Sunday, December 23, 2007

What is Harmony?

In response to a comment from Kris Tiner on 'What Is Melody?' (see below) I began to think about harmony in the same way I was thinking about melody and decided that the response needed to take on a larger form and some more thought, and perhaps even some new directions. In 'What Is Melody?' I referenced Schoenberg and Kris referenced him in his comment as well and I began to think of old Arnie in terms of harmony. Wasn't his harmonic language even more rigid than the language he was rebelling against? And in that rebellion his submission to form and structure was (in my mind) sometimes crippling. Perhaps, perhaps not, but the question remains, and began me thinking of harmony.

Harmony, as we know it, has a few definitions, and the definition in my trusty Harvard Music Dictionary is too long to repeat completely here, but there are a few interesting points that I would like to talk about in the multi-paragraph definition.

"The relationship of tones considered as they sound simultaneously, and the way such relationships are organized in time; also any particular collection of pitches sounded simultaneously"

Now this is a very interesting sentence. As opposed to the definitions of melody that I discussed in my last non-death related post, these definitions are something I can get behind (for the most part), in particular I like how they discuss that harmony isn't just the vertical collection of notes but also has a connection to temporal organization of tones. Now traditional purists will call that the traditional functional harmony that we all know and love ('functional harmony' being one of those terms that kind of gives me the willies) but I like to think of it as any organization of sound over time. I like to relate this to the Pythagorean idea of the Harmony of the Spheres, after all, when dealing with distance in space you are talking about time, at least as we can perceive it, (although I don't limit this to the diatonic scale like Pythagoras did). 

The definition goes on to actually say, "In principle, any chord may follow any other, constituting simply a harmonic succession." I like this very much, but of course it then has to go on and ruin it by the qualifying statement "In practice, however, the vocabulary of tonal music is greatly limited in types of root motion, and these may be regarded variously as strong or weak harmonic progressions" thus setting very limiting parameters on what harmony can do. Now this brings me to one of the main reasons of writing this. Isn't weak and strong harmonic progression all relative to an individual's ear? It says that weak progressions are, for example, triads whose root movement is in thirds, but does say in certain situations this can be effective depending on how it is used and all that, so I will give it that. 

This also hits up another point, and perhaps even an issue (for me), in music. With every rule, every functional progression, every form that we come up with, or have come up with, for things, there are exceptions, and lots of them, so many that there is usually as much in the label as out. For example, with good old Mr. Schenker, half of Brahms' music is brilliant the other half isn't music at all. This is the extreme of course, as I personally think Schenker was off his rocker, but the idea that we can make those judgements is absurd. So with each exception that arises in quantifying all past music into categories and then shoving all new music into one of those categories (occasionally having to invent new categories just to have something to shove someone into) begs the question of the point of all these things. Form, functional harmony, weak/strong, all that stuff, there is no point to any of it once the creative process has begun. The point is so that someone can call something by a name and feel they understand it (which they will never be able to, unless they are the creator themselves, and even then I am skeptical). I don't mean to say that music shouldn't have structure sometimes, my point is why bother with putting that label on it, just let it be. One thing I learned from my last teacher is that form is important, for cohesive purposes, especially with story music, but what the label of that form may be is arbitrary and doesn't need to be discussed (but I digress for this is not about form).

This brings me to my thought on harmony that may or may not have a place in this world outside of my head (or even make sense). About a year and a half ago I was working on a pretty significant piece for me, both philosophically as well as musically. It was a big form (which was not label-able), virtuosic playing and dealt with things that I hadn't really dealt with before. But without going into too many specifics of the piece, I started to realize when using key centers, and relatively traditional functional harmony, I began to develop boredom almost with what was happening. Not that it sounded bad, and it wasn't even that I disliked it so much, but I kept thinking to myself "well, that is good and works well, but what is the point?" Meaning what was the point of the key center and the functionality of the harmony. Now in examining this question the piece took a turn to a less traditional language because of this exploration, (so there is a very interesting dichotomy to the piece that I would enjoy very much if I ever listen to the piece again). But after this I began to really examine what I was thinking when talking and writing harmony. I began realizing in the next few pieces, that I was becoming dissatisfied with just clumping notes together in nice chords (even when extremely dissonant, although it was far more satisfying with dissonance). So then I began to deal with the linear aspect of harmony, moving into a more temporal harmony and not worrying about the vertical harmony quite so much (or at all, in the most recent case).

This brings me to the next interesting point in the Harvard definition, "Harmony is vertical, as melody is horizontal." I do not believe this at all, and for me it even contradicts what was said earlier in the definition, but that is neither here nor there. I believe they are interconnected and are basically the same thing (this plays into my idea of melody being something bigger than a pretty line of music). I have been experimenting with this idea of horizontal harmony, but it is too early to tell what will really come of it, as I have only really dealt with it consciously in tow pieces, one of which has yet to make its real life auditory debut. But the first was quite successful, for me anyhow, and I hope this endeavor reaps some interesting dividends.

So in thinking of harmony I have discovered, for myself at any rate, that the real notes are somewhat unimportant, or at least less important then other things. In my process they are often the last thing to be included, after overall structure, texture and temporal direction. This is significant in my mind.

And with one final thought, in looking at the definition of harmony from a non-musical standpoint, there are some interesting connections to be made. In the Webster's Dictionary the definition talks about congruity, common interests, agreement and even friendship. I like thinking of musical harmony in these terms more than in any music-specific language. Each part of a piece has a common interest, namely, to make the piece do what it was intended to do, a journey, a statement or whatever the point may be, but each part has its role to play in the process and the final product, so if the goal of the piece is reached and executed, could that be considered functional harmony, no matter the content?

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Reaper was busy that day

Andrew Imbrie, a distinguished composer and teacher in the San Francisco area, died December 5th in his home in Berkeley, CA. He was 86 years old. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and and composed an enormous amount of work. 

He taught at UC Berkeley, San Francisco Conservatory, as well as the Universities of Chicago, Alabama, British Columbia, Harvard, New York and Northwestern. And was composer in residence at Tanglewood for many years. He won many awards and citations.

His compositions ranged a wide variety of style and ensemble. 

He will be missed.

(they say it comes in threes, but do they all have to be great composers)

Stockhausen has returned to Sirius


20th century composer Karlheinz Stockhausen passed away on December 5th. It is a sad day in the world of experimental avant garde music. 

He composed 362 individually performable works. So where did the un-performable works go?

I guess he calls God home now? 

Farewell Karlheinz, you crazy man!

(So now his CDs are going to cost $60.00 a pop, instead of $30.00.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

What is Melody?

When talking about melody one should take a long look at the definitions that are provided via standard dictionaries and of course our trusty music dictionaries, before really examining what we aesthetically (and maybe even philosophically) think a melody truly is, or more to the point, what constitutes a melody and what doesn't.

My worn and trusty Webster's dictionary states that a melody is:

1. a) pleasing sounds or arrangements of sounds in sequence. b) musical quality, as in the arrangement of words. 2. Music a) a sequence of single tones, usually in the same key or mode, to produce a rhythmic whole; often, a tune, air, or song. b) the element of form having to do with the arrangement of a single tones in sequence (distinguished from harmony). c) the leading part, or voice, in a harmonic composition; the air.
Some of these are generic and need not be bothered with, however some of these terms create on interesting puzzle, in particular "a sequence of single tones... to produce a rhythmic whole." I find this to be a very vague statement  open to many possible interpretations. As it should be, because who is anyone to say what a melody is. And then, of course, there is the "pleasing sounds... in sequence" definition. This is just kind of a worthless definition in my mind. What is pleasing?

This brings me to my main purpose in delving into this topic, the aesthetic and philosophic ideas behind a 'melody'. Schoenberg talks about melody (outisde of the twelve-tone system) like it is something that 'should do this, and should do that, and progress in such-and-such a way.' I sincerely respect Schoenberg, but disagree with these statements entirely, for example:
"A well-balanced melody progresses in waves, i.e. each elevation is countered by a depression. It approaches a high point or climax through a series of intermediate lesser high points, interrupted by recession. Upward movements are balanced by downward movements; large intervals are compensated for by conjunct movements in the opposite direction. A good melody generally remains with a reasonable compass, not straying too far from a central range." (Schoenberg, Fndamentals of Composition, Ch, 4, p.16).
This brings to mind the quote by Laurie Anderson, "talking about music is like dancing about architecture", (and yes I do see the irony in me including these remarks in my thoughts). But I find Schoenberg's statement, although indicative of a true craftsman, lacking in the true aesthetic meaning of what constitues a melody, at least for myself.

So before we get into that, I want to delve into the idea of melody's function, if it has one, and even if it is necessary. I have heard pure texture pieces that have no particular melody to speak of, my own work is often lacking in a distinct melodic idea that I consider the most important thing in the piece (excluding most vocal music). So what does become the most important thing in this realm? It can vary, but generally speaking I feel that when you begin to venture into 'non-melodic' music you have to do a few things to compensate. 1) make the textures interesting and varied enough to be able to engage a listener (even if that listener is simply yourself). Although an argument can be made for how varied a texture must be (as minimalists have shown). 2) use subtle ways to make the music dynamic, or dramatic or some other adjective that allows the moment to progress into the next moment with intent. Now I do feel this is entirely possible (improvisers do it constantly, but I will get into that momentarily). So then is melody really necessary as Schoenberg says, and are these elevations "countered by a depression" really what it takes to make a 'good' melody (or a good composition for that matter)? That is of course mostly a subjective question and has many answers. I have heard composers who cannot do anything without a long romantic melody to start with, I do not have this issue, in fact I have a hard time dealing with long romantic melodies, I prefer shorter motives that are easily tossed around like a juggling clown at the circus throwing them every which way.

So let's get into another world all together, namely improvisation, specifically free improvisation. Now I am a relative new comer to this genre and am admittedly not as versed in it as I would like to be and am trying to expose myself to as much of it as I possible can, so these thoughts on this subject are just coming from an observer and student of the genre as opposed to an actual performer (as I have done a little performing of this music so far). I have, however, begun to incorporate many free improvisation techniques into my concert pieces (sometimes successful, sometimes not). So... having said all of that, let's talk about melody in this context. I think in free improvisation, or something close to that, the issue with melody isn't about a line of any sort, necessarily, or about a "pleasant sequence of notes", it isn't about creating a melody, but more about being melodious. Secondary to that is the journey that the improvisor takes the listener on, or potentially can take. In a lot of ways, I merge these two into the same idea of melody. A performer can be melodious in their playing perhaps, but if they fail to take it somewhere, or me somewhere, with their playing, I feel as though the music has lost something. They don't have a complete melody (being melodious and progressive). So in this regard the melody becomes everything important about what is happening, and takes on a much larger responsibility in the piece than just pleasant collections of sounds. In not-so-free improvisation there is still a similar experience, or at least the opportunity for a similar experience, as what I have described, but on a much smaller (and often shorter), and less free, scale (as usually they are dealing with lead sheets, and playing 'off' of another melody).

So in the end I am merely suggesting that the idea of melody (and in conjunction, pleasantness) is subjective, and often even arbitrary, to being musical (or melodious). Even in more traditional realms of music melody has become something less necessary in music. In a lot of Stravinsky's music melody, although very present and even quite beautiful at times, seems, at least to me, to be a secondary component to his texture, rhythm and sometimes the pure energy (often primal energy), which is why I like his work so much. On the opposite coin, Feldman has similar effects on me, but in a freer, and more colorful way. His music, although both highly structured and free at the same time, provides little in the way of 'melody' in the dictionary sense, but takes you to places that you never thought you could go, and in a way that brings together the melodic idea of being melodious AND taking a journey (sometimes over very long periods of time). 

I could go on and on with examples of the different ways composers have used 'melody', but that would just be too much information so perhaps another time.