2-25-09: Four Brief Episodes in Modernism

2-25-09: Four Brief Episodes in Modernism

Lest you think I was unaffected by modernism, think again. I listened to, studied, and wrote several works using my own, modified version of the 12-tone technique (discussed here) while in my early 20s. I even wrote a string quartet based on that technique that won the ASCAP composers prize at the 1984 Aspen Music Festival. It’s not that I don’t like, or have no use for post-tonal classical music, it’s just that I think it has a fairly limited use. I do think Schoenberg, Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez, and others opened up a new and important world of sound, some of which is quite beautiful. I still say, though, that the emotional range of that music is generally limited to variations on distress. Honestly, how much non-tonal music have you heard that is sweet or joyful, loving or sexy. How much of it can you or anybody you know sing?

Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that tonality has a wider emotional range, being ideal for expressing anything from simple joy to deep longing, to utter despair and rage. Part of the reason for tonality’s wider expressive range is that there are so many kinds of tonalities, each with it’s own unique colors and emotional characteristics (I’m speaking both of varying ethnic tonalities—like blues, or strange mysticism of the Eastern Orthodox—as well as specific composer invented techniques like quartal harmony, pandiatonicism, and chromaticism.) And while there are many approaches to non-tonality, including free atonality and more organized systems like the 12-tone system, they have much less differentiation in the actual listening experience than does the wider array of tonalities.

But there is another, more fundamental reason why tonality will always have a wider range, not to mention natural appeal: that is it is fundamental. It is what we naturally hear.

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