pantheon of musical genius Haydn and Bach share the stage with Ellington, Monk, Joplin, Lamb and Stevie Wonder. 

Scruton is right to assert that the reasons counterpoint is thought to be antiquated are predicated on foundationally inaccurate claims about the history of the discipline and the nature of the materials with which the discipline is thought to be associated. 

Not that this could be be conveyed in a blog post but there's no reason you can't compose a fugue that has fully invertible triple counterpoint for a solo slide guitar.  This can be done.  It ... actually has been done ... and you can guess how I know that. 

Scruton stops short of an observation that I think needs to be highlighted about counterpoint as a compositional practice.  Counterpoint is not just about dropping one melodic line on top of another and having it "work".  Adorno was right to assert that this in itself was not why Bach was a master contrapuntist.  What J. S. Bach did in his expositions was to create interlocking sets of melodies from which everything that unfolded in the subsequent fugue emerged as the work moved along.  It was the organic emergence of developmental processes from the entwined melodic seeds of a subject and associated countersubjects that made Bach fugues what they were not "just" that Bach wrote good strict counterpoint. 

At another level counterpoint is challenging but rewarding as an art and a discipline of gestural transformation.  I love counterpoint so much I have considered writing some kind of primer on how to approach contrapuntal writing for the guitar and before any other considerations of the art I would say that a composer must first come to terms with the sheer number of possibilities a single gesture can have.  The art of gestural transformation precedes other aspects of the art.  The rules of counterpoint as they are traditional described let you know what kinds of things either sound unpleasant or, at a more bluntly practical level, are difficult perhaps to the point of not being worth doing in Western practice.  This does NOT mean they CAN'T be done, just that parallel perfect fifths introduces substantial challenges in intonation and pitch control for a group of singers with no instrumental accompaniment.  In a similar way, if we're talking Estonian or Latvian choral music parallel minor sevenths are not really a big problem they way they often are in a lot of Western vocal/choral traditions (with a likely exception being barbershop). 

In 2019 I hope to continue blogging through Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues.  Meanwhile, it's kind of nice to see Scruton addressing counterpoint as an art that is foundational to a lot of Western musical practices. 

I've been thinking about blogging about the fugal cycles of Zaderatsky, Martin, and Shchedrin over the last few years but I'm trying to stick to the Koshkin cycle and the German Dzhaparidze cycles since, as a guitarist and a composer, I think I might find it easier and more practical to advocate for contrapuntal music within my own instrumental field. 

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