Thoughts on the Emancipation of Sonority


by Nathan Cornelius

In talking about twentieth-century music, one often hears the phrase “the emancipation of the dissonance,” coined by Arnold Schoenberg to describe his new compositional technique. In Schoenberg’s music, any interval whatsoever could be an end in itself, without having to resolve to a consonant harmony, such as a major or minor chord. The radically new sound of Schoenberg’s melodies was the harbinger of a slew of changes in new music over the following years, as composers challenged every accepted rule of the art form. In fact, later theorists have described the history of twentieth-century music as a series of emancipations, as various aspects of music were freed from the parameters that constrained them in the past.

I experienced an example of the emancipation of timbre (tone color) this summer, when I heard Raphaël Cendo’s Registre des lumiéres at Cité de la Musique in Paris. Cendo’s work uses unusual playing techniques to create an astonishing array of sonic textures and colors. When the simple sound of a bowed string or a solo voice enters Cendo’s sound world, it sounds like something alien, remarkable, and out of the ordinary. Hearing this piece launched me on a quest to explore this effect in my own music—a quest which has not yet found its ultimate goal.

In this post, however, I’d like to explore a different element of emancipation which I’ve been discovering in my own work. Most of the music that I write is atonal; that is, like Schoenberg, I tend to avoid using or even suggesting major and minor triads. However, I will occasionally (and sometimes quite by accident) insert a tonal triad into my music. This usually leads to my teacher reminding me how, in an atonal sound world, the familiar sound of a major or minor triad attracts attention as an incongruous sonority. While I sometimes try to use this incongruity on purpose for dramatic effect, I thereby run the risk of destroying the structure of the sound world which I had carefully set up to be unconstrained by traditional listening expectations.

Thus, an unexpected corollary of the search for new harmonies is the need to suppress familiar ones, lest they draw listeners’ ears away from my unique creations.  If I want to make effective use of both well-worn tonal triads and newly-created atonal sonorities in the same piece (and I think I do), I must first de-familiarize listeners to the  sounds they are used to. The composer Chaya Czernowin says that each new piece must teach the listener how to listen to it, but can it also teach listeners to forget what they think they know from other pieces?

I have begun to explore this possibility recently in my work. My inspiration for one particular piece led me to use scales which contain seven notes, like major and minor scales, but arrange those notes in unusual combinations of intervals not found in tonal scales. This wider assortment of intervals naturally allows for a greatly expanded palette of chord qualities. For example, a traditional major or minor scale can generate only three possible triad qualities: major, minor, or diminished. I found that my scales could create four or more qualities, three of which almost never occur in tonal music. For most of the piece, I stuck with the sonorities which I expected to be unfamiliar with most listeners, but near the climax of the piece, I wrote several rapid series of parallel chords, which required me to hide a minor triad among the more dissonant sounds. At this intense moment in the piece, the minor triad appeared not as a suspicious incursion from an alien sort of music, but as one among many sounds contributing to the overall buildup. I wondered whether this situation might point to an avenue into combining tonal and atonal chords in the same piece.

I do not claim that this moment is itself the emancipation of sonority. That will only fully occur if tonal triads cease to ring a bell of familiarity in listeners’ minds and atonal sonorities cease to set off corresponding alarms of strangeness. This is, of course, unlikely, and if it ever did happen, one would begin to worry whether previous eras of Western music had been all but forgotten. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the possibility of someday teaching listeners that major triads, whole-tone chords, and dissonant clusters are in some sense equal members of the class of musical sonorities, and that the use of one or another of them is merely an expressive choice rather than a grand manifesto in the politics of new music.

Athletes and Actors—and Artists

Athletes and Artists

by Nathan Cornelius

As a teenager, I studied for the SAT with the help of a test practice book. For some reason, I remember very distinctly the first exercise in the book, which required me to read an essay by a former commissioner of Major League Baseball and entitled “Athletes and Actors.” There followed a series of questions dealing with various laughable misinterpretations of the author’s prose, such as whether the sentence “Let actors stand for the set of performing artists” means the same as “Actors must rise out of respect for artists.”  Questions of standing aside, professionals within “the set of performing artists”—whether they sing, play, dance, or, in fact, act—do have certain things in common with professionals in the world of sports (income not necessarily being one of them…). In this essay, I’d like to point out a couple of them, as well as a crucial difference between two kinds of creative artists.

The day after I post this, a curious spectacle will draw 75,000 people to an arena a few miles from where I live. Audience members will pay hundreds, even thousands of dollars each for the privilege of watching a group of men in orange suits play with a ball. The only rational explanation I can think of for this strange phenomenon is that these people expect the orange fellows to perform such breathtaking feats of virtuosity as to merit the steep price of witnessing them in person. (Of course, there is the remote possibility that sports fans do not act rationally.)

The point is, audience members do not desire to be merely entertained; they want to be amazed, astonished, blown away. They go to concerts and sporting events alike on the chance that a performer will do something so inspiring, so beautiful, that they will talk about it for days afterward. They hope to experience a moment that will add wonder to their lives. This is the standard for which we aspiring artists must aim. Not being content with merely playing the notes as a good performer is expected to play them, we must reach what a wise person once called “that level of true artistry where everything you play is a revelation to your audience—and to you.” Anything short of that, and you will not remain a professional performer for long: your fans will seek this revelation at someone else’s show instead.

While athletes and artists may receive applause for what they do on the field or onstage, they both know that the quality of their private preparation is what truly determines their public success, allowing them to make a living doing what others do for fun. As I followed my favorite football team this season, I noticed how their coach would evaluate each practice session with phrases like “We didn’t have very clean reps today,” “We hit our targets,” or “The players were focused on their tasks,” implying that the same quality of work he saw in practice would carry over into a live game.  Like athletes, professional performing artists spend hours a day perfecting a certain set of physical movements through focused repetition. These repetitions ingrain the sequence of nerve impulses into the performer’s brain, like a rut in a dirt road, until the achievement of mastery, in which the motions are completely integrated and automatic. A performer who possesses mastery can execute these complex tasks with precision and grace, even under the pressure of big games, bright lights, and stage fright.

However, not everyone involved in the performing arts experiences this pressure equally. Athletes may do thousands of drills and study their playbooks for hours, but their success or failure hinges on their execution of a small number of repetitions during the game. A wide receiver may catch the ball perfectly nine times out of ten, but if the one drop comes with the game on the line, his performance will be considered a failure. Or a basketball player may be acquainted with all the intricacies of strategy, but if she momentarily forgets her assignment and fails to guard her opponent, it could all be for naught.

I wouldn’t call myself an athlete, but I often run for fun. Last year, I ran an organized race for the first time. Even though I was only competing against the clock, I still felt a surge of adrenaline as my wave of runners swept through the starting gate, followed by that peculiar jittery feeling as I took the first lap on the course. The feeling itself was familiar, but its setting was not. I normally got these jitters while wearing a suit and sitting on a piano bench, not wearing shorts and jogging down a street. No amount of deliberate planning or careful calculation would do any good now. Only the physical qualities of my actions over the next few minutes would allow me to reach my goal. Similarly, musicians, dancers, and stage actors must correctly execute both the physical and mental components of their work in real time, in the heat of the moment, for the performance to be of high quality.

By contrast, the composer’s work is relatively stress-free. While it is certainly not easy to create a good piece of music, composers at least enjoy the luxury of second (and third and fourth) chances and the freedom to take extra time to think at any stage of the process. If we make a mistake, we can erase and try again until we get the result we want. In addition, the composer’s work produces a mental object, evaluated in abstract terms (until it is realized in time by a performer); whether our bodies move efficiently, powerfully, or gracefully as we create the work is irrelevant. In this respect, composers (along with choreographers and playwrights in the other performing arts) are more like coaches, who draw up a game plan which others put into action under their guidance. The bulk of their creative work is already done before the whistle blows. While composers and coaches can and do get nervous over whether their players will execute their designs well, this is a qualitatively different kind of nerves from what the performers themselves experience.

When I watch sports, I may fantasize about being the player who makes the brilliant play to win the game. But when I read about sports, I am most intrigued by questions of strategy and which play affords the best chance of winning. What does this have to do with music? Maybe nothing. I still dream of performing  onstage to cheers and applause from a packed house. But I am attracted more strongly to the work of creating a masterpiece to be realized by others.