Music Math: The Pitfalls of Reducing to the Common Denominator
By Colin Holter
My biggest problem with Joseph Straus’s Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory is that it trivializes 20th-century music by making the clean, unworldly, relatively simple pitch-math out to be “the thing” of the pieces he examines.
The writings of one Joseph Straus have been taking some serious heat over on the Rock’ Em Sock ‘Em Robot boxing ring that is the comment area of FJO’s “Don’t Call Me Stupid.” Straus is undeniably one of the preeminent theorists working in the field today; his impact as a pedagogue is difficult to overstate, particularly given the curricular prominence of his Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory. It is this volume that John Halle cites in “Serialism and Revisionism: A Response to Straus,” noting its overwhelming emphasis on the harmonic practice of the Second Viennese School.
Halle is right about Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory, of course: Even if we restrict our gaze to include only Western concert music, the book leaves out waaaaaay more music than it includes. Introduction to Systematized Dodecaphonic Pitch Ordering is more like it. Halle notes that Ravel and Sibelius are MIA, but I want to know what happened to Finnissy, Schnebel, Young, and Partch, to name but a few. Don’t these composers employ pitches? Why aren’t they in the book?
The short version is that they’re not in the book because it’s difficult to explain to a 19-year-old music education major how to account for each note in their works. Anyone can put together a tone row and a matrix, but that’s only meaningful because (in the pieces Straus cherry-picks for his text, at least) there’s a very clear, visible correspondence between the generating material and the score. I’ll be teaching 20th-century theory in the fall out of Straus’s tome (a decision made far above my pay grade) and I’m really hoping we can plow through the book quickly. Let’s make a few matrices, put a few sets in prime form, and then get to the messy stuff: 11-limit scales, additive number-cycle tuplet rhythms, spectra, etc.
My biggest problem with Straus’s book is that it trivializes 20th-century music by making the clean, unworldly, relatively simple pitch-math out to be “the thing” of the pieces he examines. This approach might help students in large classes locate the beginnings and ends of row-forms in Webern, but it also reinforces the false notion that the value of modern music (in the specific sense—music written during the 20th century in response to the cultural condition of modernity) is reducible to its conformity to artificial numerical patterns. Hopefully we can avoid this pitfall next semester.
This week on the ol’ New Music Scrapbook you can find a sax quartet of mine called It Plays You, along with a very frank and hopefully somewhat entertaining interview conducted by my esteemed colleague Brett Wartchow. I hope you enjoy both.