Perfect Sound Forever


Dissonant Harmony in Practice
Part III by Daniel Barbiero

See Part I of this article

See Part II of this article

So much for Rudhyar's theory of dissonant harmony. But how did it sound in practice? His suite Four Pentagrams for solo piano, originally composed in 1924-1926 and revised in 1971-1974, is an early example of his mature style and a good place to begin to find an answer. The first Pentagram, "The Call," is characteristic of much of what follows. The focal point of the piece is a set of ringing, bass-heavy chords of ambiguous tonality. The melody seems almost an afterthought and is based on a simple three-note motif moving up a minor third and then down again. "Pomp" is a stentorian affair with dense dissonances in open fifths including tritones; the effect is of immobile, yet unstable, sound masses succeeding one another. "Stars" is a more open-textured piece based on the cycles of fifths C-G-D and E-B-F#. It includes Rudhyar's typically dense and static chords but also features arpeggiation and passages of more melodically-phrased, atonal lines set out as individual notes floating unmoored from the anchorage of weighty chording (the preceding comments are indebted to the illuminating liner note pianist Ron Squibbs wrote for his recording of the suite).

Once his mature style had been formed, it stayed fairly consistent. In the post-tonal, unsettled sounds of its harmonies, the late work Transmutation, a seven movement suite for piano composed in 1976, shows some similarities to the earlier work. The first movement is organized around a rising motif spread over two major seconds, a minor third, a tritone, and a major third (Ertan, p. 126). The effect is of a partial whole-tone scale with a diminished flavor. Minor seconds and tritones are prominent, as are thickly dissonant chords in the bass register. The fourth movement tends to unravel its dissonances into single lines rising and falling with an undulating near-symmetry. Minor seconds are prominent throughout. The chording here has a relative lightness to it--it is dissonant, but voiced in the mid-register rather than the first movement's ponderous lower register. In their deliberate tentativeness of phrasing and play of rising and falling dynamics both movements reveal themselves to be what Rudhyar intended with them: tone poems alluding to "rituals of inner spiritual growth" (quoted in Ertan, p. 100).

Like Transmutation, the four-movement string quartet Crisis and Overcoming, another late work, purports to depict inner processes in musical terms. The language Rudhyar uses here differs somewhat from the language he uses in Transmutation in that there is an overall movement from a predominantly minor modality--the sound of crisis--to a major modality representing the resolution of that crisis. Unusually for a string quartet, the emphasis in the work overall is on harmony rather than on counterpoint, although there are exceptions, notably in the largely polyphonic fourth movement. But as a rule Rudhyar defies expectations in following a tactic unusual in a genre epitomized by contrapuntal writing. The first movement, for example, is largely homophonic, with single lines laid over articulated harmonies, or with two voices moving together, or all four voices gathered together in chords. The second movement's harmonies show an increasing astringency, and here, Rudhyar breaks up the texture by opposing pizzicato to arco voices. Section three is organized around a descending three-note, chromatic motif that gradually expands to encompass more notes in rising and falling patterns while section four, the longest movement, brings the suite to its culmination in a consonant chord. The contrapuntal writing for the fourth movement aside, Rudhyar largely eschews contrapuntal complexity in favor of assembling, disassembling, and reassembling compound tones by stacking the quartet's four voices in different combinations.

Summing up, we can say that certain differences aside--and with many of those differences having been driven by desired programmatic content--Rudhyar's dissonant harmony as actually put into practice over several decades was largely exemplified by thick sonorities set out in block-like chords made up of intervals of major and minor seconds, and of perfect fourths and fifths as well as tritones. These chords do not move toward and away from each other in the conventional ways of functional harmony but instead stand as independent yet interacting musical entities. As such, they tend to extend or narrow a developing spread of intervals through a sequence of mutations, without bringing the sequence to a conventional resolution. In addition, these chords often resonate with a shimmering and dark vibrancy, the result of a clash of overtones as they come into contact with each other. The melodic content of the pieces is often of secondary interest, and seems more an organic function of the development of the harmonies rather than an independently moving line placed on top of them. This certainly is consistent with Rudhyar's idea that harmony rather than melody was the actual motivating force of music. And it places him as well outside of the mainstream of American avant-garde music of the middle of the last century, which moved increasingly toward a systematized, if not wholly serialized, polyphony.

As interesting and musically effective as many of his composed works are, Rudhyar's music does seem to represent a kind of spur leading away from the main trunk of the last century's avant-garde not only in its sound, but in its purpose. Much of the 20th century musical avant-garde was concerned with rigorously addressing and expanding music's technical and material possibilities and thus extending its formal language. By contrast, Rudhyar was more concerned with music's ability to express, through an intuitive leveraging of techniques and especially of materials, extra-musical concerns. His ultramodernism was ultimately and unabashedly a metaphysical ultramodernism. This focus was at least in part responsible for his relatively meager output as a composer. As he acknowledged in an appendix to The Magic of Tone,

As a result of the circumstances and scope of my life, my musical works are relatively few in number. Their value, I believe, is more in the potentialities they reveal than in what they have been able to actualize in sonic and instrumental terms.
This is a modest but not entirely unrealistic self-appraisal. He wrote few large-scale works, most of his output consisting of tone poems for piano, some of which he revised for larger ensembles. His late string quartets as well can be seen as containing sequences of individual tone poems rather than as multi-movement wholes having complex and integrated architectures. As a theorist he was, as Seeger pointed out in their exchange over Ruggles' music, not particularly rigorous in purely musicological terms, and as Oja suggests, the lack of technical precision in his writings on music--a precision he admittedly never aspired to--may also have contributed to his work's having been relatively neglected. And we shouldn't overlook the fact that the intellectual disreputability of the occultism he wholeheartedly embraced would have counted against him in mainstream musical circles in a way that it didn't count against others--like Crawford and Cowell, for example--these composers were drawn to theosophy and similar doctrines, albeit less visibly and presumably at a lesser level of commitment. Paradoxically, though, Rudhyar's occultism seems to have opened up an audience for his compositions among people who ordinarily might not otherwise have had any interest in new music, as his 1972 remarks to Parlis indicate.

And yet Rudhyar's idea of the compound tone, based as it was on his intuition of overtone relationships, is striking for the way it appears to anticipate the more analytically derived spectralism of the late twentieth century. His works, as dissonantly expressive as they are, still can be rewarding to listen to. But in the end, he may be of most interest as an anticipatory figure, as a figure whose intuitions prefigured the work of others who could explore the implications of those intuitions more thoroughly and systematically.


A digital archive of Rudhyar's writings, as well as a detailed biography, can be found here:

Deniz Ertan, Dane Rudhyar: His Music, Thought, and Art (Eastman Studies in Music, 61) (Rochester: U of Rochester Press, 2009). Internal cites to Ertan.

David Nicholls, American Experimental Music 1890-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1990). Internal cites to Nicholls.

Carol J. Oja, Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s (Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2000). Internal cites to Oja.

Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve, Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music (New Haven: Yale U Press, 2005). Internal cites to CV.

Dane Rudhyar, Dissonant Harmony: A New Principle of Musical and Social Organization (Hamsa Seed Ideas No. 1), 1928 (accessed from

____________, The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music, 1982 (accessed from

____________, "The Relativity of Our Musical Conceptions," The Musical Quarterly, Jan 1922 (accessed from

____________, "The Transforming Power of Tone," a talk given at Live Oak Park Theatre, Berkeley, CA, Apr 1972 (accessed from

Nicolas Slominsky, Laura Kuhn and Dennis McIntire: "Dane Rudhyar," Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (accessed at

And see Daniel Barbiero's Bandcamp page

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