Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory

Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory

How Theory and Composition Became the Same Thing One of my favorite historians of music theory, not to mention his talent as a writer, is Joseph Kerman, who puts Schoenberg as composer and theorist in perspective in his brilliant essay, “How We Got Into Analysis, and How to Get Out:” “Schoenberg’s really decisive insight, I… Read more »

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Robert Hilferty

How Theory and Composition Became the Same Thing

One of my favorite historians of music theory, not to mention his talent as a writer, is Joseph Kerman, who puts Schoenberg as composer and theorist in perspective in his brilliant essay, “How We Got Into Analysis, and How to Get Out:”

“Schoenberg’s really decisive insight, I think, was to conceive of a way of continuing the great tradition while negating what everyone else felt to be at its very core, namely, tonality. He grasped the fact that what was central to the ideology was not the triad and tonality, as Schenker and Tovey believed, but organicism. In his atonal, preserial works written just before WWI, Schoenberg worked out a music in which functional relations were established more and more subtly on the motivic, rhythmic, textural and indeed the pitch level, with less and less reliance on the traditional configurations of tonality. So for Schoenberg, Brahms was the true ‘progressive’ of the late nineteenth century—Brahms, who had refined the art of motivic variation, rather than Wagner, who had refined and attenuated tonality to the breaking point. Twelve-tone serialism was not far off, and indeed in retrospect one can see implicit from the start the ideal of ‘total organization’ which was to be formulated by the new serialists after WWII.”

Schoenberg himself was never interested in developing the sort of analysis that has subsequently been practiced on his own and on other serial music. But once he had entered his formidable claim for inclusion within the great tradition, it was inevitable that a branch of analysis would spring up to validate that claim. For analysis, I believe and as I have already said, exists to articulate the concept of organicism, which in turn exists as the value system of the ideology. And while the validation provided by analysis was not really necessary for the Viennese Classics, it became more and more necessary for the music of each succeeding generation. What Schenker did for Beethoven and Lorenz did for Wagner, Milton Babbitt and others did later for Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.

Schoenberg famously, and ironically, wanted to ensure the greatness of German music for the next hundred years with his system, but instead the Nazis came to power, declared him and his kind decadent, and he fled. (Another great theorist, architect Daniel Libeskind, whose architectural plans for Ground Zero won the international competition for the tragic site, told me as well as John Rockwell—indeed, anyone who has read “Daniel Libeskind: The Space of Encounter”—that his Jewish Museum in Berlin, a disorienting zigzag, is an architectural completion of Schoenberg’s incomplete Moses und Aron. The third act in space, voilà!)

Kerman continues:

“The universal impetus behind analysis was expressed with particular innocence by [Rudolph] Reti when he recalled asking himself as a young student why every note in a Beethoven sonata should be exactly THAT note rather than some other. Reti dedicated his career as an analyst to finding an objective answer to this question. And questions of the sort can indeed be answered in respect to the totally organized serial music of the 1950s. Every pitch, rhythm, timbre, dynamic, envelope, and so on can be derived from the work’s ‘precompositional assumptions’ by means of simple or slightly less simple mathematics. Whether this derivation provides the right answer—that, to be sure, is another question.”

This, of course, led to much of the theorizing in overdrive that occurred in Darmstadt. That’s where theory and composition were really sort of the same thing in a deep way and gave birth to the complexity boys (still alive in Ferneyhough and Dillon). The Americans took up the cause, and Princeton University became its temple with Milton Babbitt as its leader. A new theory magazine came out, Perspectives in New Music. As Kerman puts it, “No branch of music theory since the Middle Ages has given so strong an impression of curling away from the experience of music into the far reaches of the theorists’ intellects.” While linking theory to composition was an important strategy for Babbitt—the great decoder of the Second Viennese School, and inventor of terms borrowed from mathematics such as “combinatoriality“—who wanted to establish music as a valid discipline alongside physics and philosophy, the actual link between 12-tone and serial theory to composition became stronger. This leads many to think, justifiably, that so-called “academic music” was theory-generated—and much of it was and sounded that way. What saves Babbitt is that, whether or not you like his music, it’s genuine and unique. While making my film, Babbitt: Portrait of a Serial Composer, I asked him what the relationship between his theory and composition is, and he told me that it’s very tricky and complex—his musical ideas don’t always come from the theory, and any number of ideas can be suggested by a matrix, for instance—and that theory never got him out of a tight spot. Although the precompositional aspect is important to him, before he even sits down to write, he must have an image of the entire piece, how it begins and how it’ll end up. And much of the time, Babbitt composes walking down New York streets or watching baseball games. One mistake in trying to understand Milton Babbitt’s music is to pick up Andrew Mead‘s forbidding book. It’s all numbers and superarrays. This kind of writing does more to confuse the compositional strategies with listening strategies. They are not t
he same thing. How a composer composes a work may be irrelevant to how it is heard. A lot more work has to be done in reception and listening theory (one early attempt is Thomas Clifton’s Music as Heard).

Edward Cone, who rubbed elbows with Babbitt at Princeton, was always an outspoken critic of theory run amuck and compositions based on them. He wrote, “What’s true of numbers is not true of notes.” (Professor Schickele makes fun of this kind of intricate analysis in one of his books in which he circles random passages in a piece by his fictional creation, P.D.Q. Bach, and makes the most absurd, preposterous claims for it.) The young theorist Ian Quinn comments on this: “A lot of times that’s true, but that doesn’t mean mathematics should have no relation to music. One of the qualifications for being a music theorist is that you have to be a very musical person if you are thinking about musical problems.”

Babbitt turns out to be very musical—unlike his deadly, desiccated epigones—and that’s part of why his theorizing is important, if not always readable. And Babbitt points out that so much of 12-tone music has to make itself up by scratch, a new form and new contextual grammar demanded by each new piece, unlike tonal music. And Babbitt brilliantly has pointed out time and time again that “ignorance of constraint does not mean lack of constraint.” Those composers who claim total freedom in their own compositions apparently don’t take into account the limits of their imagination and certain patterns they inevitably fall into. Morton Feldman said he didn’t know how he composed this or that, or that he didn’t utilize a theory. Yet upon analysis, his music yields an attraction to certain sonorities, harmonies, and pacing (oh, yes, the pacing). There is a musical behavior with constraints. I’d also like to point out here that John Cage, the King of Chaos and Chance, was obsessed with form. He did as many matrices and charts as the twelve-toners.

Good logical positivist that he is, Babbitt would like to purge all music analytical talk of meaningless discourse, shallow descriptives, and personal reactions. That’s a bit austere, and as Edward T. Cone points out in “Beyond Analysis:” “A great deal of current writing in music seems to imply that nothing about composition, or nothing important about composition, is beyond analysis. But surely the single most important thing anyone can say about composition is beyond analysis: namely, ‘I like it.'”

Well, serial theory and music making have taken a real beating in the past two decades as minimalists, post-minimalists, and neo-romantics have proven, after their nemesis Schoenberg’s bon mot, that a great deal more pieces can be written in C. Embracing twelve-tone music has always been dangerous business. Look at the case of Elizabeth Lutyens, who was the musical daughter of the British architect who built New Delhi. She was living in betty-bourgeois comfort until she heard Webern‘s Augenlicht in 1938. She immediately dumped tonality and her husband. She ran off with another man and ended up writing cantatas based on Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus Philosophico-Logicus and penned an opera called Infidelio (unwittingly biographical?).

Another interesting example is Giacinto Scelsi, the first Italian to write 12-tone music in 1936 before it gave him a nervous breakdown. In a dramatic reversal, the eccentric aristocrat focused on one note, exploring its depth—a virulently anti-12-tone position, wouldn’t you say? Dodecaphonic decadence at its best.

But tonal righteousness is dopey. I don’t think a Schenkerian analysis of Danielpour or Torke would reveal unified tonal masterworks. In this case, all parties are losers.

From Theory Schmeory: The Dangers And Delights Of Music Theory
by Robert Hilferty
© 2003 NewMusicBox