Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why Atonal/Post-Tonal Music?

Our first composition project (see Project Description) of this course requires students to create a progression of 12-16 chords for piano where the harmonic tension gradually increases to about the two-thirds point, and then gradually decreases to the end. The chords must be atonal.

Which begs the question, "why atonal?"

Here are some of my reasons:
  • The first is that almost every course that involves writing or studying music in the School of Music (1st- and 2nd-year theory, 16th and 18th-century counterpoint, orchestration, aural labs, keyboard harmony, analysis, jazz theory and arranging, etc.) concerns itself with tonal music, and composition is one of the few courses where there is an opportunity to write post-tonal music (electronic music is another). If you don't try writing this kind of music here, it is possible that you would not have the opportunity to do so in any of your other courses!

  • The 20th century was period of unprecedented stylistic change and contrast in music history. Graduating without ever having dipped your toe into the pool of 20th-century techniques would be sad, and difficult to justify.

  • Just as we can better understand renaissance music by learning to write 16th-century counterpoint, we can better understand much of the music of the 20th century by learning to write post-tonal music.

  • Doing so gives you a broader palette of techniques from which to choose as you proceed on the journey to discovering your own musical voice as a composer.

  • Developing your own musical voice as a composer is surprisingly difficult if you limit yourself to composing tonal music. You may wish to debate this point (and I would be happy to engage in such a discussion!), but this has been my experience, based on hearing numerous student compositions over the years. I, like many composers of contemporary classical music, often write music that can be said to be either tonal, or very closely linked to tonal music. I do not believe I would have been able to write music like this, however, had I not undergone a period of many years of studying and composing atonal music. It gives you a different perspective on the nature of tonality, and, ironically, it frees up your thinking as to new possibilities within tonality.

  • It works. I've tried this teaching method for 16 years now, and, despite initial resistance or wariness by some students, which is understandable, it has always resulted in students writing music that I considered to be anywhere from pretty good to impressively good; I believe (in part, because students have told me this) that even the most skeptical students would acknowledge that they ended up writing music that exceeded their own expectations. I once gave a paper at an American meeting of fellow composition professors in which I played excerpts from several student works created in the previous semester's Mu3100 course, and my colleagues' responses were unfailingly positive; many told me they were amazed at the quality of the compositions they heard, especially considering that the works they heard represented the first attempts at composing for almost all of the students, and that the students were just random students who chose to take the Introduction to Composition course, not composition majors. It works, so I keep teaching this way!
Hopefully, these reasons make sense to you. I guess the main point is that my job is to help students who take this course become better composers, and at this early stage in the process (this is an introductory-level course), I think it essential to explore atonality in order to discover new sonic possibilities.



Heidi said...

I agree that I would be reluctant to embrace composing atonal music under normal circumstances, so I appreciate the push into what is, for me, a more unfamiliar sound world. I am not convinced, however, of exclusively prescribing atonal music for composition students. I think one of the greatest feats/ tasks of the modern composer is to marry both atonality and tonality together. I prefer a mixed palette.

Jessica Blenis said...

I've got to admit, I was kind of surprised when I found out that we were gong to be focusing mainly on atonal music. Like Heidi, I'm a bit hesitant to write this music, though this probably because I have't had enough exposure to it outside of what I've heard while studying here. I think this is the general concensus too- I've presented some of friends with 20th century pieces that we studied in history, and they were all really surprised to hear that people actually wrote pieces like that. The general response seems to be "But is that actually music?" Atonal music, to me, is kind of a 'thinking outside of the box' way to compose. Though I was more or less expecting to focus on composing tonal pieces, the atonal direcion is definately refreshing and exciting.

Clark Ross said...

Heidi, Thanks for being the first brave soul to post a comment!

Thanks as well for being open to the process we are trying; that’s really all I ask of anybody. “An unfamiliar sound world” is a great way of describing the kinds of sonorities we are exploring.

Like you, I do not believe contemporary composers “should” write atonal music exclusively; if that were the case I’d be a hypocrite, because the majority of the music I write has strong ties to some sense of tonality; heck, a lot of it is tonal!

For what it’s worth, the only objectives I think a composer “should” have are (a) to write the kind of music they would like to hear, and (b) to find a way to do so that is unique or personal to them.

But in order to write this kind of music, composers need to develop the tools to do so, and that’s what I am here to help you do. I’ve never actually tried to make an inventory of all the tools that I think composers ideally should have, but if I did I suspect the list would be quite long. High on the list would probably be things like:
• Develop good ears for new sonic possibilities;
• Learn to discern differences in the level of tension of different sonorities;
• Develop an discerning ear for sound colour, and the skills to create different colours;
• Be willing to try new things; and
• Develop confidence in your own abilities as a composer.

And it just so happens that this assignment is one where all of those traits/tools can be developed!

Thanks again!

Clark Ross said...

Jessica, thanks for your comment and openness as well.

The topic you touch on is accessibility; in the 20th century, some composers gave the impression that "audience-friendly music" was a bad, or gauche, term; this view seemed to be epitomized by Milton Babbitt's infamous "Who Cares if You Listen" article (High Fidelity, Feb. 1958).

The cool part of this for me was that some amazing, incredibly esoteric music was written. Do I like/love it all? Absolutely not, and I'd be surprised if anyone did. But I firmly believe that the world is richer for it, in part because variety is, as they say, the spice of life, and I think this is especially true of art.

But, to quote Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changing, and I would venture to say that most living composers do care about audience response, and this is often (but not always) evidenced by the music we write.

Speaking for myself only, I can say that, while my primary goal is to write music that (a) I want to hear, and (b) is personal to me (see my comment above to Heidi for more on this), I am very much concerned with touching people through my music. I don't think you need to "pander" to the public in order to reach them (I don't think The Beatles did, and they were arguably the most popular rock band in history!), but I definitely care what people think of the stuff I write.

Melissa said...

I completely agree with Heidi and Jess!
This entry is comforting to me. Knowing that all of your past students have gone through the same thing, and came out of the course with good experiences, and great music, is a huge relief to me!
I said this in my last entry, but I feel very self-conscious about the music that I am going to write, and how it will be received. Hopefully the people in the class with understand that writing any kind of music is a personal process, and atonal music is an area so unfamiliar to most. I'm sure they will as it seems we all have the same insecurities about what is to come.

I am nervously excited to see what will come out of this course!

NBus said...

This whole concept of intentionally ignoring everything I have been taught in the course of my musical life is slightly never wrecking. But more so I can't say I've heard anything in the way of atonal music that honestly I've liked. That being said, I also believe that in ever style of music a person can find something they enjoy. I think my initial shock of having to write atonal music is starting to wear off the more that I'm exposed to it, and I feel like this course may help me find that one (or hopefully more) piece of atonal that I truly enjoy. As far as writing atonally goes that is also starting to grow on me, and in process of tweaking my chord progression I am beg beginning to hear something that not only I like, but will be proud to call mine.

Melissa B. said...

I find it interesting that in one course this semester I'm writing first species counterpoint exercises and then a few hours later I'm composing my own atonal piece.
I was speaking to a friend about this course and we were questioning whether we'd rather have the chance to write whatever we liked, or just atonal music in this composition course. I think I would have liked to choose what style I wrote in, but I am just as content exploring this side of music as well. I find atonal music interesting and pretty enjoyable to listen to, and to be honest I think this might be easier!
I just think it's important to learn as much as you can. So it's somewhat refreshing to be assigned something I might not have picked otherwise.

Jill A. said...

I can understand the hesitancy of many students when confronted with atonal music. When one is not continually subjected to this type of music and lives in a tonal environment, it would be normal to doubt the reasons behind this particular assignment. I admit that i've always been interested in 20th century music and the exploration of atonality, unlike some of my fellow students. Many would assume that an original liking of this music would make this project easier, but that wouldn't be an accurate assumption. As I have grown musically within a mainly tonal environment I am still hesitant and anxious about diving into this new compositional frame of mind. I, like Heidi, honestly appreciate this push, and cannot wait to delve even further!

Kim Codner said...

I think that atonality can really be something beautiful. Our perceptions of atonality have probably mostly been affected by the pieces we first heard of atonal music. Maybe they were not great examples, and thus we may have formed preconceptions about the music that have stuck with us. I think that as a growing composer, exploring atonality for the past 2 years has helped me so much in my composition of tonal music. Before this exploration, I would write tonal music that would sound like it fit, it followed the pattern of where chords were "supposed" to or "allowed" to go. Now, I often find myself experimenting with tonality... instead of going from dominant to tonic, i would go from dominant to something unexpected and a with more dissonance/more of a supernatural feeling. I feel that atonality has helped me so much in achieving some pretty great tonal pieces, and even my atonal pieces are sounding pleasing to my ears.

Clark Ross said...

I just wanted to jump in and say that I have read all the comments so far, and I find them extraordinarily thoughtful and open. I am impressed!

Robbie b said...

I remember first hearing about this composition course one day through justin. I had not signed up for the course at this time, but he was describing how everyone in the class was writing chord progressions consisting of 16 chords varying in tension. I thought "wow! that is pretty cool!". And since I was at some point in time planning on taking the course, being a wannabe composition major and all, I immediately signed up for the course.
Once I got into the course, however, and found out that we were doing atonal writing, I became quite distressed. I was incredibly ignorant to writing anything involving atonality because I just perceived it as I do abstract art, in the way that I thought anyone could do it. Anyone could get up to the piano and bang out a few chords, trill a few notes here and there, close their eyes and play multiple random notes in succession and voila! Atonality.
Not quite!
I found atonality a great way, for one, to concentrate on other elements of a piece. For instance, a lot of my pieces before this course relied mainly on melody and pitch relation. If I could come across a good melody, then I was set. But with my character pieces, one relied on rhythm, one on dynamics and the use of different octaves, and one on spacing and note colouring. All techniques that I'm aware of, but just never really dug deeply into. Once pitch was put aside, I'm not saying entirely but definitely a lot less important, I found I could really concentrate on these other aspects, which helped me realize how effective they are to use.

Alexander R. Pryor said...

Clark Ross said: "It gives you a broader palette of techniques from which to choose as you proceed on the journey to discovering your own musical voice as a composer."

I completely agree, having ...suffered... the assignment! Having been a student of the organ, I've spent most of my life in Baroque and Romantic music. The baroque music is sometimes, I'll admit, painfully tonal, and the romantic repertoire is heavily chromatic, but always has a tonal centre, even if it is not the one suggested in the key signature.

The thought of 'atonal' music always scared me, and I avoided it at all costs.

Having realized that 'atonality' is a term with a terrible connotation, but is only a tool which composers can use to express their music, I am much more comfortable with the thought.

Many of these student works are far from masterpieces, but the push is definitely a necessary evil!

Timothy Brennan said...

I really like the fact that this course has a primary focus on the composition of atonal music! Like many of the other students who have commented here, I too had relatively small exposure to atonal music until recently. I had studied some for RCM music history, but I didn't really have an appreciation for it. I guess it was because I had been and still am immersed in the tonal music of the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras in my piano studies and atonal music sounded strange/odd to me. Last semester, I gained much more admiration and respect for atonal music as our music history sequence course was primarily focused on the atonal prctises of the 20th century and I also took the 20th Century Techniques theory course. These courses opened my eyes to the beauty and complexity of atonal music and I gained much more appreciation and repect for it. Now, taking this composition course allows me to explore applying atonal techniques into my own compositions, and push the boundaries of my musical creativity and knowledge.

I feel that the possibilities are endless when composing in the atonal idiom. The freedom to explore new combinations of sonorities and sounds, rhythms, and timbres without the "chord-flow chart" is really refreshing and exciting. Throughout the semester, it was fun to explore how I can use some of the 20th century techniques I became familiar with last semester (eg. set-theory) into my compositions (eg. the piano invention I wrote as based on a set). I am really glad I decided to take this composition course as I feel that I have become a more informed and better musician!

Robert Godin said...

I loved this assignment. It was a great way to break the ice in so many ways. I had never really listened to this type of music let alone try to compose it. And it was amazing to hear the differences between everyone's pieces. It really helped me become more accepting of atonal music.

André McEvenue said...

I feel strongly that one of the most expressive and moving qualities in music is the way that tension and relaxation can be built into a composition and felt by the listener.

This challenge of discovering sonorities that accomplished this without using the principals of tonality is a great way to enlighten us of the fact that there are many different ways of organizing pitch to build or release tension. In addition to this, it allowed me to see just how much the organization of register and colour can also affect the build of tension.

Mitchell wxhao said...

Something I identify with in this entry is that it would be difficult to justify leaving this degree without having first had a chance to dabble in the "20th-century-arts". First I think, of course, I'm a composition major, it's my responsibility. But it seems to me that there is an attitude out there that music stopped in 1899.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

I am looking forward to learning about and gaining a better appreciation of atonal music and its techniques. However, I am sometimes concerned that the classical community's recent emphasis on atonal music as "modern" means that tonal music is often considered "past", and therefore less valuable for a serious 21st century composer. I believe that a great deal of quality music can still be written in the tonal system, and I fear that some composers are limiting themselves when they fall into the trap of dismissing tonal music as out of date or not sufficiently original. I hope to study the techniques of composing both atonal and modern tonal music while here at MUN. We must certainly learn how to compose atonal music, but we would be doing ourselves a disservice as composers if we were to regard tonal composition as simply a historical exercise.

Byrann Gowan said...

I must admit that, when it comes to atonal music, I'm not the most innovative student. However, that could be, like most students it seems, because I have not had much exposure to it. However, the chord project helped me get my feet wet, and I must admit that another thing that is helping me as well is the fact that I am also taking Post-Tonal Music Theory as well. What is interesting to me about this music is that everything that I've learned about theory, to me, is being thrown out the window, which is definitely not a bad thing. Like Jessica Blenis said, this is "thinking outside the box," and by now, I am starting to be more comfortable in the atonal world of music.

Jessica Blenis said...

Wow! I can't believe this was posted so long ago- glad to see that it's still inciting thought-provoking conversations and comments from those who are just stepping into the waters.

I'm now about halfway through a M. Mus degree in composition and have been writing atonal music since I took this course. I was intimidated at first and didn't know exactly what to write; I think that most of this was because I didn't identify atonality as being a part of my voice as a composer. I was so used to drawing from limited palette of colours associated only with tonality- they could be combined many different ways, but would always be within a familiar and friendly spectrum.

As a result, my first atonal piece actually sounds nothing like any of the music I've composed since. I didn't identify it as being something "Jess Blenis-y" and nor would I say the same today. I wrote it that way because I wrote it based on what my perception of atonal music was- and that was that I thought it was ugly. I had this idea that atonal music was always dissonant, always strained, unreasonable, a grinding of notes together making noise rather than music. My piece was a result of that.

What I've learned since then that while each composer has a sort of 'sound' that we connect to them when we hear their pieces, their voice isn't always the same from one piece to the next...Unless we're talking about Philip Glass, but let's not go there...A composer's voice like a chameleon- it adapts to its environment, but still retains some essence of a character which comes directly from the composer. Using familiar and favourite compositional tools is good- it helps create a foundation for your sound- but diversity is fantastic. I remember how surprised I was, the first time I heard Schoenberg's "Verklarte Nacht" after having associated him primarily with serialism.

The more we listen and learn about other composers, the more we learn what resonates within ourselves. Adding tools to your toolbox will give you more to draw from, and it's OK to use these tools to create your own voice, even if some of them are strongly associated with one composer or another.

Not long ago I was told that "...If you can name it, you can't use it." Which to me didn't make much sense. Why would I spend years and years (not to mention thousands of dollars) on learning about these techniques if I wasn't allowed to use them? Atonality, polytonality, serialism, spectralism, whole-tone, pentatonic, aleatory, etc. John Cage (ab)used silence, so I can't do that, either. So what's left? This is a question that I've been struggling to answer since then. So I've decided that I don't like that statement. If I can name it, I can use it. It's the way in which I use these techniques and tools that matters; not the fact that for a brief second, you might get a glimpse of Varese or Debussy in my music. I'm not saying that you should blatantly steal from other composers but use their tools in your own way. Take Monet's paintbrush and make a sculpture with it. Make it yours.

-If you have any thoughts on this “If you can name it, don't use it,” please feel free to share them! I'm still digesting it. It's not going down easy so I'd be glad to hear from other composers!-
So for those of you who are new to the concept of atonality, don't worry- it's not a monster. It's simply misunderstood. The more you listen and study, the more you'll understand and relate to. There are some really gorgeous pieces out there that are atonal- and you might not even realize it while listening to it, because you can relate to it. The form, the instrumentation, the idea behind the music- atonality isn't a strange and alien thing. It's a key to a new box of tools.

Clark Ross said...

Jessica! So good to hear from you again! You were the second person to comment on this post (in 2008), and now, almost six years later, you've contributed a much longer comment, providing the perspective you've gained in the interim. I really am thrilled to hear from you again, and happy to read your thoughts!

I'm not sure if you will see my comment or not, but I wonder if you'd mind if I posted your comment as a "guest blog," much as I did when you wrote a guest blog on writing for wind band? If I don't hear from you, I will try to find some other way of contacting you.

Best of luck to you!

Colin Bonner said...

I must say, I immediately found Intro to Composition to be a refreshing course to be taking in the latter half of my degree for many of the reasons you've bought up in this post. Following the two years total tonality, the courses I ended up falling the most in love with were World Music, C20th Music History, and Post-Tonal Techniques. What I love about atonality is that it allows you draw upon an unlimited supply of styles and techniques, including most overarching principles of tonality, (voice leader, tension/resolution, phrasing, motivic unity). At first it was develop an ear for more atonal organization, but I was shocked at how quickly it began to develop within a few weeks. Now finishing up this course, and roughly 5 atonal compositions later, when I begin to write a new work (classical work, pop song, pleasant noodling etc.) I find myself less and less falling into whatever idioms I'd normally go running to.
Although a headache at first, I 100% agree that working in the realm of atonality has been beneficial to almost all aspects of my musicianship.

Kelly Perchard said...

Before this course I had not composed much, and I had never composed atonal music. I remember having no idea where to begin because I was so used to each pitch having a hierarchal relationship to one another. I remember wondering how I could possibly write something without a tonic. I think the first project with the atonal chord writing took me the most time to write (which is funny because now I feel like it would take very little time). Being a piano major, it was very hard to sit at the piano and not have my hands fall into some kind of tonal chord position.

I also wasn't sure if I liked atonal music at first. I found it hard to determine if I liked what I was composing or if it all just sounded random. However, after doing all of the projects and listening to everyone else's projects, I came to enjoy it more and more. I now feel as if tonal music is very restricted whereas atonal music is more free. It is true that some students would never have gotten to experience writing atonal music if it weren't for this course because I don't think I would have otherwise. It was a very cool approach to introducing composition!

Flutiano said...

Atonal music is something that I've been poking at warily for a while . . . and I find it interesting to see other people's ideas about it (Clark Ross’ as well as those of other composition students).

While my first reaction to writing something atonal for our first assignment was of discouragement and unease, I have started to vaguely like the notion. While I am really hoping to be able to write something tonal this semester, the no-tonal-chords rule allows me to worry less about how much I am going to like what I come up with.

Somehow the challenge to make it as good as possible is less daunting when the piece has to be atonal. Maybe because there is less incredible atonal music than there is tonal music, there is less that I feel like I have to live up to. It’s not in the tonal world of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms. The standard of the atonal music we’re familiar with (if we are familiar with any) does not generally stand up to the standard of tonal music that we’re very familiar with, resulting in their being less pressure to be perfect (although this is a questionable statement due to the subjective nature of what I’m saying, and I might be biased—however, a number of people have posted lists of musical works they found particularly meaningful on Facebook, and I don’t think I saw an atonal work on any of the lists, and certainly not at the top, which bolsters my belief that most people prefer listening to tonal music over atonal, and that there is significantly less amazing atonal music than there is tonal music).

Also, the fact that everybody is writing an atonal piece, and most of the class is not particularly comfortable in that realm, I am less scared to present this first piece to them. Many of them had similar reactions when the assignment was given, and it is interesting to see where they went, and are going, with those ideas.

Julia Millett said...

Intro to composition has completely opened up my ears to accepting tonalities that I otherwise would not have heard beauty in! I really got into this first assignment and created multiple chord progressions because I was fascinated at how the level of tension could create connection between chords. Given the opportunity to disregard all of my previous theory knowledge and rely solely on how the chords made me "feel" was an interesting concept. I already had an adoration for "atonal" music. But creating it myself has significantly increased my level of appreciation!!!

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

I believe it is possible to develop your own voice in tonal music. Tonality is one thing, but your voice as a composer can still be expressed threw many different elements such as rhythm, articulation, phrasing and much more. I don’t think tonal music is limiting at all. That said, as a musician, I do believe it is important to keep an open mind and be willing to try and explore new things.

I must admit I was definitely skeptical with the first composition assignment and considered the possibility of dropping the course. I decided that I was going to give a shot just to see where this may take me. I ended up exceeding my expectations and opening up new doors in the world of music. I am glad to have explored new sonic possibilities within this introductory composition course. I will probably include a mixture of both tonal and atonal elements as a way to hopefully find my own unique voice in composition. It definitely freed up my thinking and in the end it was a great first composition assignment.