The Long Way Round

Alexander and Darius

by Nathan Cornelius

I recently heard a well-known composer talk about his strategy for writing melodies in his vocal music.  He explained how he searches for intervals and contours that make the melody singable, without carrying tonal connotations. I immediately thought back to various times in composition lessons when my teacher suggested I change a certain note or chord because it suggested a tonal function at that moment.  These reflections brought up an issue I’ve long puzzled over: What’s the big problem with tonality that modern composers are so intent on avoiding it? Surely no one would argue that tonality is bad in itself; after all, composers created masterpieces for three centuries within that framework. Do many composers today simply consider novelty and freshness so important that they automatically steer clear of anything once considered the norm?

In a previous post, I compared composers in search of innovative sounds to explorers charting unknown lands. Perhaps new-music audiences today, then, are like the soldiers of Alexander the Great, carried further and further eastward as their visionary leader conquered one distant kingdom after another. What of those soldiers unwilling or unable to settle down and begin a new life far away from their families and their homeland? Must they simply mutiny as Alexander’s armies did, marching back to tonality via the more comfortable provinces of neoromanticism, postmodernism, and the like—and giving up hard-won territory in the process?

The writings of German composer Helmut Lachenmann suggested another alternative to me. Lachenmann, never one to shrink back from new sound worlds in his music, nevertheless warned against merely creating “music that laments the sorry course of world events through scratching sounds.” [1]  Instead, in his essay “Listening is Defenseless—Without Listening,” Lachenmann describes the goal of new music as “… deactivating and locking out the dominating listening habits and listening categories preexisting in society.”[2] In other words, audiences are so used to listening to music in certain ways that they don’t actually listen to the sounds they are hearing. After hearing hundreds of tonal works, our collective ears became so familiar with tonality that we became unable to hear it for what it was. Now, instead of listening to three distinct pitches, each in different octaves, we just hear a “minor chord” and are content to leave it at that. Of course, this phenomenon reaches far beyond tonal harmony. Composers such as Tristan Murail would argue that often we don’t really hear the partials because they make a timbre, we don’t really hear the timbres because they make a harmony, we don’t really hear the durations because they make a meter, and so on. In other words, we don’t see the trees, just the forest.

Composer Chaya Czernowin agrees that audiences can only truly appreciate familiar sounds when they break out of their tired old listening habits and hear them for what they really are. “Instead of the masks of musical styles,” she writes, musical sounds must be “liberated from past uses, constructs; in that state, the material unloads its past baggage, but gains more physicality as sound.” [3] Czernowin offers an analogy from human experience: “Underneath the dress of tradition, culture, habits, etc., people are people.  When one is able to… get rid of the masks, which differentiate us, there is a level where a person relates to his fellow human as a human, going beyond nationality, culture and history.”[4] Just as we must appreciate any human being as an individual first, without merely reducing him or her to a member of any class or category, we as listeners must strive to hear the sounds purely as sounds, resisting our impulse to group them into familiar patterns.

Until we achieve this breakthrough of listening, it is the duty of composers to nudge us toward it by continually presenting us with sounds that challenge our habits of hearing. This, Lachenmann writes, is “not a question of an excursion (or escape) into ‘new,’ ‘unfamiliar’ sounds in the sense of new acoustical worlds, but of discovering… a new sensibility in ourselves, or a newly changed perception. This new perception… rediscovers the intimately familiar as something new, as a world that suddenly sounds unfamiliar.”[5] Like the Magi, we can return to our own country if we wish, but not by the way we came. We have to go the long way round, an arduous route which takes commitment and determination to set out upon. Like the student who gains a truer perspective on his or her own culture by studying abroad for a month or a year, composers must dissolve the familiarity of “familiar” musical styles by immersing listeners’ ears in many other possibilities. As musical cosmopolitans, citizens of the world, we will still hold a special affection for our home country, not because it’s all we’ve ever known, but because it is the one from whence we set out and to which we may one day hope to return. Unless… who knows if, on the way, we might discover a new land we desire to adopt as our home?

Either way, I’m up for the journey.


[1] Helmut Lachenmann, “Hearing [Hören] is Defenseless—Without Listening [Hören]: On Possibilities and Difficulties,” translated by Derrick Calandrella, Circuit: Musiques Contemporaines 13, no. 2 (2003), 49.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Chaya Czernowin, “The Other Tiger,” lecture given during the Réseau Varèse Conference, Berlin, March 17, 2007.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lachenmann, 30.

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3 thoughts on “The Long Way Round

  1. Great post! I think you’ve hit on the best way to think about the “tonal vs. non-tonal” question. Thanks for the reminder that this journey can include both discovery and rediscovery.

  2. Pingback: Is New Music Possible? | deformingprisms

  3. Pingback: Minimalism and Meaning: Lessons from the Art Gallery | deformingprisms

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