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.


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