Tonality and the Totality
Arnold Schoenberg couresty of Arnold Schoenberg Center Privatstiftung
John Zerzan (March 1999)ED NOTE: I had some reservations about running this essay- not because I thought it might be over some people's heads (though the thought did occur to me) but because I thought it was too damn heavy-handed. I'd shown it to a number of musicians and writers that I respected and they agreed. BUT... they also said that Zerzan's basic premises were pretty sound (though the guy pretends as if Ornette never existed and doesn't understand that the beauty and power of music like the blues IS its simplicity). Even if you're not enamored of anarchist political analysis of music (like the Mekons or Art and Language, right?), the man makes some strong points here that are interestsing and pretty frightening- musicians, writers and society in general WANT music to be tonal and tightly structured and any fool or heretic that mucks around with it is a damned abberation. Furthermore, all of this cookie-cutter music is just helping to dumb down people into unquestioning morons. Pretty scary world I'd say and worse to think that it's our own.
This essay is an excerpt from FUTURE PRIMITIVE AND OTHER ESSAYS (Autonomedia, 1994)
In 1908, Arnold Schoenberg's "Second Quartet in F Sharp Minor" attained the decisive break with harmonic development: it was the first atonal composition. Fittingly, the movement in question is begun by the soprano with the words: 'Ich fuhle Luft von anderen Planeten' ('I feel air from other planets').
Adorno saw the radical openness of atonal music as an "expression of unmitigated suffering, bound by no convention whatsoever" and as such "often hostile to culture" and "containing elements of barbarism." The rejection of tonality indeed enabled expression of the most intense subjectivity, the loneliness of the subject under technology domination. Nonetheless, the equivalencies by which human emotion is universalized and objectified are still present, if released from the centralized control of the "laws of harmony." Schoenberg's "emancipation of dissonance" allowed for the presentation of human passions with unprecedented immediacy via dissonant harmonies that have little or no tendency to resolve. The avoidance of tonal suggestion and resolution provides the listener with precious little support or security; Schoenberg's atonal work often seems almost hysterically emotional due to the absence of points of real repose. "It is driven frantically toward the unattainable," noted Leonard Meyer.
In this sense, atonality proved to be the most extreme manifestation of the general anti-authoritarian upheaval in society of the five or so years preceding World War I. Schoenberg's abandonment of tonality coincides with the abandonment of perspective in painting by Picasso and Kandinsky (in 1908). But with these "two great negative gestures" in culture, as they have been termed, it was the composer who found himself propelled into a public void. In his steadfast affirmation of alienation, his unwillingness to present any scene of human realization that was not feral, difficult, wild, Schoenberg's atonality was too much of a threat and challenge to find much acceptance. The expressionist painter August Macke wrote to his colleague Franz Marc following an evening of Schoenberg's chamber music in 1911: "Can you imagine music in which tonality has been completely abandoned? I was reminded constantly of Kandinsky's large compositions which are written, as it were, in no single key... this music which lets every tone stand by itself." Unfortunately, their feeling for such a radically libertarian approach was not shared by many, not exposed to many.
As Macke's letter implies, before the atonal breakout, music had achieved meaning through the defined relations of chords to a tonal center. Schoenberg's THEORY OF HARMONY summed up the old system well: "It has always been the referring of all results to a center, to an emanating point... Tonality does not serve. On the contrary, it demands to be served."
Some defenders of tonality, on the other hand, have adopted a frankly socially authoritarian point of view, feeling that more than just changes in music were at stake. Levarie and Levy's MUSIC MORPHOLOGY (1983), for example, proceeded from the philosophical thesis that "Chaos is non-being" to the political stance that "The revolt against tonality... is an egalitarian revolution." They further pronounced atonality to be "a general contemporary phenomenon," noting with displeasure how "Obsessive fear of tonality reveals a deep aversion to the concept of hierarchy and rank." This stance is reminiscent of Hindemith's conclusion that it is impossible to deny the validity of hierarchical tone relationships and that there is therefore "no such thing as atonal music." Such comments obviously seek to defend more than the dominant musical form: they would preserve authority, standardization, hierarchy and whatever cultural grammar guarantees a world defined by such values.
Schoenberg's atonal experiment suffered as a part of the defeat of World War I and its aftermath meted out for social dissonance. By the early 1920s he had given up the systemless radicalism of atonality: not a single "free" note survived. In the absence of a tonal center he inserted the totally rule-governed 32-tone set, which, as Adorno judged, "virtually extinguishes the subject." Dodecaphony, or serialism as it is also called, constituted a new compliance in the place of tonality, corresponding to a new phase of increasingly systematized industrialism introduced with World War I. Schoenberg forged new laws to control what was liberated by the old tonal rules of resolution, new laws that guarantee a more complete circulation among all twelve pitches and may be said to speak to capital's growing need for improved recirculation. Serial technique is a kind of total integration in which movement is strictly controlled, as in a bureaucratically enforced mode. Its conceptual drawback for the dominant order is that while greater circulation is achieved via its new standardized demands (none of the tones is to be repeated before the other eleven have been heard), the concentrated control actually allows for very little production. This is seen most clearly in the extreme understatement and brevity in much of the work of Webern, Schoenberg's most successful disciple; at times there are as many pauses as notes, while the second of Webern's early Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, for example, lasts only thirteen seconds.
The old harmonic system and its major/minor key points of reference provided easily understood places of departure and destination. Serialism accords equal use to each more, making any chord feasible: this conveys a somewhat homeless, fragmentary sense, suitable to an age of more diffuse, traditionless domination.
As of World War I, art music in general began to fragment. Stravinsky led the neoclassicist tendency, which reaffirmed a tonal center despite the prevailing winds of change. Grounded firmly in the 18th century, it seemed to increasing numbers of composers, especially after World War II, to be no solution to music's theoretical problems. Serialist figure Pierre Boulez termed its rather flagrantly anachronistic character and refusal of development a 'mockery.' Neoclassical music seemed to share at least something with the new serialist movement, however: an often stark, austere character, in line with the general trend toward contraction and pessimism. Benjamin Britten seemed preoccupied with the problem of suffering, while many of Aaron Copeland's works evoke the loneliness of industrial cities, whose very energy is bereft of real vitality. Another major traditionalist, Vaughan Williams, ended his masterful Sixth Symphony with what can only be described as an objective statement of utter nihilism.
Meanwhile, by the 1950's, serialism came to be regarded as overdetermined, its discipline too severe, so much so that it occasioned 'chance' music (also called aleatory music or indeterminacy). Closely identified popularly with John Cage, chance seemed another part of the larger swing away from the subject- which electronic or computer-generated composition would take even further- whereby the human voice disappears and even the performer is often eliminated. Paradoxically, the aesthetic effects produced by random methods are the same as those realized by totally ordered music. The minimalism of Reich, Glass, and others seem a mass-marketed neoconversatism in its pleasant, repetitious poverty of ideas. Iannis Xenakis, imitating the brutalism of his teacher Le Corbusier, may be said to stand for the height of the cybernetizing, computer-worshipping approach: he has sought an "alloy of music and technology" based on his research into "logico-mathetmatical invariants."
Art music is today bewildered by a scattering influence, the absence of any unifying, common-practice language. And yet the main thrust of all of it- if one can use the word thrust in such an enervated context- is a cold expressionlessness wholly befitting the enormous increase in alienation, objectification and reification of worldwide late capitalism. A divided society must finally make do with a divided art: the landscape does not 'harmonize.' It is an era that perhaps cannot even be given a musical ending anymore; it has certainly become both too unruly and too bleak to be composed and brought to a tonal, cadenced close. When art and even symbolization itself seem false to many, the question occurs, where do the forces lie by which music can be kept alive, where is the enchantment?
"All art is mortal, not merely the individual artifacts but the arts themselves," wrote Spengler. Art- with music in the forefront- may, as Hegel speculated it would, be already well within the age of its demise. Samuel Lipman's MUSIC AFTER MODERNISM (1979) pronounced music's terminal illness, its status as "living on the capital of the explosion of creativity which lasted from before Bach to World War I." The failure of tonality's 'creativity' is of course part of an overall entropy in which capital, in Lipman's accidental accuracy of words, turns toxic and unmistakably self-destructive. Adorno saw that "There are fewer and fewer works from the past that continue to be good. It is as if the entire supply of culture is dwindling." Some would merely hold on to the museum pieces of tonality at all costs and deplore the lack of their resupply. This is the meaning of virtually all the standard laments on the subject, such as Constant Lambert's THE AGONY OF MODERN MUSIC (1955) in which Henry Pleasants told us that "The vein which for three hundred years offered a seemingly inexhaustible yield of beautiful music has run out," or Roland Stromberg in AFTER EVERYTHING (1975): "It is hard ...not to think that serious music has reached the state of total decay." But the same death verdict also comes from non-antiquarians: a 1983 lecture by noted serialist composer Milton Babbitt was called "The Unlikely Survival of Serious Music." Earlier, Babbitt, in the face of unpopularity of contemporary art music posed, defiantly and unrealistically, the "complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition" and penned an article entitled "Who Cares If You Listen?"
The lack of a public for 'difficult' music is obvious and noteworthy. If Bloch was correct to judge "All we hear is ourselves," it may also be correct to conclude that the listener does not want that element in music that is a confrontation with our age. Adorno referred to Schoenberg's music as the reflection of a broken and empty world, evoking a reply from Milan Rankovic that "Such a reflection cannot be loved because it reproduces the same emptiness in the spirit of the listener." A further question, relating to the limits of art itself, is whether estrangement in music could ever prove effective in the struggle against the estrangement of society.
Modern music, however splintered and removed from the old tonal paradigm, has obviously not effaced the popularity of Baroque, Classical and Romantic masters. And in the area of music education tonality continues to prevail at all levels; undergraduates in composition classes are instructed that the dominant 'demands' resolution, that it "must resolve" to the tonic, etc., and the students' musical sense itself is appraised in terms of the once-unchallenged harmonic categories and rules. Tonality, as should be clear by now, is an ideology in purely musical terms, and that perseveres.
One wonders, in fact, why art music, where traditions are revered, should have made the break that it has, while all of pop music (and almost all jazz, which inherited its harmonic system from classic European tonality), where traditions are often despised, has held back. There is no form of popular music in the industrial world that exists outside the province of mass tonal consciousness. As Richard Norton said so well: "It is the tonality of the church, school, office, parade, convention, cafeteria, workplace, airport, airplane, automobile, truck, tractor, lounge, lobby, bar, gym, brothel, bank, and elevator. Afraid of being without it on foot, humans are presently strapping it to their bodies in order to walk to it, run to it, work to it, and relax to it. It is everywhere. It is music and it writes the songs."
It is also as totally integrated into commercialized mass production as any product of the assembly line. The music never changes from the seemingly eternal formula, despite superficial variations; the 'good' song, the harmonically marketable song, is one that contains fewer different chords than a 14th century ballad. Its expressive potential exists solely within the limited confines of consumer choice, wherein, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, "Something is provided for everyone so that none shall escape." As a one-dimensional code of consumer society, it is a training course in passivity.
Music, reduced to background noise which no longer takes itself seriously, is at the same time a central, omnipresent element of the environment, more so than ever before. The immersion in tonality is at once distraction and pervasive control, as the silence of isolation and boredom must be filled in. It comforts us, denying that the world is as reified as it is, reduced to making believe that- as Beckett put it in ENDGAME- anything is happening, that anything changes. Pop music also provides the pleasure of identification, the immediate experience of collective identity that only massified culture, unconscious of the authoritarian ideology which is tonality, can provide.
Rock music was a 'revolution' compared with earlier pop music only in the sense of lyrics and tempo (and volume)- no tonal revolution had even been dimly conceived. Studies have shown that all types of (tonal) music calm the unruly; consider how punk has standardized and cliched the musical sneer. It is not only the music of overt pacification, like New Age composition, which denies the negative as dangerous and evil in the same way that Socialist Realism did, and likewise aids and abets the daily oppression. Just as surely it will take more than rockers smashing their guitars on stage, even though the limits of tonality may be behind such acts, to signal a new age.
Like language, tonality is historically characterized by its unfreedom. We are made tonal by society: only in the elimination of that society will occur the superseding of all grammars of domination.
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