Tonality and surprise

12 Tone music is dead.

Yeah, right….

Given the fact that the stats, email and the comment page tell me that my rather arcane post on tonality from Saturday is one of the most read and discussed posts I’ve ever done here, I would say that this music still has almost unlimited power to inflame, incite and challenge the imagination…

I’ve been finding myself gradually creeping intuitively towards a new path that I find helpful in better understanding serial music, which is that I want to be more honest and thorough in understanding what it isn’t and what this language doesn’t do, and in doing so, perhaps I, as a performer can better understand what it is and how it works.

The very fact that nothing in music gets people so fired up as serialism is still, for me, one of the most important arguments for its relevance. That power of fascination is at the heart of so much art since 1900.

Anyway…. I just wanted to come back to tonality a bit more. Everyone who has seen it remembers the original Star Trek episode with the parallel universe, where Kirk finds himself in the cosmos with the ruthless Spock and the barbaric Federation, right??? The idea is simple- placed in another universe, the same things (Kirk, Spock), exhibit a nature contradictory to their behaviour on a familiar one.

This is the essential attraction of tonality, of keys, of tonal centers. A key is a universe- move the same note or the same interval to another key, and the same material has a different meaning. A leap from g to c in C major means something quite different than in E minor. What about the same two notes in E-flat major? Same pitch set, same interval, same interval vector, but place it in a different universe, and it means something different, which means our expectation of what might follow it will be completely different. Whether the composer chooses to fulfil our defy our expectation, the ability to create expectation, and quite sophisticated expectation at that, is about as powerful a compositional tool as one could ever have, and I’m not sure that serial music, whether that of Schoenberg or Boulez or Dallapiccola or Webern really has kept that tool in the tool box.

Remember, one of the early ideas in serial music was that to liberate music from the restraints of tonality, one should generally avoid intervals associated with tonal arrival and expectation- avoid thirds and sixths in favour of seconds and sevents. Tritones are good, but they can never resolve inward to thirds! It’s been called the liberation of dissonance, but it could also be called the elimination of expectation.

I  tried to talk on Saturday about the how the elimination of tonality makes it hard to organize forms on a large scale. The obvious example is progressive tonality as found in Mahler- one could not begin to construct a form on the scale of the Second Symphony without keys. The keys are the form in that piece, and how amazing that in a symphony in C minor, he’s able to wait an hour and ten minutes before giving us our first cadence in the relative major of E-flat!

The example I gave above shows the problem of creating phrases and rhetoric on a much smaller scale. Haydn and Wagner might be the greatest masters of playing with expectation in tonal music. I’ve written here many times about the fallacy of Haydn as the ultimate arbiter of normality- again and again we here people say, “normally, in, say, a Haydn symphony, the music would do this,” but Haydn almost never does what one expects. He is simply without peer in creating expectation then suspending it. Both Haydn and Wagner play with my example above in remarkably similar ways. Play the two notes- G and C, then make the audience wait, perhaps interject a commentary in another voice. Their expectation may be that this strong rising fourth surely implies C major, and that therefore, we are establishing a tonic, but any number of things are possible. Perhaps Haydn repeats those two notes again. Perhaps the audience assumes this is a way of reiterating the strength of that implied tonic? Then, after a third repetition, we might finally get a chord, but not C major, try B7! The C over the B7 creates a wonderful, very dark b9 chord, and then you can just walk down by step from the C back to the G and resolve the B7 to E minor. Wagner would do the exact same thing but resolve the 7th chord deceptively….

Now, just think about how that harmonization would shape the audience’s expectation of what they will hear next anytime they hear a fourth in that piece! The composer may NEVER AGAIN harmonize that interval in the same way, but once heard like this, all future expectations in the music have to be changed!

In the 20th C. it became fashionable to refer to common practice (tonal) music as music in which certain rules limit the composer- Chord A or Interval X “have” to resolve to Chord B or Interval Y. The Liberation of Dissonance, Debussy, the musical history of the entire 20th C all mean that Chord A can now go anywhere, that Interval X can go anywhere. The problem is that, within stylistic boundaries, that’s always been true. Chord A was always free to go just about anywhere, but that first, generally speaking, it created an EXPECTATION in you, the listener, that it would go to Chord B.

Haydn makes you think that what goes up must come down, but then shows you that what goes up may turn left.

In its obsession with avoiding the cliché, in avoiding the predictable, serial music risks losing the possibility of the unpredictable. If you cannot generate expectation, you cannot unleash surprise.

Boulez, who as a performer has become just as ardent a champion of Mahler and Bruckner as he has been of Nono and Stockhausen, once said “Classical tonal thought is based on a world defined by gravitation and attraction, serial thought on a world which is perpetually expanding.” I would respectfully say that he has slightly missed the mark in his description of tonality. It might be more accurate to say that classical tonal thought expresses the relationships of different tonal worlds (as opposed to a single world), of nearby planets and distant galaxies and the ways in which their movements and behaviors are dictated by gravitation and attraction- the gravitational pull between D and A major are very different from that between D and Bb Major. But then, I come back to the idea of parallel universes, because if keys were merely worlds, then the laws of physics in each one would remain the same- in every world, what goes up comes down, but in tonal music the expectation, the very laws of musical physics, change depending on what key you are in. The what goes up must come down in C major, perhaps, but in A flat, what goes up may well keep going up or turn right or boil or solidify….

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

PS- Equal temperament sucks!

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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6 comments on “Tonality and surprise”

  1. composerbastard

    ComposerBastard just spilt his coffee…and wishes to write more on this matter in the future…

    But will wait…

    Perhaps I have listened to far too much Debussy and Sibelius, but I no longer hear the weight of V-I resolutions. And I no longer hear atonality anymore…What to do?

    I hear worlds, but not the way you want me to. You’re not the boss of me…Mr Shoe-berg…

    But…lots of lubly useful things came out of 12T. yesyes.

    Serial – = series. Not just 12T
    Set – = Any group of pc’s. Not just 12T
    Transformations – P I R RI or Tn or TnI or MI etc
    and a deep sense of intervalic repetition and variation
    which doenst really matter though
    because Cog Sci has brought out some truth on the matter…
    instead of being influenced by artistic political processes of German Right and Left during 1928
    it seeks the reality through scientific measurement and controls
    because the brain is a wonderful thing if you trust and understand it
    just dont let it drive drunk on the systematic politica of 12T or diatonic common practice theory
    when it can take care of itself quite fine with imaginative creative musical thoughts…and a good beer

    — ComposerBastard

  2. John

    Perhaps my reply on Saturday wasn’t very clear. I’m in no way against the innovations of the 2nd Viennese masters and their followers. I do believe that Serial music “HAD” to happen. Expressionism had taken itself to the breaking point, and there was no where else to go – Boulez certainly proved how FAR it could go (by the way – have you seen Boulez conduct Mozart’s Piano concerto #21 with the Berlin Phil? My dad bought it on DVD a while back – It’s a great example of economy of gesture I tell you – I show it to all my conducting students – hard to believe it was from the same man who coined “total serialism” – by I digress). However, yes, I agree – there is NO argument that can take away from its relevance in the discourse of Music History. Just as there is no argument that can take away from John Cage in later post WW II Avant-Guard.

    I’m wondering about the word “Tonal” now. What is the definition? Not the text-book definition, but our “ear’s” definition. Switching from Boulez back to Debussy makes Debussy’s music feel as tonal a Bach chorale. Perhaps the pedal points, parallel chord structure and harmonic/rhythmic ostinatos assist with this – even though most of his music lacks a tonal centre – is it truly “atonal”? I have a hard time associating that term with his music – I reserve it for Schoenberg, Berio, Langlais, Messiaen even.

    I fully agree with composerbastard’s comments above – a lot of great things came from serialism – and dodecaphonia. Many MANY composers have proved they can use these tools to create “good music” Some have even used them successfully to mimic “tonality”, fooling the listeners ears into believing there is a tonic – even if the tonic moves every few bars.

    All this before breakfast … a little too much to handle – where did I put my Frank Martin CD anyway?

  3. ComposerBastard

    If you are confused…think about poor little composerbastard who feels pulled apart by so many subcultures he didn’t ask for when coming into this musical world to just writ egood nursery tunes…

    Of course CB maybe enjoyed a friday night zen video a bit too much right now…


    which will take away all this posturing and maybe make one smile…I highly recommend it.

    CB is especially confused because of the nature of how acoustical phenoma influences pitch centricity. Especially in the sub / tartani tone vibrations produced by multiple tone and overtones playing against each other at once…which forms a wonderful root waaay below the surface (depending on the acoustics of the hall you are playing in)…

    12T and that whole germanic world probably belongs in the context of the historical – meaning it was a natural reaction to the Euro-political events of that time. Ist it anachronistic or even helpful to dig it up and transport it by ship and plant it in the new world, outside of its original historical purpose and reference?

    I dunno…set theory is such a natural language for me but a wild exciting horsie ride that I always have to reign in…But I really get annoyed by all the cynicism and jelousy in all music – art or popular – so I just stay away and try and get my work done. If its a good musical system and a fun one…use your composerbastard skills to reinvent it

  4. Jen

    What I really want to know is where are the great minds that are working on the Replicator from Star Trek? You know, the thing that magically produces food with a simple voice command?

  5. composerbastard

    I digress…after ipod brahms

    I now believe you can write just about anything using any system or aesthetic, and Emil Gilels can make good music out of it…

  6. DmichaelE

    The concept of attraction is rooted in the very natural phenomenon of polarity. The Chinese were on to this eons ago (yin/yang) in their philosophical views/understandings of the cosmos. Music was just another manifestation of that principle. Ancient Chinese texts refer to music being born out of “two poles.”

    The consonance-dissonance factor in tonality resonates on a very deep macrocosmic level. Polarity is the stuff of quantum mechanics in physics, sexuality—just about everything. Atonal music tends to neuter the natural tensions that are so prevalent in tonality and as a result the anticipatory and attractive aspects you speak of are less distinct and less perceptible. The “emancipation of dissonance” has factored greatly into that reality, imo.

    When I attended Boulez’s IRCAM concerts in NY in 1986 I remembered him saying how any attempt to make the past seem important is nothing but a ruse. Now he’s conducting a Mahler cycle for DG, so I guess even Pierre has come around.

    Yesterday I pulled out my scores to Webern’s 5 & 6 Pieces for Orchestra and gave a listen after quite a few years—marvelously interesting. But listening to Mahler’s 2nd tonight (Ivan Fischer’s fine new account) and I’m thinking, I’d rather be inspired by music than merely interested in it.
    Tonality still rules.


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