Friday, March 7, 2014

Form in Post-Tonal Music (Questionnaire answers: #3)

Question 3 from my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post is this:
3.  Should post-tonal music avoid forms associated with tonal music? Do you feel obligated to use "new" forms, as opposed to old forms such as sonata and rondo?
Ah! Now we finally get to a discussion of form specific to post-tonal music!

The background for this question is that Pierre Boulez, in his infamous "Schoenberg is Dead" polemic, criticized Schoenberg for, amongst other things, using old forms with new musical language.  This is sometimes expressed as the "foolishness" of pouring new wine into old wineskins.

In a remarkably thoughtful comment on the questions asked in my "Form in Post-Tonal Music (1)" post, Warren, a composition student at U. Wisconsin-Milwaukee, writes:
Contemporary composers may do whatever they like in regards to prefered forms, though I have to reference Boulez (it feels terrible to reference a terribly mean, spiteful person) when he talks about using forms that aren't tied up with the common practice period. Boulez has a very good point in that the drive of a Sonata or a Rondo is very key-centric, and once you're operating outside of the world of keys, the connection becomes a bit tenuous. Sure, you can compose a sonata or a rondo that utilizes differing sets or theories for each distant key you would encounter, but what made the common practice period forms work was the socialization of functional harmony. We can use old forms for new harmonic structures, but they become much harder to hear outside of a long context like the common practice.
These are all excellent points, and here is an edited version of my reply:

With regards to Boulez and his views on the use of old forms in new music, here are some of my thoughts:
  1. I understand the perception of intellectual inconsistency in using new organizing principals for pitch, rhythm, articulations, and dynamics, but then not using new organizational principals for form. Basically, if you're going to use a radical new approach to the choice of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and articulations, why not go all the way and use a radical new approach to texture, phrases (if indeed you have any), and form?

  2. And yet, Boulez has written three piano sonatas, a Sonatine for flute/piano, and a sonata for two pianos. Admittedly, these mostly were written before he turned 30 (although he continued tinkering with his third piano sonata until he was 38, and it is still "unfinished"), but at the very least this suggests that, early on, he was interested in playing with (or reacting to) old forms with new-ish, serialist language. Paul Griffiths writes that the second sonata has "strong intimations of sonata form in the first movement, and of fugue in the finale." Boulez, on the other hand, has said he was trying to "destroy" sonata form in this piece. If so, calling it a sonata and structuring the first movement in a way that is related to sonata form seems a curious way to do this.

  3. Can older forms can work with newer musical language? Schoenberg, Bartok, Ligeti, and many other post-tonal composers seem to have thought so, and I see no reason to deny this possibility. The counter-argument to point 1 above is that a composition is not a purely-intellectual exercise; you can argue that it is inconsistent to adopt older forms for compositions employing newer techniques of pitch organization, and that argument can seem reasonable from a purely logical perspective, but if some composers produce powerful and successful compositions while using older forms, then this "logical" inconsistency is moot.

  4. Sonata form expositions feature a contrast between the "home" key and a (usually) "closely-related" key, followed by the instability resulting from touching on more distantly related keys in the development. Obviously, if writing post-tonal music with no sense of pitch centre, adopting this aspect of the sonata principle is not feasible. This principle can be applied to post-tonal music that is in any sense pitch-centric, however; instead of home and contrasting keys, one can create home and contrasting pitch centres.

  5. In addition to a contrast in key, there is often a contrast in character (i.e., mood) between the first and second theme groups in sonata form as well; the opening theme is often attention-grabbing and dramatic, while the second theme group often begins in a more lyrical character. If looking for ways to make sonata form work in post-tonal music, this contrast in mood is an aspect that could be adopted.

  6. Sonata form also employs thematic fragmentation and other aspects of development, as well as sections of greater and lesser harmonic and affective tension; all of these aspects can be at play in non-tonal music as well.
Bringing the discussion back to my own answer to this question, it is probably clear by now that I don't believe post-tonal music "should" avoid older forms, and even if I did hold this belief for my own music, I don't believe in being prescriptive about matters like these. Just because I believe something, doesn't mean others "should" believe it as well.

Do I use old forms? Not exactly… I am not sure I have ever composed something that I knew to be in classical sonata form, for instance.1 I have, however, used principles from this form frequently in writing music. These include presentation of themes with differing characters, moving the pitch centre around, exploring the continuum between stability and instability, using fragmentation and other forms of development, false recapitulations, playing with codas, and, in the largest sense, using A-B-A forms. An example of a piece of mine that does all these things, and is kind of like sonata form is Dream Dance; click the link to check it out if you wish!

It seems likely that Boulez — or at least the young, militant Boulez that wrote his controversial article referenced above — would consider any hint of an older form in modern music to be embracing the false trappings of the past, but I think that most artists are, willingly or unwillingly, part of various artistic traditions which we can choose to embrace or reject, and not narcissistic iconoclasts, rejecting everything that came before us. Even Boulez, in purportedly rejecting Schoenberg's aesthetic, was embracing Webern's.

So, basically, I don't believe in "should" statements when it comes to aesthetics. If you believe it makes sense to reject the use of older forms in your music, then do this! If you believe otherwise, then go ahead and use older forms in your compositions! Either way, what really matters is your degree of satisfaction with the finished product, not what others think you should or should not do.

1 One possible exception would be the two pieces I wrote for Kristina Szutor's "Après Scarlatti" CD, Domenico 1° and Domenico 2°. In these I deliberately based the structures on Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas, which are related in structure to later sonata form (the kind used by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven), but with many differences.


Andrew Gale said...

This is a great blog post. I particularly found the post from the composition student at U. Wisconsin-Milwaukee very interesting. The fact that he mentioned how form becomes "much harder to hear outside of a long context like the common practice" brought thought to my mind. Other elements of post-tonal music such as pitch, rhythm, articulations, and dynamics, can also be arguably difficult to 'hear' within the context that they are intended to be used within post-tonal music. One can also find the underlying meaning of the use of these elements after analyzing a score of a post-tonal composition. Not to say that it is impossible to 'hear' the underlying meaning of the use of these elements in post-tonal music, but it can certainly be argued that the intended use of these elements may be more difficult to hear, as compared to the the use of elements in the classical era for example.

It is possible that people may find it difficult to hear a foreign form that does not belong to previous eras because they have not had the same level of experience with this foreign form, whether it be analyzing or hearing it. In my case, many music students that I attend school with seem to be much more knowledgeable and comfortable with hearing and analyzing the use of elements from the classical period, but have not had a rich background of education and experience with post-tonal music.

Ultimately, I think that it is the composer's decision as to how he/she would like to implement form when writing post-tonal music. Having said that, if a composer decides upon a new method to implement form that one is not familiar with, it may purpose another challenge when attempting to study or become familiar with hearing it.

Flutiano said...

"I understand the perception of intellectual inconsistency in using new organizing principals for pitch, rhythm, articulations, and dynamics, but then not using new organizational principals for form. Basically, if you're going to use a radical new approach to the choice of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and articulations, why not go all the way and use a radical new approach to texture, phrases (if indeed you have any), and form?"

I think that this isn't an intellectual inconsistency at all. If everything else in your composition is going to be so new, having something that the audience can relate to that isn't new could be a very good idea. My understanding is that people generally like a balance between the expected and the unexpected. We talk about this principle when we discuss reusing material (and avoiding the alphabet form), and when we talk about varying it.

A clear and familiar form might therefore be a natural choice for a composition that is going to be radical in terms of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and articulations. That's a lot of radical elements for a single work! It could be very beneficial to balance that out with a form that is decidedly not radical.