Ignoring Progress

The other day on New Music Box some guy, a young guy I presumed, characterized composers who write tonal music as having ignored all the progress made in the 20th century. That was certainly the kneejerk complaint my old-fart college professors were making in 1975 when minimalism first reared its diatonic head. It didn’t take too many years for the charge to get laughed out of court, so I’m always surprised to hear of someone still learning it in school now – like those Japanese soldiers stranded on desert islands who went months without hearing that World War II had ended.

The new course I’m teaching that I wrote about recently is titled “Progress Versus Populism in 20th-Century Music.” It describes classical and postclassical music since 1913 as racked between two contradictory convictions. One is the idea that music should continually increase in subtlety and sophistication, each new generation learning everything that came before and moving continually forward in a linear evolution. The other is the idea that music not understandable by untrained listeners is elitist and therefore politically suspect; that by appealing only to the super-educated it marginalizes itself and becomes safe, soaking up cultural resources without doing anything to break down the advantages that the elites – financial, corporate, cultural, and otherwise – have over the common man.

Notice that these two convictions do not directly contradict each other. The belief that music should continally become more subtle and complex – though where that “should” acquires its moral force is difficult to ascertain – does not deny the proposition that complex music removes itself from the sphere of political action. One can believe that music should remove itself from political action. But the way I’m characterizing the first two thirds of the century is that, for those decades, the contradiction seemed unresolvable. In 1933 – which, as a historian, I see as the year of the century’s most abrupt and diametrical change in musical attitudes, at least in America, the year that the repercussions of the stock market crash began to affect American lives in a widespread way – the idea of writing complex, dissonant, increasingly shocking music became about as totally discredited as an aesthetic attitude can become. It became “self-indulgent.” Every American composer who continued writing in the Depression simplified his or her style to reach out to the masses, starting with Copland’s El Salon Mexico. Some of the composers most committed to modernity, like Crawford, Rudhyar, Varèse, and Arthur Berger, temporarily ceased composing. Others, like Cowell, Antheil, and John Becker, felt forced to switch to an undistinguished conservatism. Those who managed to simplify their styles without weakening their music (or who were already writing simple music anyway), like Copland, Thomson, Barber, and Harris, took over the lead. Interestingly, Soviet composers of the same era had the exact same change forced on them by governmental fiat. Later, after the next war led to an era of financial prosperity, between 1948 and 1960, a tremendous countercharge swung the pendulum back toward complexity and increasing sophistication, in both America and Europe.

In any case, it seemed a foregone conclusion in those post-1920s decades that one could not be both politically and musically progressive. One either believed in participating publicly in musical life by writing music for the masses or in retreating from public presence by writing the most sophisticated music possible and hoping that society would eventually catch up. Political convictions and musical aspirations became extremely difficult to reconcile.

Around 1960, however, an interesting new possibility seemed to open up – at least that’s the way a lot of composers I know saw it. Minimalism, at least once its early, noisy, austere phase was over (by 1967), was certainly a move toward widespread understandability. It also made claims in terms of musical progressivism. The “metamusic” in those early Steve Reich pieces began to elicit subtle new listening modes not known before. Process pieces by Philip Glass and gradually retuning continua by Phill Niblock stretched musical perception – just as serialism had stretched musical perception, though in a different direction, one not closed off to the lay listener. Many composers, like this guy at New Music Box, denied that returning to pitch simplicity in any respect constituted a perceptual stretch. I remember a friend saying circa 1974 that he liked what Reich was doing in Piano Phase, but wished he had used more dissonant pitch sequences to make the point. For many of us, however, that phase of minimalism from 1967 to 1979 created a whole new perception of how music could be progressive and increasingly sophisticated without being elitist. Then Glass wrote Satyagraha and Reich wrote Desert Music, and those who saw minimalism as musically regressive seemed, for awhile, to have won their point.

But the seed had already been sown. For a lot of (you will excuse the term) Downtown composers, that 1964-to-1979 phase of minimalism was the movement’s only creatively exciting phase. By 1983, a small segment of the generation born in the ’50s had begun developing minimalist ideas in the direction of greater sophistication. Limitation of harmonic materials (either consonant or dissonant, it hardly mattered) allowed an increased focus on more interesting kinds of aural illusions. Rhythmic dissonance and formal process appeared to be more fertile avenues of new perception than intricately convoluted pitch structures. Elliott Carter-type rhythmic complexity, with no beat-grid to hear it against, seemed tame compared to beats at different tempos running at the same time. Though left in the lurch by minimalism’s subsequent development, we felt emboldened to believe that one wasn’t forced to choose between political and musical progressiveness. Employing electric guitars, drum beats, and other materials borrowed from pop music in processes derived from Nancarrow and the unrealized visions of Henry Cowell, we felt we could have it both ways at once.

And that will be the surprise ending of my course: that it just might be possible that the “versus” in “Progress versus Populism” can eventually be dissolved away.

Of course, the progress made by the totalists (as some of us call the rhythmically complex/harmonically simple composers who tried to have their cake and eat it too) has been ignored by the great majority of composers, who either never recognized the inherent political pitfalls of elitism or took a defeatist attitude toward them. And that’s the great tragedy – that the decisions get made by composers rather than by the public. The corporate dictatorship unleashed by Reagan’s policies drew a curtain between newly evolving music and the wider public, with the result that by the late 1980s we found that the audience for new music primarily consisted of fellow professionals – other composers.

Personally, I don’t write my music for composers. I don’t expect other composers to appreciate my music, and most don’t. There is no way I could impress, or would want to impress, composers superficially trained to make a kneejerk association of pitch complexity (even the watered-down, New Romantic type) with forward-looking musical thinking. The number of composers whose taste I trust enough to learn anything from their reactions to my music is relatively tiny – I could name them in a brief paragraph. Yet I learn tons from the reactions of colleagues in other fields, from unbiased listeners, from students, from nonmusicians who come up to me after concerts. Unfortunately, those people – whose perceptions I deliberately aim to expand and seduce, and who frequently express delight with what I’m doing – are not the people making decisions about what music gets supported. The world of new composition, of commissions and awards and grants that make creative work possible, is run by composers, the vast majority of whom have ignored the types of progress made by my kind of music, and who oppose its dissemination.

That’s been the tragedy of new music for more than 20 years. We invented a new music that we thought would create a new audience. Then our potential for influencing any mass audience (which Cardew accurately notes is the composer’s true means of production) was taken away by the corporate elites. It’s extremely difficult for us to understand how so many composers can cling to a musical elitism that is precisely analogous to the corporate, financial, and cultural elitism that keeps new music out of the public ear. That false conception of “musical progressivism” does seem tied to political regress, to an ultimately right-wing notion that only the experts should be in control. Society doesn’t need to “catch up” with our music – it only needs to hear it. And the composers commited to elitism, who would rather consolidate their power within the professional institutions than by eliciting love and admiration from audiences, prevent audiences from hearing it – on the grounds that it “ignores all the progress made in the 20th century.” It looks to me like they’re the ones ignoring the progress.

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Comments

  1. says

    Wonderful piece! It always seems to me that people who bash contemporary tonal music are confusing vocabulary with its usage. Condemning the use of triads and diatonic scales is roughly equivalent to declaring words like “and” or “go” obsolete. What makes a music fresh or not is the gestures, really, the contemporary vernacular way of putting materials together, regardless of the stylistic nature of said materials. If a composer blindly adheres to a vernacular from the distant past, and its accompanying gestures and modes of expression, it’s going to sound about as authentic as modern people speaking English like characters from Shakespeare, Jane Austen, or even 1940s slang.
    Anyone can fall into that trap, whether they’re a total serialist or neo-Romantic, and it’s equally possible to sound fresh whether the music is atonal or comepletely diatonic. In the end, the whole idea of “progress” is offputting, as if artistic development had ever been a straight line, free of deviations. I always try to get my analysis and history students to accept that progress is finite, and that only change is constant.

  2. Rodney Lister says

    Well, I’m not sure I know any composers who write their music for other composers, other than in the sense of the quote from Auden, running something like, “The poets ideal audience consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful, who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of state, and his fellow poets. The audience that the poet gets consists of pimply young men who eat in cafeterias, little old lady school teachers, and his fellow poets. So a poet can be said to write for his fellow poets.” I’m a little hard pressed, for reasons that you explain pretty well, I think, to see how anybody is getting their music heard all that much–whatever level of dissonance they happen to indulge in.
    A small, and insignificant, historical disagreement. Virgil didn’t, appreciably, simplify his style going into the 30′s. After all, Four Saints date from 1927 or 28. Neither, did Barber, who, after all was a fairly young man at that point. Barber, of course, did–an pretty self consciously, I think–complicate his music immediately post war, with mixed results, it seems to me–I think Medea, the song cycle in French, and the Excursion are all rather good pieces, but I’m less taken with the Piano Sonata and Nouveletta; I don’t really know the second symphony, but it doesn’t seem to have been especially successful; he withdrew it, after all.
    Virgil also complicated and chromaticized his music post war–but in a particularly personal way, it’s being all about triads which, every four, contain the whole chromatic. The effect is kind of whole tone, but with only major and minor triads–those pieces including A Solemn Music, the orchestra pictures, and parts of the ‘cello concerto, also the cold weather prelude in The Mother, which I think is the first example of that idea in his music.
    KG replies: It seems to me that Virgil tried out modernity, in his fashion, in the Sonata da Chiesa, then bravely simplified his style in 1927 with Symphony on a Hymn Tune, before it became politically hip. B ut I’ve changed the text slightly to reflect the truth of your comment.

  3. says

    Well, I think you’re conflating things here a bit. As I understand it, what Colin was referring to was tonal music – Rochberg-3rd-Quartet tonal, not Piano Phase diatonic. You know, functionally triadic, Schenkerizable harmony.

    Certainly the resurgence of diatonicism stemming from the 1960s is in no way retrogressive. But I think an argument can be made that to write TONAL music today, in the full sense of the term, is as problematic endeavor; one is not writing the same music that, say, Brahms was writing, one is not making employing the same artistic means or the same expressive content. To assert otherwise is to ignore history.

    I don’t know whether I agree with what I’ve just written, but it’s an arguable point that I think you’ve overlooked.
    KG replies: Do you know of any composers today who write tonal music “in the full [Brahmsian] sense of the term”? I don’t. Which means either he had people like me in mind, or it was a straw man argument.

  4. David Cavlovic says

    “Personally, I don’t write my music for composers” : If I had a dime for every composer I encountered at music school and at the CBC who said that! After that, their next sentence reveals which camp they belong to. Either it’s “I want my music to be accessible” or, “my audience must learn to understand me”. Knock it off folks. The great unwashed will like a piece of music on their own terms. I have come across many who have no shred of music education who like Penderecki and don’t like Beethoven, or who like Ligeti and not Penderecki. They can’t tell you WHY they do or don’t, at least in terms that we were taught to understand. They just like it for what it is. The REAL problem, as Kyle has been saying more or less for ages, is that the general public feels that the ENTIRE INDUSTRY that is not popular music is elitist and pretends to superiority that makes those uninitiated into its dogma feel as if they were infidels and unworthy. To this, I say: Stop this nonsense, ye elitists, NOW!

  5. says

    KG replies: Do you know of any composers today who write tonal music “in the full [Brahmsian] sense of the term”? I don’t. Which means either he had people like me in mind, or it was a straw man argument.

    Apparently, the person to whom Colin was directing his comment was just one such composer. I don’t know of any (others) either, and in that sense it is a sort of pointless argument.

    I can’t guarantee that he wasn’t talking about diatonicism, or non-functional triadic harmonies, or what have you, instead of the full-bore quasi-common-practice idea, but that’s the impression I got. If not, sure, have at him.
    KG replies: If it’s not what he meant, there are composers living a short drive from my house who would be happy to have it attributed to them,

  6. Richard says

    I’ve always been a little chary with “isms”. One of the things I find most wearying, are the “clan wars” in the nonpop music world. Unbending ideology is the “Root of Evil”, not only in music but in most of life. Though you’d never know it by, say “Shrub”s life (ie El Presidente), the unexamined life is NOT worth living. Yes, compositionally I have “totalist” tendencies but I also use serial technique,. polytonality, micro polyphony diatonicism etc. As my eclectic approach has be lambasted by Downtown, Uptown, neo-Romantic etc., I think I’m on the right track. I prefer to trod the empirical path forged by my beloved “Cranky Yankees” Ives, Ruggles, Riegger et al.
    With regards to the young compositional troglodyte, my first response would be to give him a one-fingered salute, but, on further reflection, maybe this calls for something more age appropriate. As my teenagers say when I bloviate a little bit too much, “Whatever”!
    KG replies: I don’t like -isms either, but I’ve found it really exciting when I’ve met a bunch of composers and we realized we’d all been playing with the same ideas and had a lot to learn from each other – an occasion to celebrate, not to pretend it didn’t exist, nor one that needs to harden into an ideology if the participants are liberal enough.

  7. says

    If certain composers are told to “stop being elitist” and “stop ‘writing for other composers’”, then that just ends up hurting those common listeners who enjoy such music. Even if it’s miniscule compared to the audience for tamer classical music, there’s still an audience out there for thorny, dissonant and hypercomplex music. And that audience isn’t just composers or academics. I fell in love with such music as that by Carter, Boulez, Webern, etc. without having any knowledge of music theory. Eventually I did gain such music theory, but it only told me why I already liked the music, it didn’t decide my tastes for me.
    Cries of “think about your audience!” can only end up meaning “write for the lowest common denominator”, because with an obsession on pure numerical bulk, this attitude ignores the fact that there *is* an audience (at least a tiny one) for just about any music.

  8. says

    Hi, my name is Scott, and I’m a composer, and I’d like to stick up for functional triadic harmony. I use it in my music, a lot. Now, I’m certainly not using it the same way as Brahms, and I do think I’m using it in some fresh, idiosyncratic, and novel ways. But yes, I write using functional harmony, and I just don’t buy the “ignoring history” argument.

    Certainly we could find some tonal composers who seem to be ignoring history. I had a composition student once who wrote clone-Prokofiev music all the time, and it was very unoriginal and ignored history. But using functional tonal triadic harmony does not in and of itself negate history. The recent history of pop music, film music, punk music, jazz music, electronica, celtic music… and so many other musics written in the last 50 years are tied up in those tonal sounds.

    Those functionally tonal musical ideas are familiar, and while using them exclusively would sound retrogressive, their familiarity is an excellent jumping-off point for creating drama. The sound of a V-I cadence means a lot in the ears of listeners, so what’s the harm in adopting those meanings? I use cadences in my pieces. I also use many more complicated musical materials, but sometimes the simplest is the most powerful. So sometimes I create 5 minutes worth of tension by avoiding the tonic and then resolve to it at a big moment. It’s dramatically effective, and familiar yet fresh in its new context.

    I’ve studied a lot of music and music history, and I feel strongly that I’m not ignoring it when I write functionally tonal pieces. I think there’s a lot to be said for taking musical idioms that people are comfortable with, and then stretching, bending, and extending them into something new but that rings familiar and true.

  9. Rodney Lister says

    I forgot to say earlier: any composer I’ve ever met who I have/had any respect for writes his music because it tickles him/her (or, if you want it on a high falutin level, it offers him/her what Nabakov called “aesthetic bliss.” And they all were/are intensely concerned about whether other people also liked it and hoped that they did. We’re all concerned to please ourselves, we all want as many people as possible to like our music.
    As to Virgil, as you know, he referred to it as his “bang-up graudation piece in the dissonant neo-classic style of the time.” It doesn’t really sound all that different from the rest of it to me, but if it is, it’s the only piece of his that does.

  10. says

    what composer today can disregard ANY kind of music. it seems ridiculous to me, especially when they’re arguing dissonance vs. consonance when the whole idea of 12 tones to the octave seems antiquated and even the idea of dealing with pitches at all is old hat. seems to me composers should be more inclusive.

  11. Valdemar Jordan says

    Great article, very thought provoking. But in a sense, we’re all just trying to justify our qualitative judgements about What Music Should Be, or rather, What Music is For.

    Music is essentially a commodity. If tonal music finds an audience that happily consumes it, then that music seems justified. It’s filling a need. If atonal music finds a small, equally appreciative audience then obviously it’s a valuable commodity to that audience. Music has many uses, many functions. To call it a commodity is not to demean its value. It’s a commodity just like books, paintings, film, etc.

    Focusing on the political aspects of music, on the politics implied in the choices the composer makes or the political bent of the piece of music itself, is investigating but one aspect of the whole endeavor. To write off a complex piece of music by Milton Babbitt because it represents an “elitist” viewpoint seems to me just as kneejerk as a response as saying that diatonic music is regressive or conservative, or just plain boring. To ignore the work because you don’t approve of the putative political choices that surround its origin seems dogmatically ideological to me.

    I’ll happily keep my Charles Wuorinen right next to my Phillip Glass and let *them* battle it out for my attention.

  12. says

    I’m uncomfortable with the equation of aesthetic esotericism and political conservatism.
    There’s nothing “elitist” about esoteric interests. But feeling bitter that “the masses” don’t share your esoteric interests does reflect — or lead one to — an elitist attitude.
    I will have to ponder for a while, uncomfortably, why Aaron Copland may have felt that esoteric aesthetics were akin to political conservatism, and why he may have been justified at that time.
    The academicization of composition has produced many more “qualified” composers than existed 75 years ago. That’s got to be part of the difference. But I’m in over my head here.
    Interesting topic — thanks.

  13. says

    Kyle Sez: “Do you know of any composers today who write tonal music “in the full [Brahmsian] sense of the term”? I don’t.”
    Actually, I know of lots of composers who write with functional harmony. My own harmony is often functional, although perhaps not in an exactly Brahmsian kind of way, largely because the harmonic rhythm is so slow. Similarly, while Steve Reich is often more diatonic or contrapuntal, he often uses functional harmony as well. Plenty of students write very Brahmsian functional harmony until they get indoctrinated by their teachers that it’s not a valid choice. Jon Appleton is mostly known for his electroacoustic music because he wanted to write tonally and couldn’t get away with it — but his instrumental music is quite functional.
    All of those examples might be arguable — the boundary between Brahmsian functional harmony and quasi-tonal diatonicism is pretty vague. But what about film score? Almost every film composer working today, especially the ones who write for orchestra, uses relatively strict functional harmony, and most of that music is part of the classical tradition whether academia wants to admit it or not. The film-score industry has been even more successfully marginalized than the downtown scene has been, and it’s a real shame. The only argument for excluding film music would have to be something like the “writing tonal music ignores 100 years of progress” argument, so saying that no classical composers write tonally (or in other “obsolete” styles) is actually question-begging. Pretty understandable, though, given how successful the campaign to delegitimize film score has been. And actually, I’d suggest that the whole reason for the suppression of film music by academia is because film composers tend to write in “obsolete” styles — plenty of “serious” composers (including Copland) wrote film score back during the populist part of the 20th century when writing tonally was accptable.
    I agree with most of the rest of what you’ve said, though.

  14. Mark Surya says

    I’m not really sure there is a type of music that is ‘inaccessible’. I think that the main audience just needs to learn to listen to music carefully and openmindedly. Is openmindedly a word? Probably not.
    I know people who find ‘Dennis Cleveland’ too avant-garde for them, but I find it really fun to dance along to. Maybe if we stopped interpreting music on purely textures (whether it’s sound textures, or social textures, like what the man who rejected tonality at the beggining of the piece meant,) and just start looking at music with the optimistic view that there MUST be something great in there.
    That’s how I started enjoying lot’s of ‘difficult’ music..I just kept listening and searching until I got it.

  15. says

    It’s not so much the choice of vocabulary (out of the composers I went to school with, I can only think of one who wrote in a classic mid-century serialist style; the rest of us were too in love with John Williams to ever give up tonal centers) as the attitude among a lot of student composers that they simply don’t need to know anything about non-tonal music that I find ridiculous. If you already think you know everything you need to know, what are you doing in school? And I’m deeply skeptical of any composer who isn’t curious about the inner workings of every single piece he or she comes in contact with–and who doesn’t constantly re-listen, and reassess, the entire repertoire. (If I had settled on my 19-year-old opinions, I would like neither Brahms, Barraque, or soul music.)

    Another thought: Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, they were all writing the most advanced music they knew how to write. I think there’s a sacrifice in vitality when any composer–tonal, atonal, whatever–is deliberately not pushing up against the limits of his or her technique. (It’s one of the reasons I could never get into later Rochberg, even though I love Mahler; it’s the difference between going to a taxidermist’s and going on a safari.)

    Besides which, I always get my best ideas when I’m sitting through a piece I don’t like: I start to think of all the sounds I’d rather be hearing, and the imagination takes off. I know at least a couple colleagues who have had the same experience. Are we the only ones?

  16. Ryan Howard says

    KG replies: Do you know of any composers today who write tonal music “in the full [Brahmsian] sense of the term”? I don’t. Which means either he had people like me in mind, or it was a straw man argument.
    Kyle, I’m curious what you make of Charles Rosen’s comments (in Piano Notes) of what he terms “neotonal” music. Rosen seems to advance the argument that the gradual move toward equal temperament destroyed one of the fundamental elements of 18th century tonality–the directionality of modulation in either the sharp or flat direction–and that “neotonal” music, consequently, can provide only a “hollow simulacrum” of 18th or 19th century tonality, in which classical tonal structures are “either abandoned or given a simplistic form which does not recognize the emotional intensity of full triadic tonality.”
    The difficulty, it seems to me, is that Rosen does not provide any examples of what he means by “neotonal” music, or explain how the concept differs from post-common practice era tonality in general. Does Rosen really believe there are composers out there trying to resuscitate 18th and 19th century tonality?

  17. Peter says

    This is a wonderful post. Thanks, Kyle.
    A couple of thoughts prokoked by your post:
    First: I just finished reading Mike Zwerin’s recent book of memoirs (and which I strongly recommend). For readers in the US, Zwerin is the long-standing jazz critic of the International Herald Tribune. He makes the point that for 50+ years he used the phrase “serious music” as most jazz musicians do, to refer to so-called classical music, but he always used it in a very ironic sense. A few years ago, in his 70s, he met a classical musician who used the phrase without any irony. Part of the problem here is, Zwerin notes, that many people composing and playing so-called serious music actually think that what they are doing is superior to the musical activities of people composing and playing other types of music. This is bound to off-put listeners.
    Second: If you read any poetry from the Elizabethan period (eg, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Soutwell, Dunne, Sydney, etc) you find it is extremely erudite, with lots of allusions to classical literature, subtle word-plays, arcane religious references, citations of the work of other poets, references to political events of the day, etc. Yet, at the time this poetry was written it was also very popular. Marlowe and Shakespeare had mass audiences to their plays, as did the others. Indeed, it has been estimated that literacy levels in Elizabethan England were not exceeded again until compulsory education in the late 19th century. Here, then, was an art form which had both mass popularity and sophisticated complexity. Hence, I don’t see why these two aspects should necessarily be in conflict in music.

  18. mclaren says

    Yet another typically insightful piece by Gann. The dueling definitions of “progress” certainly seem to define some of the fault lines that split the old Pangaea of Western music into its modern 20th/21st century continents.

    An equally provocative view, however, gets voiced by a large contingent of 21st composers who have concluded that progress in the arts never existed at all.

    According to this viewpoint, “progress” represents an antique Baroque/Victorian notion that seemed to accurately describe the arts for a limited and
    very brief period of Western musical history.

    This very limited period is the era of the Industrial Revolution; running from roughly 1700 to 1900, this tiny slice of Western musical history was inflated into THE paradigm for all Western music. Ever since the early 19th century, our western
    music textbooks have taught that tertian triadic tonal harmony based on a diatonic 7-note scale and a quasi-Pythagorean tuning is the model and stereotype of
    all music. As a consequence music theory as it gets taught in universities today centers around analysis of harmonic progressions and the dissection of large-scale musical form, like the sonata form.

    From within this perspective, it all seems satisfying and comprehensive. All of Western music of any significance gets explained, and those portions of Western music which falls outside these narrow strictures get defined out of existence as “oustide the canon,”
    or “non-paragidmatic,” or (one of my favorite methods of marginalization and trivialization) “mavericks” doing “experimental” music.

    According to this characterization, Western music history is a stout sequioa with a few frilly leaves at the top. Western music composed within the canon belongs to the trunk of the sequioa and is susbtantial. Western music which falls outside the main trunk belongs to the frilly leaves, and is by definition insubstantial.

    The only problem with this immensely satisfying self-referential view of Western music history is that it clashes violently with observed reality.

    Let us review a few facts:

    From circa 500 B.C. to roughly 500 A.D., Western music used 3 distinct genera defined by ratios of integers. In some cases these integers were small (3,5,7), while in other cases, as in Eratosthenes’ tuning, the integers ranged up to 19. Monophonic song was the paradigm, with massed Greek choruses merely using multiple singers to intone the same melodic line.Moreover, each of the three genera were based on tetrachords, a subset of 4 notes. This was the standard, the way of
    doing music, for about 900 years. Notice that in the 2500-year period from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D., 1000 years amounts to 40% of the total.

    From about 500 A.D. to 900 A.D., Pythagorean tuning becomes the standard with plainchant as the basic paradigm.

    From 900 A.D. to 1300 A.D., two-voice organum accompanied by the pipe organ represented the paradigm — still using Pythagorean tuning. The defining compositions here are the works of Perotinusand Longinus.

    Leaving aside the rest of Western music, we find an interesting situation. Of the 2500 years of recorded history of Western music, 1800 years of it have not used any of the following: [1] tertian triadic harmony; [2] 12 logarithmically equal pitches per octave; [3] instrumental music without song; [4] regular meters such as 4/4 and 3/4 time.

    So for around 75% of Western musical history, composers and performers have not used any of the structures now taught as “standard” and “essential,” and by which “progress” has been judged in music history and music theory courses since the 19th century.

    Or, to put it another way, the vast majority of Western music defies and systematically contradicts the prescriptions taught in Western music theory courses.

    Progress presupposes a linear ramp, running from point A to point B. But the history of Western music clearly shows, there is no ramp. Composers today eschew regular meters, 12 logarithmically equal pitches per octave, and the symphony orchestra… Which puts them right back in line with the majority practice of the overwhelming plenitude of Western composers throughout history. In such circumstances,
    the entire concept of “progress” makes no sense.

    An alternative viewpoint would run like this (and Lou Harrison, among many others, has espoused it eloquently):

    The richness of Western classical music reached its apex during the period of ars subtilis in the 14th century. Thereafter, Western music began a precipitous decline which hit its nadir somewhere around the dark ages of the early to mid 19th century. Fortunately, during the early decades of the 20th century, great composers like Julian Carrillo
    and Harry Partch and Conlon Nancarrow rescued Western music from its rhythmic and intonational stagnation restored the lambent lustre of the 14th century. Now, today, after a century of hard work, contemporary
    composers are once again climbing the same slopes of that Parnassus which giants like Jehan Suzay trod in the 1390s. With some luck, we as composers may aspire to accomplish things as great as they did.

    This alternative viewpoint eschews the concept of “progress” as a vulgar Victorian delusion. The cave paintings at Lascaux, created 40,000 years ago but to the artistic eye easily as “progressive” as anything created by any contemporary artist, forcefully remind us of the French composer J. J. Nattiez’s bon mot:

    “I have said it before and I will say it again: music does not progress or regress — it merely changes.”

    Leonard Meyer anticipated all of this, of course, in his 1956 classic Emotion and Meaning In Music. 50 years ago he predicted the end of the Victorian illusion of progress in music and the appearance of what he called a “fluctuating steady state” in which all musical styles coexist simultaneously. Arguably we have now reached this condition. The conteomporary listener is now free to enjoy contemporary neoclassical and atonal and xenharmonic and neogothic composers on the same concert program without feeling
    compelled to value one style or one composer less than another. To many of us, this seems like a good thing. Concerts have now become grand feasts at which many different delicacies are served, startling and wondrous in their variety.

    To others, who cling to fantasies like the luminiferous ether or phlogiston or musical progress, may find the current era in music intensely uncomfortable. Such are the perils of Hegelian historicism applied to the quicksilver transilience of music.

  19. jmac says

    i’m surprised that no one has equated serious music with science, not politics. as science has become more diverse and specialized, the interested but uninitiated have continued to understand and feel more comfortable with the “classical ideas”. i may be radical, but i’m uncomfortable with the idea of experimental music needing to be “appreciated” by those who are not interested in it’s context.

  20. says

    “i may be radical, but i’m uncomfortable with the idea of experimental music needing to be “appreciated” by those who are not interested in it’s context.”
    I would be uncomfortable with that, only I would also like my pieces to provide a possible starting point for potentially interested listeners for exploring that context. You shouldn’t have to go through 7 centuries of music before you might appreciate mine. It’s my music that should get you started with 7 centuries of music. That’s quite different from science.
    Anyway, I think this progress thing is a bit inflated. Of course, music gets written all the time that “stands on the shoulders of giants” and in that sense there is progress. Old ideas get explored to death; new ideas again engender new ideas and other new ideas. The only problem I see is that often certain schools will try to claim that only they represent “progress”. But for most of us, progress today doesn’t feel like a line getting longer but more like an expanding sphere.

  21. says

    Having sifted through several dozen applications for our DM program last spring, I can assure you that there are plenty of composers writing triadic, functionally tonal music. Much of it closer to, say, Prokofiev or Shostakovich than Brahms, but it’s out there. Some of it quite good, in fact (though most not good at all).
    Anyhow, I’d completely agree w/ Evan (quelle surprise) that Colin wasn’t really talking about a Piano Phase-ish diatonic harmony but rather the very retrogressive neo-neo-tonality.
    Btw, Kyle … you’ll smile (or maybe snicker) at the fact that your alma mater is presenting a huge Reich 70th Bday retrospective on Oct 3.
    KG replies: I’m sincerely happy to hear that Northwestern U. has finally embraced the 1970s.
    If Colin was indeed talking about composers who use 19th-century conventional tonality, then he misexpressed himself. If a composer has nothing new to say and no freshness to his style, that’s an unfortunate thing. But any composer who wants to “ignore historical progress” has every right to do so. Harry Partch’s stated goal – “Let no year pass that I do not step one significant century backward” – is a perfectly valid aesthetic standpoint, as his music proves.

  22. Richard says

    Yes there is stuff like that out there, if in doubt, go to any public school band or choir concert, or go to a mainline church on sunday, and listen to the anthem or the organ prelude/postlude and you’ll notice that they’ll be written in “stilo antico”. I’ve published this stuff and it gets performed a lot more than my “modernist” music. I guess that my relationship to this genre is akin Reigger’s publishing of his “potboiler” anthems, though I didn’t have the good sense to use a “nom de plume”.