On A Musical Note

I thought I’d send y’all out into the weekend with a thought about the debate that’s been simmering on these two posts. Some of the comments concern this idea that atonality is unnatural, and therefore, illegitimate in some way. Bernard Holland’s recent comment that serialism is “made up” represent this notion that there is something essentially plastic about twelve-tone composition.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that all methods of composition are made up. If Holland understood what it took to learn the skill of writing 4-part harmony with “correct” voice leading, he would know that the music of Mozart and Brahms adheres to a rather strict complex of rules that, while lovely and truly a marvel in terms of human aesthetic achievement–have not always been the rule. It’s a relatively recent notion that parallel fifths are incorrect. In fact, western polyphony began by simply doubling a single melodic line with the higher fifth. It was a hot new technique that was all the rage at the time. But now, when you enter a conservatory program in composition, you learn quickly that parallel fifth are a big no-no.

Yet parallel fifths still remain very natural to the ear. That’s why most young composers have to have parallel fifths beaten out of them before they can return to them with a more complex approach. Perhaps, one could say, parallel fifths are too natural to the ear (after all, it is the second partial in the harmonic series and the second most important degree in the hierarchy of diatonic harmony).

I don’t imagine any of serialism’s opponents would advocate a rescinding of this conservatory practice. If all they heard were parallel fifths, they would probably soon be aching for a nice, correct use of counterpoint. And it should be said that serial composition is generally and largely contrapuntal, in the same sense that parallel fifths are discouraged, and maximum diversity in directionality of voices is desired.

That even said, one of the greatest (and often dangerous) capacities humankind possesses, is the impulse at any moment to engage in activities that seem contrary to nature, even to revel in the practice of being “unnatural.” We do all sorts of things that are counteractive to the presumptive mechanics of nature. We consume beverages that poison us. We eat foods that are at first revolting, but then become irresistible. We jump off cliffs for the fun of it. We stick needles through our ear lobes. We cover our bodies with fabric, even when it’s 90 degrees and muggy outside. It’s called free will. And this will of freedom is what makes life rich, and real, and, naturally, human.

There’s a lot of bull shit that comes along with free will (I needn’t mention them), but there are just as many if not more benefits and beautiful things that can come from that impulse that says, Why does it have to be this way? What would happen if I…

Even if you can prove that a tritone will forever present a cognitive dissonance–and therefore instinctual aversion–to the human ear, often the naturally human thing to do is to seek it out all the more, play with it, test it, force ourselves to hear it even if we hate it, and eventually, acquire the taste for it. Humans are terribly wondrous contradictions. And if we really look at who we are, without religious or scientific judgement, we’ll probably find that we’re more complex and complete than we tell ourselves (we’re not essentially broken or flawed). And what’s natural to the rest of nature simply may not always be appealing to us.

Allowing ourselves to flirt with the unnatural seems, in the end, to lead to the very heart of human nature.

1 Comment

  1. Merci, C.C. I feel that the “nature” argument is still so widespread and I flinch every time I hear someone make it. Much beyond tastes in musical intervals, I feel that the nature argument is the grounds for homophobia and disgust for gay people, for it’s not the gay people that are the problem, it’s the “unnatural” act they do in private that is fundamentally wrong. Or like it is “unnatural” for a woman to not want to have children.

    Thank you for your (positive) reminder that these ideas are presumptive.

    Atonally yours,
    Peter in Paris


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