by Christopher Fulkerson

CF's Composition Desk


The sense of realness found in good music from any era (what T.W. Adorno calls its "Truth Content") is an objectifiable, created thing, not an elusive, intuitive thing. It derives from certain technical features of well-composed music. It can be described, taught, and learned. There has been a lot written about these techiques, which are known by many people. The techniques by which it is achieved are generally only found in Classical music.

This "realness" or "Truth Content" is chiefly the result of the similarity in a composition between its melodic material with harmonic material, the strength of the work's linear structure, and the relation between these aspects of a piece. Music in which the melodic and harmonic elements, and preferably all others that it may involve, are part of the same system, and in which the linear structure is consistent with the other structures in the composition, is heard by the listener as having greater "reality" or "Truth Content" than pieces without these correspondences and well-made structures.

Bad music exists in greater variety than good music, and there is too little consensus about the qualities of individual pieces, so I want to keep my examples general, to certain repertories of music, ones plausibly known to people who listen to FM radio, or who have gone to a reasonable number of concerts. There are two kinds of musical styles or "sounds" that are easy to identify as lacking proper coordination of materials. Certain composers, and whole styles, are heard as either very shallow, or as heavily ironic; the reasons for this kind of perception can be given. Most people can hear musical shallowness, and with some experience most people can tell irony in music. French "Conservatory" music usually sounds shallow because all too often, no emphasis is put on its linear growth, and frequently there is a greater degree of chromaticism in the melody than in the harmony.

A quite large repertory of music, comprising all Soviet music, emphatically including that of Shostakovitch, can easily be heard to suffer from this same lack of proper self-similarity between melody, harmony, and line. There is in Soviet music a veritable disconnect between the syntax of the melody and that of the harmony. This is one of the reasons Soviet music sounds so heavy and ironic. The Soviet politicos never made any secret of using Soviet "Classical" music for propagandistic purposes. Put simply, leaving the espionage out (and espionage there was!), they wanted a "Classical" music that would be available for the working class. Of course, the Soviet politicos had to ignore the fact that Classical music is written by geniuses, for smart people to listen to; it was never intended for "the masses." If you want to insist that European peasants knew Haydn's music, all you are saying is that European peasants are musically smarter than most Americans.

There is a clear example of a composer who wrote for another, older Imperial world view than that of the Soviets, but whose music sounds by turns both superficial or ironic, for the same reasons the shallow French Conservatoire, or the ironic Soviet music did. I am not the first to remark that Richard Strauss wrote, especially in his last works, in a style in which the melodic aspect is not unified with its harmony. It is for this reason his music sounds superficial, even when the material seems so formidable. It is one of the reasons his style tended to greater superficiality, rather than greater seriousness, as he got older. Occasionally in Strauss these anomalies seem like serious lapses in taste. Sometimes, what we may call the "middleground" linear progression just slops around all over the place. Speaking of Strauss's opera Elektra, the German composer Hans Werner Henze once remarked that "most people don't realize how much beer is in it." I think the overly facile linear workings in Strauss, and the way the music will suddenly grab a chord out of the blue or wander chromatically, were the sounds Henze was referring to when he said that. Of course, Strauss was a very sophisticated composer, and was capable of using these same materials to dramatic effect. But generally, it cannot be denied that Strauss's music often has a curious synthetic quality, and I think it is clear that this quality is due to the lapses in coordination between his musical materials.

What the Soviet politicos did was allow melodic writing that was somewhat chromatic. But they correctly determined that Modernism would be sylistic result of compositions employing harmonic structures with any noticeable amount of chromaticism. So, like Strauss, but using somewhat different materials (and seldom as well as Strauss did), the Soviet composers wrote in styles in which there was generally less chromaticism in the moment-to-moment harmony than was merited by the melodic activity. This is what gives Soviet music its thick, sluggish sound. In Richard Strauss, it is the "beer" in the sound. In Soviet music, it is more like molasses, or maybe I should say, more like honey. The unwillingness of the Soviet authorities to allow Modernism caused a sort of music that, ironically, is now more commercially than artistically viable.

It should not be thought that total statistical integration of melodic, harmonic, and linear materials is desirable. Classic twelve-tone music, in which often there certainly is a unity between melodic and harmonic material, can be a classic bore. Ultimately, if the mathematics in the music is too controlling, the music loses, rather than gains interest. Then you have the possibility of the irony of a music rich in truth content, which one does not care to hear, not necessarily because it is too challenging, but because it plainly does not exhibit a cognizance of the mental and emotional workings of human experience. Webern and Berg both avoided this problem, but Schoenberg did not always.

Bach's treatise on Thoroughbass, entitled "Rules and Instructions for Playing Thorough-bass," which he wrote for "his Scholars in music," is an expert and practical expression of how to create "Truth Content" in music. Bach's style is no longer pertinant, it is in a dead language, but it is very relevant to learn what he was doing and why, just as learning Latin, or a foreign language, can be very helpful to a writer. The music theorist who best articulated linear concerns, Heinrich Schenker, teaches us that these linear concerns were first given full expression by C.P.E. Bach, who wrote a big book about the subject, and C.P.E. Bach got them from his father, J.S. Bach. Already the younger Bach was composing in a style that made his father's music into history, that is, left it behind. And the genuine modern composers, such as Carter, Boulez, and Xenakis, leave all the Bachs far behind. But, as the great American Modernist Roger Sessions pointed out, and also practised in his compositions, the principals of linear development remain. And it is these principals that guide and coordinate music, are the very thing we are hearing when we hear the "reality" in a piece, and that we are talking about when we talk about "Truth Content" in music.

Sometimes negative examples can be as instructive as positive ones. T.W. Adorno remarked that John Cage's music sounded like "horror." Adorno was not talking about its dissonance level; he loved a lot of quite dissonant music, and had written some. I think Adorno was reacting to the "aleatoric," that is, mathematical random techniques Cage used to determine his pitches. With nothing but randomness to determine any of his music's parameters, Cage was incapable of creating a music of "reality" or "Truth Content."

Persons who want to believe that to be good, music has to be utterly intuitive, will not want to accept the idea that its reality or truth can be created by cognizant persons at will. Such people want to believe that all those thousands of Sonata forms resemble each other only by coincidence. They have no idea what goes into a fugue. But the fact remains: good music takes good technique to compose, and the technique can be learned. Schenker believed that every great composer learns it on his own. But he pointed to C.P.E. Bach, who pointed to his father, who knew he was not the inventor of these techniques, only a very competent practitioner of them.


Copyright 2010 by Christopher Fulkerson

Posted 7/5/2010