Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Tension and Resolution

Tension and resolution is one of the basic technical devices of music and therefore one of the basic problems of composition. Over the long development of tonality and even before, in the period of modal harmony, the basic means of structuring music in a way that was both expressive and perceivable by the listener was to use dissonance and consonance to create tension and resolution. The basic arc was always to move from a state of stability or rest to one of energy and tension, then to return to the state of rest. This was done through micro and macro use of consonance and dissonance. By the 18th and 19th centuries this had been developed to a tremendous extent and the so-called "common practice" system of harmony had sophisticated and subtle resources to structure the flow of music.

Unfortunately, these resources are scarcely available to us anymore. The harmonic progressions of tonality, unless quoted or used ironically tend to sound trite and trivial. So our options are either to give up the techniques of tension and resolution entirely or to find new ways of incorporating them. Traditionally the tensions and resolutions were based on degrees of harmonic dissonance but the possibility of using other parameters such as rhythm or dynamics or timbre or texture was always lurking in the background.

I am a fan of the music of Steve Reich and, to a lesser extent, Philip Glass, but their music, while energetic and compelling, does have an underlying problem. On the macro level, it is relatively static but compensates for this with a built-in tension on the micro level. What do I mean? Take for an example the piece "Octet" by Steve Reich. It is a dynamic, energetic piece:

But the level of energy and tension scarcely varies throughout the piece. It starts with a high level of tension (5/4 time signature, syncopated rhythms and a stretto between piano 1 and 2) and while it adds and subtracts different components (bass clarinets, flute solo), the basic texture keeps this same level of energy throughout. It starts and ends with roughly the same level of tension. The piece works because of the sheer ingenuity of the ideas, but it does not use the technique of tension and resolution because it avoids anything resembling a resolution. This is generally the case with most of his music.

A lot of the composers in the high modernism phase avoided the issue entirely. The "moment form" of Stockhausen, for example, by definition avoids any kind of long-range, structural organization, therefore cannot use tension and resolution. Each "moment" is as structurally important as every other. Other composers use complex methods of structuring that leave the listener unsure of any kind of direction in terms of tension and resolution. The level of dissonance, for example, remains high throughout. This is usually the problem with serial compositions that build in a specific level of dissonance. Composers like John Cage who use chance procedures avoid tension and resolution as well.

One way of structuring music is to have a relatively low level of tension throughout. This seems quite popular these days and extends from the mellow stylings of "New Age" music right up to the environmentally sensitive textures of John Luther Adams whose "Become Ocean" won a Pulitzer Prize for basically being cosmic and ominous. Blogger doesn't want to embed, so just follow the link:

The problem is that it is cosmic and ominous throughout, again, basically static except for crescendos and decrescendos.

I don't find that any of these procedures work for me, so I have been trying to find other ones that do. After all, if you have some materials, whatever they are, you can surely arrange them to create large-scale tensions and resolutions. The area of rhythm, despite a lot of focus, still has great potential. Steve Reich's early piece "Drumming" did use some fascinating devices on both the micro and macro levels to create structure. For example, the technique of "phasing" where a particular rhythmic pattern slides past a mirror of itself, creates tension and resolution on the micro level while the filling in of the metric structure over time creates a medium level of tension and resolution. On the level of the whole piece he creates direction through instrumentation. An opening section with just small drums is followed by sections for marimbas, glockenspiels and finally all instruments together.

I have developed some other ways of using rhythm to create structure and they seem to be working quite well. I am hoping to make a recording soon of my new piece "Dark Dream" so I can show them to you. Suffice it to say, for now, that if you set up a very high-tension, oppositional texture earlier in the piece, you can resolve this by transforming it into a rhythmic unison.

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