I’m a few weeks away from completing my third and final semester of music history. They’ve gone in chronological order and this one is called “Music Since 1900.” As expected, we’re delving into some pretty weird music; that’s kind of what happened in the classical music world after the Romantic era. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this so-called avant-garde music. I’m talking specifically about composers like Schoenberg, Boulez, Cage, Berio, Varése and Babbitt. The term “avant-garde” comes from the French word “vanguard”, which means the front part of the army, or the soldiers who can see what’s ahead before the rest of the regiment. I’ve never been particularly drawn to experimental music though I have tried very hard. But it hasn’t been until recently that I think I can explain why my love affair with atonal music has never taken off.
Let me preface this by saying that I’m fascinated by these renegade artists, desperately trying to do what hasn’t been done before. That’s the true artistic sprit and I respect that. What I don’t particularly respect is the desire to abandon tonality all together. By the way, in case you weren’t sure, tonality/harmony is our basic system of how notes are put together. Scales, chords, the building blocks of music. Atonality means that there’s no clear hierarchy of pitches. You will hear many C pitches in the key of C, but in an atonal key you’ll probably hear as many Cs as you will F sharps. Here’s an analogy I have for the purely atonal composer:
Western harmony is like the English language—there are infinite possibilities of expression within its rules. It serves as a sort of contract between the reader and writer; I follow the basic conventions of spelling, grammar and syntax and you will try to understand these words. But say I’m bored with the English language and feel that everything’s been said before. Why not abandon the rules in search of a fierce, new method of artistic expression? Dae dgnolsi h cab naits abes nnaho j. That’s why. When you abandon the common practice, it’s very difficult to move the audience to feel anything other than confusion or boredom.
By the way, did you notice that if you read that backwards, it spells “Johann Sebastian Bach is long dead”? Yeah, probably not. Just like you probably couldn’t tell that a piece by Pierre Boulez is organized meticulously in total serialism with no dynamic, rhythm or pitch repeating until you’ve heard all the other eleven possibilities he’s decided to use.
As a dedicated music student, I have always hoped that I would become fully acceptant of avant-garde and appreciate it like all the sophisticated scholars seem to do. Maybe I will when I’m older. But right now, I see completely abandoning tonality as a fruitless effort. After hearing music from soon after we’re born, our ears have learned to associate certain combinations of notes in certain ways, much like words. Thinking of music as a science, trying to make new discoveries through formulas is nothing but exclusive, which is the exact opposite of what music’s purpose has been since the first note was sounded back in the caveman days. Inclusivity is pretty much the most important word in my understanding of the art form.
Another significant word in the above paragraph is “completely.” Completely abandoning tonality is something I’m against but temporarily abandoning it is entirely different. In this circumstance, it becomes an effect. Like how “Revolution 9” shows that the Beatles were aware of the world around them without entirely throwing everything in their past out the window. Or how a particularly crunchy chord in a Sonic Youth song represents a sort of angst-ridden dissonance. I think atonality should be one of the tools on an artists belt, much like a writer can occasionally use unconventional methods to portray a certain attitude when he/she is REALLY F$&%ing craaaaazzzzzzzyyyyyyyyyy and kneeds to gett that aCroSs!
I absolutely love learning about other musicians’ understanding of what music is supposed to be. In a lot of ways, it’s like studying various theologies, forcing you to start challenging your own deep-rooted beliefs. Some twentith century composers have certainly done that for me but this is where I stand now regarding purely atonal music. I realize every composer is different so this is an overarching generalization. Still, I’m pretty confident with these opinions at the moment. Make me change my mind.