Saturday, November 12, 2011

Color and Function

You guessed it, another post on harmony!

Now that is some beautiful and colorful harmony. Debussy is particularly known for his mastery of colorful orchestration, which is why he is often called an 'impressionistic' composer, though he hated the term applied to his music. I want to look a bit more closely at the piece, but don't worry, for my purposes we only need to look at a tiny bit of the beginning. Here is the first thing you hear:

Click to enlarge
This is lovely and evocative. Nobody does atmospheric better than Debussy! All we need is a melodic detail which the English horn provides:

The piece is several minutes long, so a lot more goes on but to get an inkling, all we need to look at are these two tiny excerpts which really set the stage. The opening is B minor and the winds wander back and forth around that harmony. B minor is very clearly defined though, with the A sharp. Then the melody in the English horn which throws in that anomalous F natural. Not part of B minor! But after that, the melody descends to B again. There is also something anomalous in the opening: that B flat, which immediately returns as A sharp. Also in the opening two measures is the descent from the dominant to the tonic: you can easily see and hear F#, E, D, C#, B. That odd F natural in the English horn is accompanied by G and B. Together with the F natural that forms a dominant seventh chord of C major, which is the Neapolitan of B. The Neapolitan harmony, a favorite of composers for, oh, three hundred years or so, is a major chord on the second step of the scale, lowered a semitone. In B minor, it is a C major chord. In C major it would be a D flat major chord and so on. The only odd thing is that Debussy doesn't actually give us the Neapolitan, he just sets it up and then goes back to the tonic. He uses familiar harmonies, but in unfamiliar ways. The effect is that the harmony is also atmospheric and cloudy. "Nuages" means "clouds".

We find, behind the color of the orchestration, that Debussy's music is also functional harmony--but with a few twists.

What is functional harmony? I am tempted to say that all harmony is functional, but I'm not omniscient so I'm not completely sure. But whenever I dig into something with lots of color, like this piece, I find that what is holding it together underneath, is functional harmony. Functional harmony is tied to counterpoint, which makes me happy as a composer, because it gives me a way to think about structure. Let me explain: harmony is the succession of chords. But chords are different melodic strands put together. Harmony is the result of counterpoint. Even pieces that seem to have no melody whatsoever like my perennial example of this Bach C major prelude, are still different melodic lines which can be easily reconstructed:

Counterpoint is the bones of a piece, harmony the flesh and color--orchestration and so on--just the clothes. It is the clothing we see, but the clothing is nothing without the body underneath.

So the question is, is it possible to have music where the harmony is not based on counterpoint, but splashes of notes chosen purely for color? Is this piece more in that direction?

My feeling is that you can't write a very good piece without counterpoint holding your harmony together...


Anonymous said...

I'll admit I didn't understand your post. You define harmony as the succession of chords, and then say that it "is the result of counterpoint." Is this a descriptive or normative statement? Are you saying, having defined harmony I now observe one of its necessary attributes, which is to be the result of counterpoint? If so, then this trivially answers your final question "is it possible to have music where the harmony is not based on counterpoint?" The answer is no. But it is what Kant would call an analytic answer: just a rephrasing of your definition of harmony and its attributes. In other words, it's impossible to disagree with you on any other plane than linguistic, ie, perhaps by arguing that your definition of harmony might not be the most useful. But it would be a discussion about language not about music.

Or your "harmony is the result of counterpoint" is to be understood normatively, as in "any self-respecting harmony OUGHT to be created as a result of counterpoint." In that case, your answer is yes and the basis of that answer, being normative, is your judgment that Satie's harmony is bad. Actually it's worse than that: it's to say that not only it is bad but it cannot be good within Satie's compositional frame.

But maybe I am way off base. But if I am, then I don't see how your post does not simply answer the question of harmony by begging it.

Anonymous said...

To add a light-hearted touch... I've always thought, What a great pianist Glenn Gould could have been if only he had learned to shut up!!!

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh good grief! I guess I have fallen into the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. Thanks for berating me! Did my post make sense up to that point? Let me try and clarify what I might have been trying to say. On a superficial level, say, the way most of us listen (and the way it is thought of in pop music and jazz), harmony is just a succession of chords. That's the way I thought of it for a long time. But the more you look at harmony, the more you notice that in the best composers, going back hundreds of years, and even up to Debussy, that harmony really always comes from counterpoint. Well, good harmony, anyway. You can still (and most do) just throw a bunch of chords out there. But whenever I dig into good harmony I find the underlying contrapuntal bones.

Does that make sense now?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification. I am tempted to agree, but I need to think more about it because , for me anyway, though nonfunctional, Satie's harmony works beautifully. There's always a strong sense of melody but the accompaniment is intentionally detached -- bitonal though I think bimodal might be a better description. So while the melody is directional -- like all melodies, it gives you a sense of going somewhere -- the harmony is a parallel world of surprises that can sound oddly static.

Over the years I've come to think that, just as Cezanne was the first modern painter, Satie was the first modern composer (and Wagner the last premodern). In many ways, Satie was more innovative than Debussy (who copied Satie more than the other way around, but Debussy was a technical monster whereas Satie's compositional chops were limited). Though I can't quite put my finger on what it is, Satie's music in my view really works.

Funny about counterpoint, too, because Satie, in his later years, took formal lessons in counterpoint -- though in my view his work didn't improve as a result. You see this same urge to reconnect to the sources in contemporary composers like Lansky.

Bryan Townsend said...

Perhaps Satie himself was more of my view? Heh! I admit that I was a bit puzzled to pick out the right example for color harmony as opposed to functional harmony. Let me look a bit closer at Satie and see what I find. My first choice was going to be a klavierstueke by Stockhausen, but I decided to use instead a piece from the same time as the Debussy. Maybe I should have chosen Chausson instead...

Rickard Dahl said...

In my opinion Satie's music is really interesting, functional harmony or not. A few favorites are the gymnopedies, nocturnes, sarabandes, gnossiennes & his later neoclassical works (the ballets etc. which are quite different from his earlier works). There's a sense of mystery, melanchony, reflectiveness and simple and clear beauty beauty in his works which is very different from most composers.

Bryan Townsend said...

Erik Satie is a fascinating figure who wrote lovely and haunting music. But for me he has always been one of those musical eccentrics who is hard to approach theoretically. His music is none the worse for it, but he is not someone that most young composers (since Debussy at least) would be advised to try and emulate.

Rickard Dahl said...

I see your point I think. Probably not the best composer if you want to see good examples of counterpoint or combining counterpoint and harmony.
I happen to improvise ideas that I associate with Satie sometimes though; it can be pretty interesting.