Friday, July 15, 2011

The Problem of Harmony

Right, like I'm going to solve it, or even describe it, in a blog post! Wish me luck...

Music essentially has two dimensions: the horizontal--melody--and the vertical--harmony. But this ignores the most fascinating aspect of music: rhythm. It is rhythm that gives music movement in time. In great music, rhythm articulates and defines both melody and harmony and vice versa (if you can have a vice versa going in three directions). I can think of only one piece that structures itself almost entirely in terms of rhythm: that radical piece by Steve Reich, Drumming. Let's see if we can find a clip of it:

No very good versions... in any case, by developing some new concepts of rhythm, Steve Reich manages to structure a long piece largely with rhythmic resources alone. Quite a tour de force. But not one that can be used over and over. He takes two approaches. One is to slowly fill in the measure, starting with a beat that is not the downbeat. The effect, when the downbeat finally arrives, is striking. At this point he has two or more players duplicating the same pattern. By moving one, slowly, a small unit away, he thoroughly saturates the space. He then does similar things with different instruments before combining them all.

But, this piece aside, what is really needed is a structure that uses melody, harmony and rhythm in a coordinated way. Since the dissolution of tonality, this has been extraordinarily difficult. The problem of atonal (or pan-tonal, if you like) music is that it creates a dissonant, static harmonic structure. And the real problem is not the dissonance, it is the stasis. Most music has had some degree of dissonance for nearly the last thousand years. No, the problem is, that if there is no harmonic center, and therefore other harmonies that are in tension with that center, there can be no harmonic movement. One of the important goals of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier was to demonstrate the possibility of using any note as the harmonic center. This proved to be massively useful up until the early 20th century. The atonal works by Schoenberg and others create a constellation of tones, none more important than any other--and that is precisely the problem. The use of counterpoint, as in tone-rows and their inversions and cancrizans, does not compensate for the loss of harmony any more than the use of harmony would compensate for the loss of counterpoint.

So, for composers in the late 20th century and early 21st century, harmony has been a problem. We seem to want to re-discover harmony, but it is not so easy! Some composers who have returned to harmony, even when they use consonant chords, seem to be caught in stasis. The harmonic drama that Beethoven, for example, was capable of, we seem to have lost the sense of. Here is an example, also from Steve Reich:

Take away the rhythm and harmonically, there is not a lot of movement. Here is what we have lost:

Now, of course we can't go back to that, but we might ask ourselves what is inextricably part of that moment in music history and what might be more universal? Here is something written in 1950:

That is pretty interesting, but some people would say that it is merely derivative. We can't ask Shostakovich what he is doing because, apart from being not with us any longer, he always denied knowing anything about music theory. Heh. Here is another example, dating from 1977-78:

It takes 110 measures to get to the sub-dominant, so again there is the problem of stasis. We have a tremendous amount of shivery, fluttery rhythmic activity, but that is not harmonic activity. Plus, correct me if I am wrong, but I don't see a lot of Phrygian here.

I'm working on this myself, obviously! I don't want to duplicate music of the past, but at the same time, I want to find a way of creating harmonic organization AND harmonic movement, energy. I don't have anything against using some things from the past to do this. This composer seems to have made some progress:

But I think it will be a while before we can recover the subtlety and dynamicism that harmony was capable of between, say, 1600 and 1900--the so-called "common practice" period.


Nathan Shirley said...

I've also found Golijov to be one of the few living 'classical' composers with what appears to be some real potential. Much of his music synthesizes various ethnic musical techniques with classical development/structure. Of course this is what nearly all the great composers did to some extent. There are at least a handful like Golijov who have pumped a little life back into classical music... or maybe they've just attempted resuscitation. At any rate, this has been a goal of mine as well, even before I realized classical music had (for all intents and purposes) died.

Bryan Townsend said...

As a young artist I bought into the whole story of the avant-garde. My primary focus for most of my career was performance, so I didn't even think about these problems! As a performer, while I loved and performed early music, I also loved and performed contemporary music by Brouwer, Henze and others. But it slowly lost interest for me. When I decided to compose more seriously, after a while I realized that I had to take a new direction and the inspiration for me was really Shostakovich, who, though he certainly has his own language, it is one that is certainly tonal. So now I see the problem as one of, essentially, re-inventing harmony.

Nathan Shirley said...

Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok, etc, are the last composers that I truly love. They opened up so many new possibilities that were never exploited by others. So I'd certainly agree that picking up were composers like Shostakovich left of will be the road composers will ultimately take. And I don't buy into the idea that classical music evolves ever more complex/wild over time. So the answer is not to simply re-write The Rite of Spring with crazier rhythms and more dissonant harmonies (no creativity in that)!

So yes, re-inventing harmony (or at least re-learning harmony).

Bryan Townsend said...

Right!! The myth of continually increasing complexity is one of the core myths of the avant-garde. Stockhausen and Boulez are prime examples. But even a brief look at music history reveals how wrong this is. Just look at the beginning of the Baroque: in order to achieve their aesthetic aims, the first thing they did was throw out the contrapuntal complexity of Renaissance music in favor of chordal simplicity. A similar thing happened around 1970 with the minimalists. Here is a post I wrote on this: