Towards analysis of new sounds (part 1)

 My, admittedly brief, experience with British music academia has shown me an irrational prejudice against any music that breaks the ideals of the 19th century German model. Texts such as Richard Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music depicts a crescendo towards Wagner, followed by a diminishment of music, relieved only by the new tonal language of the holy minimalists. Even with the hate levied against Schönberg’s formalised atonality, he is given some reprieve in his adherence to German ideals. This prejudice infects so many aspects of academia, resulting in much new music being passed over in the field of analysis. Appreciate the aesthetics or sound of new music or not, they deserve to be analysed. In this essay, I will attempt to outline where I experience analysis to currently be, where I believe it is lacking, and the beginnings of a new route for analysing new sounds – the latter I will expand upon and attempt to advocate for in subsequent essays.

Let us, for argument’s sake, begin with the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. This piece is universally known. We can recognise and analyse so many parts of it: the melodic content, the rhythmic patterns (one only need consider the opening few bars); harmonic movement, both on a small and large scale; dynamics (again, the opening with its terraced dynamics); even timbre (would the beginning of the second theme be the same without a horn calling out the first theme?).

Now let us imagine another piece. It possibly does not use any defined pitches – it could be percussive. Perhaps the rhythms are too slow and sustained, or too fast and complex to have any lasting impact on a listener. Perhaps the timbre and dynamics are not defined. Perhaps some or all of these elements are present, but are so interrelated that they cannot be discussed separately. I do promise such pieces exist. As the breakdown of classical Western techniques occurs, so does our formal, analytical understanding of decrease. We may discuss such pieces, but without universally codified tools with which to break them down. In my hubris, I propose a new system of analysis, based on an essay that has been unduly forgotten – namely Helmut Lachemann’s Klangtypen der Neuen Musik (1966). Again, I will only begin discussing this in my next essay.

Western music is dominated by pitch – and I would at this point like to emphasise that, due to my limited knowledge, in this investigation I refer only to Western music. This is not an opinion, but an unchallengeable, inescapable reality. Whether I, or any other post-tonal composer or aesthete likes it or not, tonality is the prevailing idiom – from its roots in the earliest discant, through to its solidification in the counterpoint of the Baroque, its various mutation in the 19th century, its existence as the opposing dialectic to atonality, and the overwhelming majority of ‘pop’ music.

Analysis has obviously, and in all begrudging fairness necessarily evolved to suit tonality and pitch. While this essay (and life in general) is too short to fully discuss a definition of tonality, there are a certain number of aspects that everyone can agree on, and in so being, defines what it and is not possible in analysis. Tonality is defined by pitch – pitch sets (modes), harmonies and the overall harmonic argument. This argument exists over a temporal period, that is: the course of a piece (the structure), often moulded into a form. However, duration of a smaller value (that is rhythm) is irrelevant to tonal argument, as is timbre and dynamic; Schenkerian analysis is a particularly good example of the priority given to pitch – in effect a bias towards pitch. While a good analysis should discuss many aspects, they are inevitably secondary to pitch.

With the advent of atonality, some progress has been made towards analysis with more freedom with respect to pitch. Thanks almost entirely to the work of Allen Forte, we can analyse post-tonal music, but only if an immediately observable, logical use of pitches exists. Forte’s analytical technique fails to include an integrated approach with respect to duration, dynamic and timbre, and in situations where pitch is not traditionally used, it fails entirely. However, pitch-set theory does introduce one import new concept – the ability to define aspects of musical language within the process of analysis, rather than relying on a language defined a priori to composition.

Once music has ‘broken down’ even further, and becomes further removed from pitch-centralism and further subject to aesthetic criticism, our available pool of analytical resources dries up. Freedom of pitch analysis within a 12-tone system is no longer sufficient. What if it is impossible to analyse the pitch, rhythm, timbre, and dynamics individually or as motifs, or one or more of these aspects is inseparable from some or all of the others. Analysis relies on some measure of pre-existing musical language, be it tonality or even a system of possible pitch classes – 12 equal divisions of the octave and octave equivalence. Some subversion within the defined rules produces interesting results (such as sonata deformation, or a use of a pitch outside of the prevalent set), but new languages are very difficult to discuss.

One could try looking at new music from a purely dialectic perspective. Although I often prefer a more formal analytical method, dialectics certainly have their strength – when it works it works! Certainly, when they intersect with social movements like feminism (in a well reasoned way), they carry an enormous amount of resonance with the world today. However, much of Western repertoire –including much new music – and consequently the dialectic analysis becomes abstract, lacking impact in general, and any good taste in today’s world. Elke Hockings (1995) wittily describes these analyses as ‘home-made philosophical speculations’.

However I believe there is an alternative, formal method. In placing pitch, duration, timbre, and dynamic within a new framework, and a more generous definition of structure, one can define and analyse new musical languages simultaneously. In my next few posts, I will review Lachenmann’s Klangtypen, expand and refine his work, and use it to perform a few analyses.

(I would like to thank my supervisor Ed Nesbit for enabling me to explore this topic during my final undergraduate year.)

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