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Tonality of Atonality

When Schoenberg started to compose with his twelve tone method, he only serialized pitch and not other parameters. He says[40, page 87]:
Coherence in classic compositions is based -- broadly speaking -- on the unifying qualities of such structural factors as rhythms, motifs, phrases, and the constant reference of all melodic and harmonic features to the centre of gravitation -- the tonic. Renouncement of the unifying power of the tonic still leaves all the others in operation.
In his atonal works, Schoenberg also avoided any chord which implied a tonal context like any combination of major or minor thirds[40, page 263]. Does that not sound like a contradiction? A complete reversal of tonality is itself a type of tonality. He recognizes this issue, and he wrote that his conscious avoidance of such circumstances was only due to the fact that he felt that the veil of the classical tonal culture was still too heavy. He felt that listeners still could not hear tonal chords, which in tonal context require a specific progression, only for their colors. The question of why Schoenberg did not apply his method to all parameters himself, and why he avoided tonal chords, is an important question. He recognized that for a musical idea to be understood a relationship has to exist between its parts. Schoenberg never liked the term atonal; however, this is the term that has been since used to characterize his music. He says[40, page 283]:
`Atonal can only signify something that does not correspond to the nature of tone.' And further: `A piece of music will necessarily always be tonal in so far as a relation exists from tone to tone, whereby tones, placed next to or above one another, result in a perceptible succession. The tonality might then be neither felt nor possible of proof, these relations might be obscure and difficult to comprehend, yes, even, incomprehensible. But to call any relation of tones atonal is as little justified as to designate a relation of colours aspectral or acomplementary. Such an antithesis does not exist.'
All these issues go back to what concerned Schoenberg the most -- comprehensibility. What lies in the music is not only ``what lies in the music'' but also the mentality that creates it and the way it is communicated2.11. The music, the composer, the musician, and the listener are all part of the musical idea, and in the same way that Schoenberg says ``we can only join things that are related,'' they themselves -- music, composer, musician, and listener -- have to be related to each other. By breaking every kind of tonality in pitch, rhythm, harmony, thought, emotions and even common sense, we may create new ideas in music; however with every new step in that direction we break a channel of communication. If there were no such a thing as time, we would have to just sit and do nothing since it seems that with every step toward progress, we regress in a different direction in what we are trying to achieve. Fortunately, we live in a temporal world, and falsities of today can be truths of tomorrow, and it is only through this understanding that an artist, or for that matter any being, can feel that he or she can be free to think and still stay hopeful. Schoenberg was (and still is) misunderstood, and about the labels put on his music he says[40, page 283]:
If audiences and musicians would ask about these more important things and attempt to receive answers by listening, if further they would leave the idle talk and strife rather to the school-masters, who also must have something to do and wish to make a living, I, who have the hope that in a few decades audiences will recognize the tonality of this music today called atonal, would not then be compelled to attempt to point out any other difference than a gradual one between the tonality of yesterday and the tonality of today. Indeed, tonal is perhaps nothing else than what is understood today and atonal what will be understood in the future.
Indeed, Schoenberg's work was a gradual movement in music. He formulated what was already being practiced. However, the act of his consciousness of `how' these impressionistic entities were used and how they could be formulated was perhaps a revolution, since now our point of view is different. In a sense, we can tell that by the fact that he brought his practice into a theory and explained it in a linear fashion, he changed truth. In a less stronger term, he broke an accepted truth, with a seemingly strong knowledge of its theory and practice, only to combine his internal inspiration -- his internal truth -- with it, and through a concise, diligent, and patient expression of himself, he returned his truth to the world outside of himself. What he made us conscious of is now a technique which we can apply to many aspects of music (and other forms of art and thought) to create new sounds and music. He explains his first inspirations about his method as follows[40, page 49]:
I was inspired by poems of Stefan George, the German poet, to compose music to some of his poems, and surprisingly, without any expectation on my part, these songs showed a style quite different from everything I had written before. And this was only the first step on a new path, but one beset with thorns. It was the first step towards a style which has since been called the style of `atonality'. Among progressive musicians it aroused great enthusiasm. New sounds were produced, a new kind of melody appeared, a new approach to expression of moods and characters was discovered. In fact, it called into existence a change of such an extent that many people instead of realizing its evolutionary element, called it a revolution.

Now we are confronted with a sense of ambivalence. First we are not quite sure of the nature of what has happened: is it an evolution or a revolution? Was something created, or did it evolve? Secondly we are not sure what is tonal and what is not tonal; it seems to be just a point of view. By the fact that a piece of music is a piece of music it has a tonality in its sense of existence. When we listen to it, first it is not being played, then it is played and then we go back to it not being played. Schoenberg and Stockhausen had also gone as far as saying that such music does not have a start or an end, calling the atonal sequence ``endless melody'', and therefore breaking the tonality of its existence. However, is this not a property of sound? Depending on our point of view a piece of sound can become music. A timbre does not have a start or an end. Atonal music is a type of sound on a very high level; it defines a new musical timbre.

J. S. Bach created (formulated, or helped the evolution of) a form for music based upon the structures of the harmonic tone and a uniform connection between the music based on it -- tonal music. What Bach did to music, Schoenberg did to sound2.12. As pointed out before, Schoenberg formulated a connection between form and content -- music and sound -- and he became aware of this fact by understanding the relationship of the tonal form and the harmonic sound. Schoenberg did not only emancipate pitch, he emancipated the structures of sound. Notice that in the last quote, Schoenberg says ``New sounds were created''.

Schoenberg also says that this method creates impressionistic music that has to be listened to differently. He implies a very primitive way of listening to this music, and that is how we listen to sound, impressionistically. We receive the vibrations and get a feeling from them; there is very little analysis. At the same time, Schoenberg asks that every simultaneous sound be subject to the laws of comprehensibility as far as the musical idea is concerned. This point of view means that when we listen to music as a whole we are listening to sound, and when we try to comprehend the sound by the progression of its elements we are listening to music. As mentioned before, the tonal form is only capable of creating harmonic musical timbre, while with serialism we are free to create any type of (musical) timbre we please. Comprehension of serial music is not easy. Webern was so optimistic about atonality that he thought people would be humming atonal melodies in the street by the 1950s. Serialism has been attacked for its problems of comprehension, which is precisely what Schoenberg was most concerned about. It is my belief, that such attacks are short-sighted in their view of what serialism is. In today's music, it is rather difficult to separate the functions of sound and music. Especially in computer music, composers are able to convey musical information through control of sound parameters. Lerdhal calls the holistic effect of parts of Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maître (1954) pure sound[24], when he says:

Le Marteau does not feel complex in the way, for example, that Beethoven or Schoenberg do. Vast numbers of nonredundant events fly by, but the effect is of a smooth sheen of pretty sounds.
In our analysis, this is no shortcoming. Creating serial music by using acoustical instruments is like building a house with a single type of material (e.g., building electrical circuits and water pipes out of bricks). To label serialism as a system which is not in accord with our cognition, metaphorically and literally, implies that our cognition is based on integer and not real numbers: let us stop using real numbers! The work of the past century concerning serialism has been fundamental for electronic music, where serialism will be able to show its real fruits. Serialism is a natural concept for music whose potentials will not be understood until we have a natural theory for composition with computers. We would like to reiterate the fact that serialism, and perhaps any technique, used systematically without any musical intuition, can only create sound. Thus, serialism can be a foundation for the sound of computers played by human musicians.

Now that we are able to compose even to the finest structures of sound, and at the same time, by using algorithmic composition, create large-scale sounds using musical structures, our point of view toward material and organization changes; they become intertwined with one another. The unity of form and content is not only a convenient paradigm, but is a necessary step, technically and -- far more important -- aesthetically, for the future evolution of music.

next up previous contents
Next: Unity of Material and Up: Techniques - Ways to Previous: Serialism   Contents
Shahrokh Yadegari 2001-03-01