Philip Clark asks: what are today’s composers to do with tonality?
No one was more surprised than I when my feature for the October 2012 issue of Gramophone – composers’ responses to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books assessed, analysed and appraised – turned into an essay about the future of tonality as refracted through the cut-and-thrust of gay politics.
Surprised, but not disappointed. I’d come to New York City to seek out David Del Tredici, the 70-something composer who has written more music rooted in Alice’s wonderland than anybody else on the planet, and who I described in my original piece as ‘the outest man I’ve ever met’, a line, I gather, that went down a treat back at Del Tredici HQ. As my piece traced his protracted and painful coming out, I realised how profoundly this was a story about a man searching for his identity, the narrative sting in the tale being that the deeper Del Tredici embraced his calling as a tonal composer the less minded he was to stay in the closet; or viewed another way, the more in tune he became with his sexuality, key signatures and modulation were in, tone rows and their manipulation were out. When Del Tredici told me that, back in the day, identifying yourself as a ‘tonal’ composer was a sordid confession, I was taken aback. What about Bernstein, Copland, all those American symphonists – Harris, Schuman, Menin, Hanson, Barber et al – whose language was proudly tonal? ‘But that was a very specific tonality, entirely of its time,’ came the striking response. And then, leaving his next statement hanging, Del Tredici went and made my journalist day. In all my 13 years of music journalism, no other line I’ve managed to extract from an interviewee has had so many far-reaching and potentially devastating implications.
Now you must choose. If it’s instant gratification you seek – to feel that comfort of perfect cadence closure – feel free to scroll down to the bottom and there you can read Del Tredici’s bold gambit in all its splendour. Go for it, there’s nothing to stop you. But if you really believe in the idea of tonality (as letters to Gramophone calling for revivals of George Lloyd and Havergal Brian suggest many of you do), if you believe that the purpose of tonality is to lend sonic governance to the chaos, that tonality’s grid of interwoven association, closely related keys rhyming, distant key-cousins-twice-removed clashing, that tonality can express statements that are beautifully simple but also has embedded inside its marrow the seeds of its own inevitable sorry destruction, take your finger off your mouse and resist that obvious temptation. At some point, don’t ask when because I haven’t got there yet, Del Tredici’s words will appear, a resolution, perhaps, a centering statement around which all the other ideas you’re about to read will be given a context; yes, a cadence point. But, assuming you haven’t scrolled down – a Karl Jenkins CD to anyone who did – now’s the time to modulate through some ideas about tonality, always an ear open to that oncoming resolution, always a fresh idea away from achieving it.
Until boredom set in and I started changing key, teatime in my house always ended in C major. I expected many things when I became a parent – sleepless nights, nappy duty, a general shakeup on my perspective of what’s important in life (all of which our son, born in January 2011, duly delivered) – but who’d have guessed that a thorough re-engagement with the stuff of tonality was also part of the fatherhood deal. But In The Night Garden, the pre-bedtime BBC programme aimed at toddlers, conceived and written and with music composed by Andrew Davenport, who begat to an earlier generation the more famous, but in my opinion inferior Tellytubbies, has a magical elixir all of its own. And sitting there night after night, episode after episode, feeding my little one before milk and rusk time in front of the television, and often after a long day in front of my computer writing about the screaming avant-garde, the pure C major of In The Night Garden’s theme tune became a point of renewal. I began picking it out on the piano. I began to admire Davenport’s streamlined tonal construction. The particular type of improvised music I’m involved with as a pianist bustles with brutal busyness; nothing wrong with that, there are historical reasons why it has to be so. But now arpeggios and scalic patterns flowed through my fingers like sand, like someone who hasn’t been near a beach for 20 years suddenly discovering this strangely familiar, yet alien, material again. I was thinking tonally, but that deeply embedded improviser gene was soon doing its thing. I began changing key; key centres were superimposed; patterns of underlying harmonies in my left hand were kept steady-as-she-goes as in the right hand the theme changed key with every new phrase. A mad soup of tonal harmony; clear cut but unstable. Chromatic croutons. Just how I like it.
Other thoughts about tonality emerged too. Re-reading an interview I did in 2007 with the British free improviser Tony Bevan, the following provocative nugget stood out. During a conversation about jazz musicians who study improvisation as an academic discipline – who are taught identikit modes and scales that essentially work over any chord sequence; you simply blow and the tonality sorts itself out – Bevan said, ‘That whole way of playing doesn’t interest me. I know about the locrian modes and the super locrian modes, and all those kinds of tricks which are supposed to enable you to move through the chords easily. But essentially what you’ve got is something that is chromatic. And it’s boring. If you listen to a solo by [tenor saxophonist] Michael Brecker, it’s full of all those chromatic run downs – sorry, I find it dull. But listen to Coleman Hawkins or Ben Webster, and there’s always a sense that they’re thinking about how to develop their lines.’
And then last month, knowing that I was about to sit down and write this essay, my ears couldn’t help but zone inside every cadence point and chord sequence with added critical intensity as I accepted my invite to attend the 2012 Classic BRIT Awards. Question – how to turn a Dvořák Slavonic Dance into a bracingly unpredictable listen, where every chord sounds like it could go anywhere? Answer, listen to it after a medley of numbers from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, where each micromanaged chord sequence does to the emotions what microwave ovens do to chicken. The faux-Romanticism of John Williams’ theme from Schindler’s List acted as a clarion reminder of why film music rarely works in the concert hall. Serving the narrative on film, Williams’s theme is functional, appropriate and evocative; but contractually obliged to carry weight on its own terms his tonality, derivative and calculated, offers nothing more than caricature. As the whole sorry spectacle, er, climaxed with ‘Sing’, the anthem penned by Lloyd Webber and Take That’s Gary Barlow for some royal occasion or other earlier this year, thinking listeners were reminded that harmony is very much an ethical issue. Tonality, the language through which Bach, Beethoven and Bruckner revealed their inner beings, in Barlow’s hands collapses into soundbite. Tonality fit for the age of the focus group; sonic porn. For all his song’s radiant surface promised uplift, hope and celebration, no one was going to feel any hand of history upon their shoulder. To deny the tonal system its inner complexities is to deny that life is complex, filled with intense beauty and horror, ecstasy and doubt. Click on the clip below – yes pop pickers, it took two musicians to write this.
All of which starts to hint at wider truths. Arguments ‘whither tonality’, and by default atonality, are prone to be evasive and territorial, self serving at best and ill-informed at worst. Earlier this summer my Gramophone colleague Ivan March wrote a blog post headlined ‘The Art Of Melody’ in which he floated that hoariest assumption of them all – that the word ‘tonality’ is somehow interchangeable with ‘melody’, while ‘atonality’ represents a simple negation of that, as Ivan put it, ‘discordant groups of notes and chords, which entirely fail to appeal to the listener.’ Words of tonality’s defender-in-chief Leonard Bernstein – ‘I believe in tonality. It is something which is at the heart of what I do as a composer’ – were cited, but Bernstein’s relationship with tonality was a considerably more involved affair than Ivan, and to be fair Bernstein, was prepared to admit. His conclusion: ‘If there is to be a future for “classical” music, as Bernstein pointed out, it must have a diatonic framework,’ is well worth trying to unpack. What is a ‘diatonic framework’? Pieces by Helmut Lachenmann, Salvatore Sciarrino and Mauricio Kagel are etched over the structural debris of tonality; as Simon Rattle told me when I interviewed him for Gramophone’s September 2012 issue, programming Lachenmann’s Tableau alongside Mahler’s Ninth Symphony turned both into ‘rubble and dust’. But I suspect Lachenmann’s scritchy-scratchy orchestral works, obsessed as they are with tradition, is not the music that those who speak about a ‘resurgence’ of tonality are hoping to hear.
And what about the ‘diatonic framework’ of Bernstein’s own music? That he made a conscious composerly decision to hook nearly every significant piece – West Side Story, Kaddish, Mass, A Quiet Place – around the tritone, or flattened fifth, the one melodic interval guaranteed to destabilise those most basic certainties of tonic and dominant, tells us something important about his modus operandi. Tonality was indeed at the heart of everything he did as a composer. And that’s why he was never (well rarely) complacent about it. True enough, Kaddish and Mass end resolutely, swimming in warm baths of tonality, enough to make those of us without religious faith wince slightly. But the sense of Bernstein grappling with tonality, of trying to make the diatonic framework fit around pieces that are dealing with society in flux, and fragmenting, and realising that there was no cosy fit – that realisation causes Kaddish and Mass to spill over into atonality and collage – makes for an exhilarating ride. Bernstein’s tonality is questioning and unsettling. Is this what Del Tredici meant when he said it was ‘entirely of its time’?
It’s a shame, though, that most arguments about tonality stop at the future. Those who talk up a ‘rebirth’ of tonality tend, paradoxically, to be among the last minded to engage rigorously with the naked potential of the tonal system, philosophically or sonically. Two contradictory definitions of tonality will play out here. For the moment, what I’ll call ‘historic tonality’ is a broad church indeed: the whole gestural language of tonality functioning as we already know it can – Bach to Bob Marley to In The Night Garden, melodic shapes operating in tandem with their harmonic backbone, the basic reference point still standing even if some composers choose to cripple tonality’s spinal c(h)ord. That autopilot mentality Tony Bevan identifies – and ditto the Classic BRITS’ smorgasbord of stale musical leftovers – freeload off the hard fought-for expressive truths of others, reducing to nought those dark, sometimes unknowable, contradictions that give composers of integrity a reason to get up in the morning. Tonality is asset stripped; removed from the context of its own history and the word ‘soundbite’ becomes wholly apt. The anthemic hard-sell of ‘Sing’ cynically massages populist sentiment to sell a product. Take That, dumb consumer! The era of spin gets the pop music it deserves. (The massive linguistic joke on all of us being that ‘spin’ itself is merely a more palatable word for what’s really going on here: manipulation.)
Creative free spirits skydive into the unknown. The noble ideal, not that it always works out this way, is to expand music’s expressive purview. But Messers Lloyd Webber, Barlow et al actively seek to contain language. Ambiguity doesn’t play well in that brutally corporate world lorded over by Simon Cowell. Ambiguity means difficulty and the trouble with difficulty is that eats into profit margins. And so musical language is siphoned down to a pre-packaged catalogue of dependable, bankable expressive reflex actions: fast, slow, happy, sad. The cushion of tonality remains, the inconvenient truths are ruthlessly circumvented.
But I know what you’re thinking – why construct an argument about the future of tonality around a boy band-member made good and a tunesmith who speaks fluent cliché? Would the jottings of Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown be appropriate pegs for a debate about the future of the novel? And no doubt some of you are also thinking – I’d be disappointed if you weren’t – but what our so-called ‘New Music’ composers, figures like John Adams, James MacMillan, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Guillaume Connesson and Michael Torke, who have all vigorously defended their right to compose ‘inclusive’ tonal music against the scourge of ‘elitist’ anything that isn’t the thing they happen to do? Surely they have something to tell us about tonality? All of which are fair questions, but the integrity and relevance of this essay depended on demonstrating how debased and denigrated the tonal system has become. Millions of our fellow citizens have been hoodwinked into believing that what they hear on Saturday night on ITV is music. The boundaries have been redrawn. And if you think that cultural malaise has nothing to do with our high-minded ideals here in Gramophone-land, you’re dead wrong – that same spirit of snide relativism lets Karl Jenkins, Eric Whitacre and Paul Mealor get away with their pretendy ‘classical’ music and tabloid tonality. Just because you wear trainers you’re no athlete; just because you use key signatures doesn’t necessarily mean your tonal music has any intrinsic value.
When John Adams (as it happens a former David Del Tredici pupil: ‘he still owes me a counterpoint paper,’ Del Tredici told me) conquered the world with Harmonium (1980-81), Grand Pianola Music (1982), Shaker Loops (1978/1983), Harmonielehre (1984-85) and Nixon in China (1985-87) – a sure-footed bounty of early successes by anyone’s standards – he talked about how his imagination fused minimalist process with the harmonic procedures of Wagner and pre-atonal Schoenberg. Minimalism’s steadily unwinding ritual prised open the hysteria of Romantic harmony; Adams could step inside and take a good look around. The early minimalist mindset – Riley’s In C, Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, Reich’s Drumming – had already decisively rewired the relationship between harmony and structure, each composer remaking music from the ground up; shaking the system in their own way. Adams, a generation younger than the pioneering minimalists, pulled off his audacious trick – he applied what he’d learnt about structure and pacing from minimalism to what was a Romantic harmonic palette in essence; music the minimalists were, in theory at least, ideologically opposed to.
Adams was reportedly displeased with the critical fallout from his 2006 opera A Flowering Tree. But what else were the commentariat supposed to think, three decades on from Shaker Loops, about his new opera’s generic tonality and caricatured (that word again) evocations of non-Western cultures – stock harmonic sequences, melodic lines that complete themselves in your mind before the music gets there? Shaker Loops remains Adams’s defining moment. Its slither quiver shake of string loops is plainly governed by iron-fist harmonic logic, but Adams keeps the specifics to himself. Where, when, indeed why, the next harmonic shift will occur, or cadence point will fall, is anyone’s guess. The difference between 1983 and 2006? Adams discovered what Shaker Loops needed to be by reconfiguring tonality; A Flowering Tree grafts ‘best fit’ tonality around raw ingredients like a chef following a recipe.
But tonal music composed after that point in time when tonality hit the buffers, if it is to own itself, ought to be a journey through the ruins. Many composers preaching tonality as their credo run scared from confronting tonality’s tick-tock brink of self-destruct – arguably the most creatively salient thing about tonality – and have only nostalgia to fall back on.
Could the truth be that, all along, the whole tonality/atonality mêlée has actually been an intolerant, point scoring brouhaha about not very much? What was atonality if not a way of rationalising the chaos as, post Mahler and Bruckner and Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, the tonal system crumpled into rubble and dust? What was minimalism if not a way of grabbing tonal structures back by stretching the tonal canvas? What were a zillion other ‘isms’ – impressionism, new complexity, spectralism et al – if not strategies for freeing sound from historic precedent, of keeping tonal praxis alert and necessary? A few years ago, finding myself at a performance of James MacMillan’s St John Passion, I heard ‘historic tonality’ at its most banal. MacMillan leads his audience by the hand through harmonic cliffhangers, sob stories and implausible coincidences – tonality doped with the values of soap opera – his harmony telling you what to feel and, more worringly, when you are allowed to feel it. There was no space to think, no resonant corners where sound can be sound. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s 2009 Violin Concerto, performed by Salonen and Leila Josefowicz on a new DG release, finds another way to duck the issues. Implanting tonal allusions throughout his score, Salonen’s get-out-of-jail free, slithery chromatic palette – remember Tony Bevan’s complaint about ‘boring’ chromatic run-downs? – dulls contrast and the flexing of harmonic muscle. Salonen hat-tips a catalogue of ‘Modernist’ forefathers, Debussy to Ligeti, but without any ideological spine; meanwhile MacMillan’s tonality isn’t that tonal.
Put simply, an impasse. At this point in history, though, could a tonal music possibly exist that builds itself from the bottom up, that treats the tonal system empirically – not ‘historic’, but ‘radical’ tonality?
When David Del Tredici casually dropped his bombshell remark into our conversation – ‘Most composers today who use tonality don’t really embrace it much, but my music was radically tonal’ – my brain flipped out. Composers who choose to seek refuge in tonality are only interested in the ends, not the means, he implied. Composers cocky enough to think they know better than history? Well, they can’t even be bothered to understand that history. And so this essay ends in the night garden of speculation, as all writing about the future of music must.
Taking a punt at the future is a mug’s game. How do I know that the ‘radically tonal’ music I’m about to flag up has any lasting value? There is no certainty, but my ears and gut critical instinct tell me that these composers are being bolder than your average composer on the Clapham omnibus in their attempts to construct a musical language in which tonality can play a part. As you listen to the clip below – extracts from More light (1987-88) by the British composer Christopher Fox – the sound of consonant triads arranged in functional sequences might be reassuring. But the function of these sequences is clearly not the function of old. Fox moves around (never pushes) this memory-nest of tonal material by applying rules that have little/nothing to do with conventional tonal ways of doing, like playing chess while consulting the rulebook for draughts. From the early minimalists and serialism, he intuited what objective process can do to raw material. Each Fox piece builds tailor-made systems through which he can revel in his tactile love of sound.
A composer with a love of sound and a flare for the heuristic? There’s the future of tonality. Michael Tippett understood that; Oliver Messiaen and Galina Ustvolskaya did too. But composers circa 2012 need to roll all those existing critiques of tonality into a tonality that is about tonality and its history; a tonality that looks beyond tonality, a Meta-Tonality that can be raw and demonstrative, that has scope to be filtered and sieved through processes that reveal its inner mechanics. The latter half of the 20th century dropped clues about how this might work; the experiments of Lou Harrison, James Tenney, Pauline Oliveros and Ben Johnston into expressive limits imposed by equal tempered tuning; the frank and fresh simplicity of Walter Zimmermann, Michael Pisaro, Howard Skempton and Clarence Barlow. If Salonen’s Violin Concerto typifies that all too prevalent strain in modern composition of a complex – someone less generous than myself might say ‘cluttered’ – surface, born of a poverty of concept, Zimmermann, Pisaro et al turn that sorry equation on its head.
Here’s the challenge. We need to be open to hearing this new tonality. It isn’t going to sound like the old tonality, and that’s fine – too much whining about new music is based on little more than ‘it doesn’t resemble the music I already like’. As mainstream pop, and what continues to pass for ‘New Music’, uses less tonality more cynically, there’s space for a new breed of composer interested in using more tonality, more pointedly to fill that gaping vacuum. Composers today are repeatedly pounced on because – allegedly – they lack relevance to the wider world. And thus a new, noble cause is born – creating an expressively pungent, provocative, culturally subversive tonality that rubs lamestream noses in their own mediocrity. Does that aspiration strike a chord?
- Howard Skempton Bolt from the Blue (MODE 226) Buy from Amazon
- Clarence Barlow Compositions for Piano and Player Piano (Cybele CYB960308) Buy from Presto
- Walter Zimmermann The Echoing Green (MODE mode150) Buy from Amazon
- Christopher Fox Catalogue irraisoné (Metier MSVCD92103) Buy from Amazon
- Ben Johnston String Quartets Nos 1, 5, 10 (New World Records 80693-2) Buy from Amazon
- Del Tredici An Alice Symphony (New World Records NWCR688) Buy from Amazon