Sunday, September 26, 2010

Surveying Tonality and Atonality - In Their Thinking

  • For Bartók tonality was sociological - he concluded that the peasantry (as the agent of nature) would never develop atonalism in their folk music.  Through folk music, many composers discovered new modalities and possibilities.  Bartók integrated these modalities (raw materials) into his personal style.
  • For Schoenberg tonality was an artistic dead end (for him personally)–and an area he felt he perhaps could no longer compose in and distinguish himself–his psychology is very curious.  The twelve-tone method is tied to his personal Expressionist artistic aesthetic.
  • For Stravinsky tonality was historical.  Some have reasonably argued that atonal serialism was also historical for him when he took it up later.  Personally though he had reached his own creative crises and needed to explore new procedures when he turned to serialism.  He expanded the procedural vocabulary of serial music in the same way that he had for tonality. 
  • For Hindemith tonality was an natural acoustic phenomenon.  The "system" of composition he developed expanded tonality greatly and generated his very personal style.
  • For Ives tonality and atonality (or music as a whole) was his means of artistic experimentation.  The experimentation that he learned from his father was what drove his compositional creativity.  The world (or at least the "new world") wasn't ready for his experiments.
  • For Shostakovich and Prokofiev tonality was the dictate and constriction of the state.  Both men were able to write wonderful music despite their lack of freedom to experiment.  "Formalism," as defined by the state, did not serve the society and it was demanded by the state that it be avoided.  I feel that both composers (and their Soviet colleagues) expanded tonality and gained distinctive and recognizable style traits because of it.
  • For Milhaud tonality [or tonalities] was/were musical object(s) to be combined and tried in combinations.  He experimented extensively on bitonality to discover sounds and methods he wanted to use.
  • For Rochberg tonality was an expressive necessity and a natural biological/neurological phenomenon–an efficient way for the human mind to communicate and comprehend.  Having composed serial music for a long time, he turned to a Neo-Romantic tonal style.  Rochberg wrote a great book which elucidates his theories and knowledge of these issues;  The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer's View of Twentieth-Century Music.
  • For Carter [currently aged 102 and still composing!] atonality seems to be about social commentary and an anti-societal / anti-social stance.  I also think that atonality is an elitist guise for him.  This elitist stance regarding atonality is being replaced, according to theories of postmodernism.
  • For Bernstein tonality was societal / communicative.  He did however use atonality to express chaos and strife when it suited his artistic goals.
  • For Copland (when he took up serialism late in life) dodecaphony was a chance to invent and expand his harmonic palette.  He had such an expansive tonal harmonic palette already, one wonders why he felt he needed to venture into twelve-tone procedures.
  • For the Minimalists tonality just isn't done with, and it is still an ongoing process.  It just needs re-proceduralizing.
  • For me tonality is referential, and I don't practice atonality.  I see atonality as being arbitrarily synthetic.  Having spent most of my life as a pragmatic performing musician, tonality is what I feel promotes my expressive feelings best.  I desire to make beautiful harmonies!  Maybe this reflects on the pragmatic culture that I'm a part of.

© 2010 Steve D. Matchett

"Aqua Abstract" photo by Steve Matchett

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