I was reading an article by Richard Taruskin from several years ago, on a festival of Baltic music. The following passage struck me:
No one attending the scholarly presentations and the ''Composer's Spotlights'' could miss the fact that virtually without exception, the music of every Baltic composer -- young or old, Slavic or Scandinavian, male or female, left or right, post-Soviet or pre-NATO -- followed the same trajectory: the more recent the work, the more consonant (or to put it more contentiously, less dissonant).Sorry for the extended quote, but I wanted to get the whole context. Richard Taruskin is known for his powerful statements that often offend fellow academics because of their lack of the traditional qualifications: "it might be suspected that, given certain conditions..." No, he just says it straight out: "the necessity for greater consonance."
Not ''tonal.'' Not ''Romantic.'' Not ''retro.'' Consonant.
That is the salient contemporary fact, and musicians who have not experienced -- I do not say understood but truly experienced -- the necessity of greater consonance are useless, for their entire work brings them up short of the needs of their time. That need -- and not the hoary binaries (national or cosmopolitan? progressive or reactionary?) that continued to dominate discussion in Seattle -- is what demands acknowledgment and attention.
When it was brought up at the round table, the fact was acknowledged but not the trend. Everybody claimed to be following a spontaneous creative mandate. But when everybody's spontaneous creative mandate mandates the same spontaneous creative act, you know that larger, as yet unidentified, forces are at work. It will be the task of tomorrow's historians to identify them. Their effects -- not only on Balts but on other Europeans, North and South Americans, Australians, Japanese, everyone -- are already manifest.
Renewal is in the air. There is a future, and who knows? It may even work.
You should read my previous posts on the problem of harmony here and here, where you will find some background. In a nutshell, during the 19th century the beautifully calibrated harmonic system developed by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, was diluted and congested by a couple of trends: one was towards the lessening of the structural importance of the cadence and the weakening of the dominant-tonic axis. Sometimes this was done with real genius as in the music of Chopin. But lesser composers just turned the clarity of Classical form into a swamp. The other trend was toward more and more chromaticism and without the structural strength of the cadence, that led to a quagmire. The culmination of this was in the music of Wagner and Mahler. There was little more that could be done in that direction so Schoenberg and others sought a new way of ordering music. They overthrew harmony completely, calling it the "emancipation of the dissonance" and ended up with a music that is continuously dissonant. That is the background to Taruskin's comment above. He is saying that the whole project of dissonance is over and the trend is overwhelmingly towards consonance. Here is a piece by one of the composers performed at the conference that Taruskin particularly praises, Onutė Narbutaitė:
That is certainly consonant! As I see it, we have to go back and examine older ways of handling harmony. In this case, the music of the church. One way of handling harmony is simply to be consonant all the time. But the problem with that, as we hear in "New Age" music is that there is no structure. There has usually been both dissonance and consonance in music and they way they are handled defines the structure. The most powerful definition was the cadence found in music from the Middle Ages through the 19th century. But the cadence does not seem to work for us these days without sounding false somehow. We need to re-examine the cadence and how to handle the relation between consonance and dissonance! Oh well, that has always been the problem of composition! But for a while it seemed as if some kind of ideology could solve the problem for us. Just another of the dangerous ideas of the 20th century...