Author Topic: Atonal and tonal music  (Read 19913 times)

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Offline Mahlerian

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Atonal and tonal music
« on: November 20, 2016, 03:47:53 PM »
Of course you are a tireless champion of Schoenberg, and I generally share your esteem of his music.  However, I do not share your opinion that "any" of his four is better than "any" of Shostakovich's 15.  Considering stylistically uneven: Schoenberg's first quartet is in D Minor, and his last two were written using his 12-tone method.  The second is a transition work, with only the last movement utilizing his trademark system.  I'd call that fairly uneven stylistically.

But I won't argue the point with you.  Much of this kind of determination is a matter of personal taste.

The 12-tone method is not a system, the last movement of the Second Quartet is not really much different from the other three (nor is it 12-tone), and the D minor quartet has very much in common with the ones that followed it.  Like I said before, it's no more disparate in style from the rest than the early Beethoven quartets are from the late Beethoven quartets, which treat harmony and form in a very different manner.

That first point is particularly important, though; the 12-tone method is not a style, it's simply a way of treating material.  Schoenberg's style was extremely consistent from about the time of the First Quartet on, and even before then his own personal touch can be heard throughout.

Offline Ken B

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #1 on: November 20, 2016, 04:27:06 PM »
The 12-tone method is not a system, the last movement of the Second Quartet is not really much different from the other three (nor is it 12-tone), and the D minor quartet has very much in common with the ones that followed it.  Like I said before, it's no more disparate in style from the rest than the early Beethoven quartets are from the late Beethoven quartets, which treat harmony and form in a very different manner.

That first point is particularly important, though; the 12-tone method is not a style, it's simply a way of treating material.  Schoenberg's style was extremely consistent from about the time of the First Quartet on, and even before then his own personal touch can be heard throughout.
It's not a system. It's a way of treating material. You say potato, I say potato.
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Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #2 on: November 20, 2016, 04:31:11 PM »
It's not a system. It's a way of treating material. You say potato, I say potato.

What I meant is that the indications of automatism connoted by "system" (and often evoked intentionally with regard to serial music) are not relevant.  The 12-tone method is less of a "system" than common practice tonality insofar as it does not automatically control certain aspects of form and progression, thus leaving more work for the composer to do to work out his or her material.

Offline Ken B

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #3 on: November 20, 2016, 04:39:12 PM »
What I meant is that the indications of automatism connoted by "system" (and often evoked intentionally with regard to serial music) are not relevant.  The 12-tone method is less of a "system" than common practice tonality insofar as it does not automatically control certain aspects of form and progression, thus leaving more work for the composer to do to work out his or her material.
It's not a formula or algorithm. I agree with that of course.
I think of it really as defining a set of privileged intervals to be used in this particular piece, a kind of generalization of the set of intervals that comprise a particular key. Then what the composer does with that generalized key is up to him ( or her). The system has done its bit in defining it.
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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #4 on: November 20, 2016, 05:13:50 PM »
I prefer Ken B's potato. "System" does not connote automatism, not when it's the composer who is choosing the system.
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Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #5 on: November 20, 2016, 06:55:53 PM »
This is not the first time you have read into something I've written that was not there.  Probably a hold over from previous fights you've had with other people who had a limited if not entirely ignorant understanding of 12-tone music.  I am not one of those people, and certainly do not connote any automatism at work with 12-tone composition.   I am a composer and for the last ten years have written only using 12-tone series, so I know what it is, how it can be used, or at least how I use it.

I'm sorry if you read it that way, but you seemed to believe that Schoenberg's Second Quartet had a 12-tone movement, which it decidedly does not.

You made the same mistake with a post of mine when you claimed that Schoenberg's 12-tone music was not atonal, because, atonal was often used as an insult, or synonym for ugly.

No, I said that it's not atonal because atonal is a meaningless catch-all word that says nothing about the music it purports to describe.  No music is atonal, because the idea of atonality is incoherent.

It becomes impossible to have a discussion with you when there is this constant bait and switch with common terminology.

I merely wish for the words people use to be meaningful in some way.  It's impossible to have a discussion if we're talking about different things using the same terms.

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #6 on: November 20, 2016, 07:43:36 PM »
"Atonal" is not meaningless. It means the music lacks a traditional tonal centre.
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Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #7 on: November 20, 2016, 07:48:37 PM »
"Atonal" is not meaningless. It means the music lacks a traditional tonal centre.

What about music pre-tonality then?  Is that also considered atonal because it isn't articulated in terms of functional tonality?

There are plenty of things not considered "atonal" which also lack functional harmony, such as the late music of Debussy, The Rite of Spring, Scriabin's later works, and so forth.  If you want to say that "atonal" merely designates a piece of Western music post-1880 or so that doesn't use functional harmony as its basis, fine, that's one thing, but in my experience people want to exclude everything outside of Schoenberg, his circle, and composers who followed them from the description "atonal."

After all, in one sense, I still do hear tonal centers throughout "atonal" music, so I don't understand why the distinction would be made on that basis.  By meaningless I meant something closer to "it's meaningless as it is commonly used in non-academic contexts."  When "atonal" appears in academic works, generally all they mean by it is that it's post-common practice and doesn't use triadic or diatonic harmony.
« Last Edit: November 20, 2016, 07:53:28 PM by Mahlerian »

Offline James

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #8 on: November 21, 2016, 01:28:54 AM »
The 12-tone method is not a system, the last movement of the Second Quartet is not really much different from the other three (nor is it 12-tone), and the D minor quartet has very much in common with the ones that followed it.  Like I said before, it's no more disparate in style from the rest than the early Beethoven quartets are from the late Beethoven quartets, which treat harmony and form in a very different manner.

That first point is particularly important, though; the 12-tone method is not a style, it's simply a way of treating material.  Schoenberg's style was extremely consistent from about the time of the First Quartet on, and even before then his own personal touch can be heard throughout.

Schoenberg's first is very much in the shadow of Brahms. The 2nd is the gem of the cycle, the crossing over from old to new. The 3rd & 4th are fine works but very, very dry & intellectual, less so than Carter however. Arnie's pupils were more consistent and successful. I'd say Shostakovich's cycle (which straddles 1950, begun in the late 30s) is the century's very distant 2nd to the truly great Bartok cycle (which is often touted as being the best since Beethoven). In that, he was able translate his deepest and most personal utterances within them musically, very musically.
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Offline jessop

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #9 on: November 21, 2016, 01:46:02 AM »
The 'atonality' debate is Godwin's Law on classical music forums.

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #10 on: November 21, 2016, 02:14:32 AM »
The 'atonality' debate is Godwin's Law on classical music forums.

It feels like the current discussion is being driven by the shadow of other discussions elsewhere. I don't recall anyone saying that "atonal" was bad, but we got told the word was bad.

Because, you know, apparently 12-tone music (which I understood to be about giving equal weight to all 12 tones in the scale) is just something completely different from atonal music (which I understood to be music that lacked the weighting given to particular tones in the scale in tonal music).

And then there was the "system" thing as well... it feels very much like being scolded for using the wrong synonym.
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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #11 on: November 21, 2016, 02:22:50 AM »
It feels like the current discussion is being driven by the shadow of other discussions elsewhere.
I might be repeating myself, but it would be a pity if the "toxic" (to apply a term used by another poster in another thread) atmosphere of those discussions elsewhere started to permeate exchanges here on GMG. In my experience (over the 2+ years I've been a member), all tastes are welcome here, and posters are free  to state their opinions, but have usually been able to so so without having to resort to ad hminiems and  aggressive tones. Let's try to keep it that way.
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Offline ahinton

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #12 on: November 21, 2016, 02:41:17 AM »
Schoenberg's first is very much in the shadow of Brahms. The 2nd is the gem of the cycle, the crossing over from old to new. The 3rd & 4th are fine works but very, very dry & intellectual, less so than Carter however. Arnie's pupils were more consistent and successful. I'd say Shostakovich's cycle (which straddles 1950, begun in the late 30s) is the century's very distant 2nd to the truly great Bartok cycle (which is often touted as being the best since Beethoven). In that, he was able translate his deepest and most personal utterances within them musically, very musically.
I rather suspect that Schönberg himself would have said that all of his quartets are in the shadow of Brahms (and he did chide someone who described him as an auto-didact by countering that he was a pupil of Mozart!). The D minor quartet is, I think, the greatest of them all as well as being the most complex and concentrated (for all that, like Carter's and van Dieren's his first numbered quartet is considerably larger in scale than all of those that followed); in fact, I would say that, as the time of its composition, it was one of the truly great post-Beethoven quartets and it arguably remains so today. In terms of influence, I think that it owes at least as much to Wagner and Liszt as it does to Brahms (and the examples of Bruckner and Mahler are never all that far distant).

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #13 on: November 21, 2016, 02:59:26 AM »
I'm off to listen to some 1975 Holmboe.
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Offline Gaspard de la nuit

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #14 on: November 21, 2016, 06:57:14 AM »
Gaspard, however legitimate a beef you might have with Ken B elsewhere, you are reading a lot of things into his contribution to this particular thread that aren't there.

I admit this is mostly true.  I simply lost my cool ***
And I'm sorry to those who've wasted their time listening to my diatribe.  You have my word that I will move on. 
« Last Edit: November 21, 2016, 07:12:08 AM by Que »

Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #15 on: November 21, 2016, 08:20:16 AM »
It feels like the current discussion is being driven by the shadow of other discussions elsewhere. I don't recall anyone saying that "atonal" was bad, but we got told the word was bad.

Because, you know, apparently 12-tone music (which I understood to be about giving equal weight to all 12 tones in the scale) is just something completely different from atonal music (which I understood to be music that lacked the weighting given to particular tones in the scale in tonal music).

And then there was the "system" thing as well... it feels very much like being scolded for using the wrong synonym.

Well, it's just that there is no atonal music.  Of course the word is bad; it's a misnomer that tells us nothing about how the music is constructed or about its harmonic basis.  Like I said before, words used to describe things should convey some information about them.  "Atonal" fails to do that.

The word needs to be thrown out before people can actually start listening to the music without nonsense like "dry and intellectual" being thrown out as per the above.  Schoenberg's last two quartets, dryIntellectual?  It's music at the peak of white-hot expression, playful and lyrical by turns, as human as anything from the last century.  Ingenious, yes.  The works have a rigor of construction akin to Brahms and also the passion of Beethoven.
« Last Edit: November 21, 2016, 08:22:37 AM by Mahlerian »

Offline Ken B

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #16 on: November 21, 2016, 09:21:04 AM »
Well, it's just that there is no atonal music.  Of course the word is bad; it's a misnomer that tells us nothing about how the music is constructed or about its harmonic basis.  Like I said before, words used to describe things should convey some information about them.  "Atonal" fails to do that.

The word needs to be thrown out before people can actually start listening to the music without nonsense like "dry and intellectual" being thrown out as per the above.  Schoenberg's last two quartets, dryIntellectual?  It's music at the peak of white-hot expression, playful and lyrical by turns, as human as anything from the last century.  Ingenious, yes.  The works have a rigor of construction akin to Brahms and also the passion of Beethoven.
Well I don't want to feed the derailment, but is "asymptomatic" a useful word? It doesn't refer to one particular identifiable thing but it is still meaningful.
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Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #17 on: November 21, 2016, 09:44:35 AM »
Well I don't want to feed the derailment, but is "asymptomatic" a useful word? It doesn't refer to one particular identifiable thing but it is still meaningful.

"Asymptomatic" conveys information, clearly.

What information do you think the word "atonal" conveys when used in the following sentence?  "Schoenberg's Piano Pieces Op. 11 are atonal."  It purports to say that they are "not tonal," but in practice it ends up saying more than merely that, so it is misleading.

It implies that the music is not in a specific key, yes, but there are things which are not in keys which would also not be described as atonal.  It implies, perhaps, that the music is not triadic, but there are plenty of things which are not triadic which would also not be described as atonal.  It implies that it uses the chromatic scale as a basis, sure, but...the same as above applies.

The word is not especially useful, as it doesn't tell us anything about what the music is, and tells us almost nothing about what it is not.  To the degree it conveys any meaning at all, it is because the literal implications of the word are ignored, and it becomes a stylistic marker rather than a categorical description.

Offline Scarpia

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #18 on: November 21, 2016, 12:41:10 PM »
"Asymptomatic" conveys information, clearly.

What information do you think the word "atonal" conveys when used in the following sentence?  "Schoenberg's Piano Pieces Op. 11 are atonal."  It purports to say that they are "not tonal," but in practice it ends up saying more than merely that, so it is misleading.

It implies that the music is not in a specific key, yes, but there are things which are not in keys which would also not be described as atonal.  It implies, perhaps, that the music is not triadic, but there are plenty of things which are not triadic which would also not be described as atonal.  It implies that it uses the chromatic scale as a basis, sure, but...the same as above applies.

The word is not especially useful, as it doesn't tell us anything about what the music is, and tells us almost nothing about what it is not.  To the degree it conveys any meaning at all, it is because the literal implications of the word are ignored, and it becomes a stylistic marker rather than a categorical description.

When we get to this level of semantics there is something wrong. "Atonal music" is the music which is almost universally referred to by that word. People know what the music is like, and they would have the same view of the music if it was called "pantonal music," "purple music" or anything else. Some people listen to Schoenberg and hear beautiful expressive music, others find it awful. It's because of what the music sounds like, not because of the choice of term "atonal."


Offline Mahlerian

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Re: Atonal and tonal music
« Reply #19 on: November 21, 2016, 01:19:18 PM »
When we get to this level of semantics there is something wrong. "Atonal music" is the music which is almost universally referred to by that word. People know what the music is like, and they would have the same view of the music if it was called "pantonal music," "purple music" or anything else. Some people listen to Schoenberg and hear beautiful expressive music, others find it awful. It's because of what the music sounds like, not because of the choice of term "atonal."

Based on experience, I beg to differ.  A good part of what makes atonal music difficult is the misconception that it is fundamentally different in some way from all other music.  I have run into posters on the internet who are absolutely convinced that atonality is the bane of all music until they got over their fear of the idea of it and actually listened, at which point they realized that atonality was actually nothing at all.

As for the idea that people "know what it is like," that's wrong, because if they're going around saying Schoenberg's music is tuneless (and people today still do), then clearly they don't know what it is like.  They lack the ability to listen to it and understand what it is they're hearing.  Furthermore, there is no quality which can be said to apply to all music called atonal.  The pieces stuck with that label have no characteristics in common.

There is an important group of people that declines to refer to "atonal music" as atonal, and that's most composers whose music has been stuck with that label.  I know I don't think of the music I write as atonal, and neither did Schoenberg, Carter, Babbitt, Bartok or others think of their own music as atonal.

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