Wystan H. Auden
I hate composition theories, philosophies of new music, recipies of how
to compose, prescriptions of style. They're mostly unreadable, unintelligible,
boring, and always humorless - whilst their necessity remains a big question.
|At the conservatory you learn that musical history can best
be divided in periods of one and a half century (or roughly five generations
- or 'Jesus-lives', if you like). The period that's now ending started with
the opening-bars of Tristan and Isolde, in the eighteen fifties . It is
called the 'romantic/modernist' period. I propose to let it end at Saturday
Night in Stockhausens 'Licht'-opera (if that point will ever be reached
in the foreseeable future.)
This period would cover the 'bloodiest century of human history' , as our era is often called. It would begin in the music of a megalomaniac monster that declared that not enough jews had died in a theatre-fire in Vienna in his days, and it would end, in perfect symmetry, with an even bigger monster that recently identified with the kamikaze-muslims of the 11th september, who 'chased 5000 people into the Resurrection' ("in die Wiederaufstehung gejagt"), as Stockhausen put it.
It is a period in which 'new music' seemed to be possessed by the sadistic desire to punish its listeners with dissonance,loudness and maddening repetition, as an ideal of terrorist music. Composed by well-to-do revolutionaries who pose as champions in the olympics of moral grandstanding - the games that open with every new crisis in the realm of human conflict.
The leading figure in that development, the Lenin of composition, is doubtless Arnold Schoenberg, who, in the beginning of the last century, decided to 'free himself of tonality', and of 'the dictatorship of the consonant', fighting for 'the emancipation of the dissonant' (which in reality was the discrimination of the consonant.)
To do all that, he needed to create new rules. They would also apply for 'other materials', like in the opera Die glückliche Hand, where 'apathy equals dirty-green equals violin', and rules like that.
But even more devastating for the art of composition was the work of the followers, the believers, influential local opinionpriests and music-manipulators of the media, like Elmer Schoenberger .(In Holland we say 'Erger dan Schoenberg is Schoenberger' - an untranslatable pun, meaning 'worse than Schoenberg is Schoenberger.)
People who know my work only superficially will tell you that I'm nevertheless
also a propagator of a musical 'theory', which became known as 'the tone
'Blessed be all metrical rules' said Wystan
Auden , the great poet who wrote the libretto for Strawinsky's The Rake's
Progress. He referred of course to the art of writing poetry. The rules
he meant originate from the material he was working with: language. And
nothing else - not from mathematics, or biology, or religion, or mysticism,
or whatever secret cabalistic source.
rules that forbid automatic responses
is the poets clause for his rules. They're there to avoid cliché's,
to fight the ' anaesthetics of familiarity', as Richard Dawkins puts
it in Unweaving the Rainbow.
' force us to have second thoughts ', force us to be critical, to take some distance, or even ' to kill your darlings', as Ingmar Bergman put it. Because ' a true work of art is the result of rejected ideas', as Picasso said. Which means to me that conceptualism is the demise of the art of composing.
' free from the fetters of Self.' A truly buddhist insight: in the creative process we learn to see our Selves as an illusion, from which we escape - like Houdini from a straightjacket.
I drew the first 'map' of the tone clock, with great excitement, in a hotel near the Berlin wall in l982, and published it later that year in the leading Dutch newspaper NRCHandelsblad.
Jenny McLeod, who learned Dutch to be able to read it, was
the first composer to recognize that
These words were very liberating for me at the time they were written
(1989), because they proved that the clock was more than an idea fixe
that clung to my big Self, as some people preferred to think of it.
Intellectual innovation often requires,
above all else, a new image to embody a novel theory. Primates are visual
animals, and we think best in pictorial or geometric terms. Words are
an evolutionary afterthought.
The first attempt to visualize the tone clock theory was recently discovered
in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. It is 77.000 years old (7000 suncycles!)
and the 7,5 cm piece of red ocre is regarded to be the oldest work of
art in the solar system.
I published the harmonic theory of the tone clock at Christmas 1982 in
the newspaper NRC Handelsblad, after I'd discovered its principles
a few months earlier, staying at a Berlin hotel.
Here you see the icon with the 'dashboard' of the twenty 'steerings'.
Since this publication a lot of commentaries and misunderstandings came about, as they still do. The first consummate analysis was done by De Groot and Van Dijk in Key Notes. They found no errors.
In 1988 I started, in the NRCHandelsblad, a public discussion
on the tone clock, with remarkable response, regarding the highly technical
nature of the subject.
Others prefer Alan Forte's 'set theory', but I think his 'operations'
are too bureaucratic (like the old Darmstadt-serialists), and very uncompositional,
if I may say so.
The tone clock marks the transition in my musical thinking from the current romantic-modernist Dionysian expressionism to a more timeless Apollinian classicism, a transition that happens quite naturally to most serious composers when they grow older.
It takes a long time and ample training to really understand and absorb the principles of chromatic tonality. In my essays I've tried to communicate them with words and musical examples, but of course, the real proof of the pudding is in eating the notes: the scores.
THE TONE CLOCK
Solutions to gigantic problems can sometimes be very
simple and obvious. The musical triads are a case in point. Why, in almost
a century, have our composers (with rare exceptions) not been able to
make more palpable sense from the twelve notes of the chromatic scale?
The answer, it would now appear, is that our analytical gestalt, our unit
of perception, was too small: we had rejected the old triads and have
been operating at the gestalt-level of the interval, the two-note
group. (We worked with musical cells and 12-note rows, certainly, and
Messiaen worked with his modes, but there was no common language to refer
to those larger groupings.) This was actually a step backwards, not forwards,
since Rameau and later harmonic theory had already pinned down three of
the triads (the natural major, and its inversion the minor triad,
and the diminished and augmented triads).
Now the major-minor principle
is extended. There are now eight minor triads (smaller interval first,
as shown above) and eight inversions, their major forms (larger interval
first, not shown). The remaining triads are symmetrical and homogeneous:
both their intervals are the same, thus they have no major or minor form
(e.g. I, VI, X, XII).
(2) The remaining triad (X) works as a tetrad, transposed
Consonance and dissonance have an equal place, as indeed
they did not in Schoenberg's system: there the main consonancxes were
'forbidden', an unnatural prohibition which ensured that many composers
would eventually turn away from it. Being in so many respects a reaction
against the past, it was incomplete in itself, where the clock is now
complete. Musical democracy is restored and fulfilled. There is no combination
of chromatic notes that does not find a place in the clock.
The Zodiac of the Hours
Twelve small clock-faces (the Hours) combined into
one large one