by Graham Lynch
I always think that it’s interesting how others see one’s music, compared to how one views it oneself. This has been brought home to me a bit by recent reviews of a CD of mine, Undiscovered Islands; piano works, plus a few flute pieces. I should say (if you’ll forgive me!) that the reviews have been hugely positive and constructive, but they have also made some interesting observations. Amongst the comments a number of reviewers have referred to my music as being ‘tonal’ – for example, in International Record Review, “Lynch's interest in non-European music and cultures, and in both reality and imagination, serves his music well, demonstrating that tonality has yet to be exhausted.”
Me, tonal? It hadn’t crossed my mind (apart from the tango nuevo pieces that I write). I don’t use key signatures, don’t think in keys, there are no conscious modulations, and I rarely use triads – so where’s the tonality?! Yet, I can see why the reviewer would say this, and I guess we all probably have a personal definition of what we hear as ‘tonality’ anyway.
If I can just backpedal for a moment to when I was at university doing postgraduate composition in the 1980s/90s, in those days pretty much everyone wrote atonal music; it seemed the only ‘serious’ musical language one could use. But I recall buying a copy of the original two piano version of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite in a second-hand book shop, and being totally knocked out by what I discovered: perhaps an odd choice of piece to zap myself with amongst all the Stockhausen, Ligeti, and Birtwistle that I was listening to. I’d known the orchestral version of Ravel’s work from when I was younger, and many other pieces of his, but what struck me about playing it on the piano was the incredible simplicity and stunning accuracy of the harmonies, the way each chord sounded as beautiful and vivid as it did in the orchestral version; perhaps better, in a curious way.
Ravel was of course a scrupulous and detailed composer, choosing every harmony with care and bringing each chord to life within the context of its surroundings. The harmonies feel as fresh as colours in a Matisse cut out, and whilst there is a linear harmonic functionality Ravel’s chords often stand out like objects in a landscape; complete and self contained sculptures. This was quite an influence on me, along with the tonality bending qualities of some of Debussy’s last works.
As a student there was a time when I felt that any harmonic choice existed solely between tonality and atonality: a sort of inescapable Scylla and Charybdis lying in wait. Now I feel that there is a ‘post tonal’ music out there that many composers are tapping in to, one that treats consonance as an individual sonic moment, rather than as a fragment in an obsessive functional scheme. An example might Unsuk Chin, whose violin concerto shows the influence of later Ligeti in the way its often attractive harmonies unfold, and are counterpointed against passages of complex dissonance. The use of consonance allows for contrast, and consequently richer structural possibilities.
So, is tonality dead or alive? I don’t know. But I do notice that consonant harmony has made more of a return, but within a pacing and context that is clearly 21st century. A friend who is a long standing member of the BBC Symphony Orchestra also confirmed this in a conversation we had the other day, she’d noticed the gradual change. Maybe ‘post tonality’ is a bit like getting older - we’re all slowly doing it, but, like me, without really noticing!
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