Is New Music Possible?

Chord Catalogue

by Nathan Cornelius

In one of history’s intriguing meetings of creative minds, Ralph Vaughan Williams studied composition for a time with Maurice Ravel. On one occasion the French master, surprised to discover his student writing sketches for a piece at his desk away from the piano, supposedly blurted out, “But how can you find new chords without a piano?”[1] Ravel apparently saw his compositional process as one of discovering hitherto unknown sonorities by trial and error at the keyboard. Indeed, the tropes of composer as groundbreaking scientist or composer as voyaging explorer are prevalent throughout music history, with harmony the main continent to be explored.

This, of course, assumes that there really are new chords to find that have not been used before. But it’s a bit disturbing for a composer intent on harmonic originality to discover a piece like Tom Johnson’s The Chord Catalogue: all of the 8178 chords possible in one octave, which systematically and exhaustively lists all possible combinations of notes.[2] (And this is not merely an abstract exercise in music theory: it has actually been performed in a ten-hour “marathon solo recital.”[3]) To return to the exploring metaphor, such a piece is the equivalent of Columbus landing in America and not only encountering the Indians already there but being presented with a detailed map of the entire Western Hemisphere.

Besides science and exploration, many composers turn to theological or transcendental accounts of their creativity. In fact, the trope of the artist as divine creator, or at least demiurge, is one of the most deeply embedded in all of Western culture. Like God, literally speaking (or, in some traditions, singing) his sonic creatures into being, the composer creates a whole new world out of air, which is pretty much as close as you can get to nothing. As your own blogger wrote 7 years ago,  “Music, even more than other creative arts, comes as close as possible to God’s mode of creation—ex nihilo, out of nothing.  When a composer invents a tune out of his or her head, he or she has given birth to something that did not exist before in any form or in anyone else’s mind and is not a copy of any other creator’s work.” While my sanguine high-school self may have overstated the case a bit, the idea that creative originality should be valued because it most nearly approaches divine creativity is common in the artworld.

But the theological ground for artistic originality is problematic too. As Paul Griffiths argues in his brilliant philosophical essay, Intellectual Appetite, if the entire cosmos is a creation of God, no human creator can claim original authorship of either a sensory object (the physical sound of the music) or an intellectual idea (the score in a conceptual sense), “because anything that can be known by any one of us is already known to God and has been given to us as unmerited gift.”[4] Thus, Griffiths argues, it is not really accurate to say artists create ex nihilo: “our makings, unlike God’s act of creation, require something we have not made that we can work on. There will always be something about our makings independent of and prior to our work of shaping and forming, something that therefore does not bear our style-signature.”[5]

Furthermore, composers are indebted not only to their Creator but to their predecessors: “Anyone who speaks or writes now swims, knowingly or not, in an ocean of words already spoken or written.”[6] One could equally well speak of an ocean of tones, and there is no composer who has never tasted even a sip from it. Thus, “there are no absolutely new things, no novelties in the strict and full sense, nothing completely unprecedented. Anything completely new in this sense would, by definition, have nothing in common with anything that preceded it.”[7] While Griffiths is referring to novelty in an absolute philosophical sense, in practice a piece of music is only intelligible to its listeners to the extent that it shares qualities in common with music they have heard before. A work of absolute novelty and complete innovation would, if it existed, risk utter incomprehension and thus jeopardize its very status as an artwork.

Finally, Griffiths suggests that artworks can (and should) possess beauty completely independent of their purported originality, saying, “progress and novelty are of no particular interest to the studious; truth and beauty are.”[8] But why then do we experience such powerful fascination and palpable delight in the presence of a new artwork? This desire and delight may certainly be corrupted by fads, trends, and self-reinforcing avant-gardisms, but it seems to persist in its pure form even if the aesthetic appetite is disinterested and free (or as close as one can get) of such distractions.  How then can we offer a satisfactory account of composers’ desire to create new kinds of works? Furthermore, we intuitively believe there really is something new under the sun. Is artistic innovation then merely an ontological fraud?

The solution, I think, lies at the border between creativity and epistemology. For Griffiths, “acts of knowing are in a limited sense creative acts. They make actual a good that without them was only potential: the dual good of your knowing something you can know, and of something’s being known as it is by one who can so know it.”[9] But one could also turn this statement around and say that creative acts are really acts of knowing, when the human creator first becomes aware that a particular arrangement of sound in time is not only possible but delightful, and then actualizes it in a sensible form, whether through the activity of marks on a staff, vibrations in the air, or merely neurons in her brain.

The world is pregnant with infinite numbers of potential arrangements, like an extension of Johnson’s chord catalogue to all possible aesthetic qualities beyond pitch, with all the permutations these entail. All of these potentials are eternally present in the mind of God, who wrote them into being in the act of defining the physical laws of sound. Thus, the composer’s work is not to bring music into being out of nothing, but to notice, select and present beautiful, even meaningful, arrangements of these potentialities. She is less like the sculptor building up a form out of clay (although even that artist has a raw material with which to start) and more like Michelangelo seeing the form locked within the block of marble and carving away the excess to make it visible. For the composer who has recognized this, as Annie Dillard puts it, “the writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool,”[10] revealing what was there in the world all along but has only now revealed itself to your ears, and through them to others’.

[1] Nicholas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 68.

[2] Set theory aficionados might prefer to cite the 220 unique set-classes as defined by Forte, while composers fond of overtone spectra might argue that chords genuinely sound different spread over many octaves rather than compressed within one, but these are merely quantitative differences. Johnson could easily respond with another catalog to those specifications if he wished.

[3] The increasing despair of the woman in the third row of the audience as she slowly realizes what she’s in for is positively hilarious.

[4] Paul Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 22.

[5] Griffiths, 71.

[6] Griffiths, 167.

[7] Griffiths, 205.

[8] Griffiths, 202.

[9] Griffiths, 132-133.

[10] Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 3.


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