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  Negative atonal music  Gary Green at 23:02 on 16 April 2008

Hello anyone,

Why does atonal music sound/feel negative to me? If it includes intervals that could be used in the major and minor scales of tonal music, then why does it tend towards the minor, negative and dark? Maybe someone can point me in the direction of an atonal composition that will change my mind about this.

Thanks - Gary

  Re: Negative atonal music  philsingleton at 09:38 on 17 April 2008

I think that many contemporary composers are afraid to use any sounds which tend toward the 'tonal'. Pierre Boulez once said that 'any composer who has not felt the need for [serialism] is USELESS'. The trouble is that people (including many musicians) associate serialism, atonality etc. with unpleasant sounds, which is not necessarily true. Many of Boulez's own works contain moments of incredible beauty - as long as one listens to them in the way you'd view a painting by, for example, Picasso, or an art-house movie. The greatest composers seem to feel free to use whatever sounds they see (or hear) fit, regardless of their system of composition.

Listen to a good performance of Boulez's 'Le Marteau sans Maitre'. Even if it doesn't speak to you at first, do try again. It's not 'easy' music to listen to, but for me that's the point! Also try:

Boulez: Pli selon pli; Repons; Sur Incises (NB a great DVD is available of the latter, including a lesson by the composer on the work)
Dutilleux: Metaboles; Timbre, Espace, Mouvement
Ligeti: Piano, Cello and Violin concerti

I'm sure other people could suggest other works of value.

Let everyone know how you get on!


PS I also hold Messiaen's music in very high regard. Not really atonal, but wonderful sounds!

  Re: Negative atonal music  philsingleton at 09:46 on 17 April 2008

Hi again

Just seen the post on the 'good tunes' thread - I should also add that I'm not shooting down good tunes! Dutilleux called the attitude I mentioned 'serial terrorism' - Perhaps we should suggest that serialism and its effects were necessary developments in music, and have resulted in great works by many composers but then add that they're not the only path!

Dutilleux: 'The best answer to the serial problem is to write good music'


  Re: Negative atonal music  Misuc at 17:38 on 18 April 2008

Well said, Phil! I don't agree with Boulez about serialism, and I found his book "Musical thinking Today" ludicrous when he struggles page after turgid page to invent a 'functional generative process' for mere permutations of numbers. Nothing is more absurd than the single attempt (?) he made to apply his 'thinking' in practise: 'Structures I'. But just listen to 'Marteau sans Maitre' - or, say, 'Soleil des Eaux'- give them time and attention, but, after that, anybody who does not gasp in wonder and amazement would really be useless.

But 'functional generative processes' are very important. In fact crucial. Traditional tonality was one set of such processes. this is something that is often not well understood by would-be 'tonalists' or would-be 'atonalists' either. It is not about whether there are a lot of triads etc. it is to do with the dynamics - the 'dialectics' - of how equilibrium is lost and regained etc. 'Functional' harmony and the traditional motif-, phrase-, thematic and formal structures which arose from it are part of a continuous historical continuum - sorry for this abstract way of putting things - which in the hands of inventive, devoted and passionate musicians grows and develops all the time.

Boulez in the end found a way to let his imagination determine what went on in his music: i.e. to allow music he had heard, performed and understood a place. This is how history comes back in the minds of those who are serious about developing the art of music further.

There are lots of other positive 'atonal' pieces - Schoenberg's Septet, Piano Concerto, Stravinsky's last pieces, works by Nono (may be start with 'Liebeslied' or '2 Esspessioni'), Ligeti, Carter (quartet 1, for a start: a symphony of three orchestras and much more), lots of pieces by Alexander Goehr and much, much more. But what is 'atonal'? What is 'tonal' - this is not as obvious as some people think.

  Re: Negative atonal music  Gary Green at 00:58 on 19 April 2008

Hello Phil & Julian
Thanks for your comments and for pointing me towards various composers and pieces. I'll have a listen and let you know how I get on.

  Re: Negative atonal music  Misuc at 10:46 on 19 April 2008

You are quite right. In the need to telescope some ideas I was too dismissive of 'mere numbers'.

Serialism did have its uses as a device among devices. But in this book Boulez recognises no other 'thinking'. Even the best computer is merely a computer. A series can be no more than a series. You can't force a static procedure to become a dynamic one: this would take another kind of thinking: one which would account for 'forces', 'fields', 'dialectics' etc. something to feed and coax the imagination. Boulez' total monomaniac obsession - as far as this book is concerned - with serialism forces him to leave out the idea of Imagination altogether until the very last page! Here, he surreptitiously invites her in as 'the Queen' without whom nothing can be done - but he treats her more as a kitchen maid (or 'mistress' made to creep in unobserved into the scullery to do all the dirty work needed to keep his household in order - maybe to have a private 'affair' with - but that would be none of our business.

Boulez starts his book off with a quote from his beloved Debussy: Like any nouveau-riche snob he affects to dread becoming 'the mere representative of a social milieu' (which would, of course, make him just that!).

A combination of the serialists' need to prove the 'objective' value of their work, the French intellectual tradition of pompous obscurantism and Boulez' own self-importance make everything he says seem impossibly abstract and difficult.

But he was not being true to himself, in all this. Out of the pontificating mist, emerges at least one one really good idea, which actually is simple, to the point of childishness. This is 'multiplication'. What he means is that you can make complex many layered chords by superimposing suitable transpositions of the intervals of a simple chord. This works. It actually sounds right. You can use it to guide melodies and contrapuntal lines too, and it need not be 'serial' in the traditional sense.

Acceptance, and experience - of life and music - has brought him to a rich maturity, and we have much to learn from him.

  Re: Negative atonal music  scott_good at 17:47 on 21 April 2008

"But he was not being true to himself, in all this. Out of the pontificating mist, emerges at least one one really good idea, which actually is simple, to the point of childishness. This is 'multiplication'. What he means is that you can make complex many layered chords by superimposing suitable transpositions of the intervals of a simple chord. This works. It actually sounds right. You can use it to guide melodies and contrapuntal lines too, and it need not be 'serial' in the traditional sense."

Yes, I agree - very useful technique.

Can you offer any insight into why? Or is this just a "magical" nature of sound?

I attended an interesting seminar on algorithmic composition. Gustav Ciamaga explained with examples how music (he used bach inventions for examples) can be multiplied by different intervals to achieve new pitch material with homogeneous harmonic pallets, and satisfying voice leading.

Note: One of the things that bothers me most about the 50-60's serialism is that the math is so often just integers - no fractions, no curves. This is why Xenakis is so important - he understood this inadequacy.


  Re: Negative atonal music  Nicolas Tzortzis at 21:49 on 21 April 2008

I think that reducing atonal music to serialism is wrong.Unfortunately,in most books people write tons of pages about the 50's and make it look as if atonal=serial.There are so many other kinds of music that are strictly atonal but not at all serial.But they are probably not in the books we are being taught,simply because there is not "a system" that codifies everything,so that teachers can teach it and students can learn it.
I think that musicologists write that much about serialism just because it's something one can understand without lots of trouble.12 tones,12 dynamics,12 rhythmic values,ok, done.One reads Boulez's analysis of "Structures" and there,he has understood serialism.And in most cases,when analysing serial pieces,teachers tend to focus on the series and on how all the pitches derive from it.To me that's wrong,and it's a mistake people do in Webern's music too.
I think that this approach is just closely related to the composer's anxiety "which note do I write next???" and that's why this focus on pitch organisation,while there are so many other things to music (and to serial music) that people never talk about.
When listening for instance to Stockhausen's "Kontra-Punkte", one can hear a "pointilliste" music,typical serial music, but one can also hear a music where timbre is closely changing,in order to arrive in the end at the piano.Why bother looking for the series in order to "explain" why this note comes after this note,and not try to just listen to what is happening in the music?In Gruppen too,the important is not the series or "how" he "finds his notes",but what he does with them eventually.How he treats time,space,the instruments,how he builts his masses.Pitch may well be the least interesting parts of the music.
Scott mentioned Xenakis,and I'm glad he did.His music appears in 1953,not long after serial music.But it is generally not "taught" in schools,because of all the math involved etc.One can not make "A system" out of his music,since he used different ways to generate material in his pieces,based on different mathematical,philosophical etc concepts.And as a result,his techniques are rarely in the books.
One has to point out here that "serial" music did not last long.Five years tops.people quickly understood that that was going nowhere,and (based on some of its principals) chose other paths.either aleatoric,or free use of the series,klangkomposition,etc.

As for the "negative" aspect of atonal music,I don't agree.I don't hear anything "negative" in Stockhausen's piano pieces,in Xenakis' orchestra music,in Ligeti's chamber concerto,in Grisey's "Transitoires" etc.If one needs to hear a C major chord to consider it "positive",then there is a problem of perception and of defying things.
But then again,it depends on how one reaches contemporary music.For me there has never been a question "tonal or atonal"? For me tonal music is completely out of my head,I don't find how this could be part of today's language.But atonality is not the negative of tonality.Atonality is just atonality.Period.And atonality is not "one thing",as tonality is not one thing.Bach is tonal,Beethoven is tonal.the music is totally different.So I can't put all the "atonal musicS" in one hat and say "atonal music is this or that".Webern is atonal,Xenakis is atonal,Murail and Feldman are atonal.the music?totally different.It's good to learn compositional techniques by various good composers,but in the end one has to write what he has to say,in his own words.The notes?He'll find them,eventually,as long as he has a clear idea in his head.And if it's not clear in the beggining,keep on working and it'll clear up.with time.

  Re: Negative atonal music  Jim Tribble at 17:53 on 23 April 2008

Maybe it is not a question of atonal music being negative, but more that it is difficult without a lot of listening and possible study to form emotional responses to the music. In the difficulty of emotional response listeners would tend towards rejection hence the negativity.

Despite being a tonal composer I like atonal music as well, in fact any music as long as it is stimulating, the problem for me is that the music seems to be a slave to its form or effect rather than the other way around.


  Re: Negative atonal music  Misuc at 17:57 on 24 April 2008

This discussion is getting very interesting now.

Nicolas is quite right, of course. There are many atonalities and just as many tonalities. And it is right to castigate the brain-dead literal-mindedness of the way both are taught (though composers themselves have not been immune to this either).

But such constipated scholasticism has a long history in musicology. I cannot believe that Pythagoras' method of deriving intervals could have accurately reflected the complex reality of the music he heard. The ancient classification of the church modes was an attempt to codify and at the same time set artificial limits to the music of the indigenous peoples that was actually being played and sung. The same applies to the identification of Indian ragas - and in particular the attempt to break them down into a fixed system of divisions into micro-intervals. All these were magnificent attempts to fix a static model on a dynamic reality. Musicology as a subject has never been concerned too much with 'functional generative processes' (having been generally more concerned with static routines and rules about what not to do than with principles about what might be done)

To this day musicology lags far, far behind other disciplines. It has not yet reached the stage that philology reached 200 years ago. There are not even the words to describe the subject we are talking about; the thing ['system'? 'language'? 'style'?] of which modal musics of one kind and another, 'tonality' and 'atonality' in all their varieties are examples of. There is no general musicology: no method for tracing the fundamental particles or genes of which all musics are made to determine what musics have in common and what they don't, what developmental forces operate on a piece of music to make it function and how these can be generalised to form a 'system' and therefore how 'systems' themselves originate and dissolve into new ones etc. Musicology is like physics/chemistry before Mendeleyev or biology before Mendel.

I have run courses of creative experiments in the recreation of musical systems in terms of the practical operations which underly each 'system' - which can largely be picked up by untrained musicians - through imitation, memorisation and improvisation. If anyone is interested, I could describe some of these.

This is a big subject which requires something more active and interactive than these dry short postings, but I, for one, find it hard to put into words certain well-formed ideas I have regarding the interesting contributions that composers like Scott and Nicolas have made to this discussion (e.g. about Boulez' 'multiplication', the different 'tonalities' of Bach and Beethoven, Xenakis' numerological approach etc.) until we have more or less reached a common understanding of what tonality actually is.

But I don't want to bore people. perhaps I should start a new thread?

  Re: Negative atonal music  Nicolas Tzortzis at 15:37 on 27 April 2008

The number of listenings required by a musical work in order to form "emotional responses" depends on the work itself and on the listener.
I can't believe that the emotional impact of Xenakis' "Jonchaies" is not immediate.Or Ligeti's cello concerto,or Sciarrino's "Lohengrin",or Stockhausen's "Stop" etc.There are so many works,so many composers that one could mention.
Or doesn't Varese's "Ameriques" form an immediate emotional response?
The thing is that it is a different kind of emotion,since it is a different kind of music.If one listens to Stockhausen hoping to have the emotional response he has to Schubert's music,then it's not Stockhausen's fault if he doesn't get what he's looking for.One does not need to study anything about thoses pieces in order to get the response.One just needs to be free of all pre-fabricated judgements,and let the music do what it can do.Sometimes yes,music does not want to have any emotional response,so why look for it?look for other things.
There are works that are easier to listen to than others.That's true.But then again,how many people (musicians or non musicians) actually appreciate Beethoven's last sonatas?How many can actually listen to his last quartets and say "yes,I like it",while understanding them at the same time?In my opinion,very few.And if they do,how many times do they have to listen to them before they can have an opinion?just one?I don't think so.
Once again,it's not (a)tonality's fault.The renaissance complex polyphonic works are still rather hard to comprehend,even for today's listeners.
It's never the "system's"'s what one looks for in the music,how actually open he is to things he can't immediately grasp and how he actually tries to understand.
Isn't a 1700's fugue a "slave to it's form"?I think it is much more than a piece of the 1970's,that had to invent its own form,while a fugue knew it was going to be a fugue all along.
Another thing we have to point out is that people are sometimes quick to judge things.One listens to a bad atonal piece that sucks,he (logically) thinks it's crap, and then blaims atonality for it being bad! And a bad atonal piece is quickly (and unjustly) compared to a Mozart masterpiece,not to one of the so many bad tonal sonatas of the 1750's,that are simply unbearable.That is what sometimes (especially for younger composers) leads to a serious of huge misunderstandings that completely deform the nature of things.If you add to that the lack of guideness by a good teacher,you have a kid that grows up ignoring works,ideas,approaches and aesthetics that he shouldn't.

  Re: Negative atonal music  philsingleton at 15:59 on 27 April 2008

Response - this seems to be the key word. In the liner notes for the 2005 EIC/Boulez recording of Le Marteau sans Maitre, Stravinsky is quoted as paraphrasing Gertrude Stein's reply when asked why she liked Picasso's works - 'I like looking at them' - 'I like listening to Boulez'. This has to be the least pretentious and most honest answer Stravinsky could have given. Ends justify means, not vice versa. There's nothing wrong with admiring craftsmanship, but who wants a perfectly-made, ugly table in their house?

Speaking of responses (sorry for the pun), I find the opening of Section 1 of Boulez's 'Repons' to have a lot in common with the finale of Beethoven 9. Imagine the 1824 audience's response when the baritone first sang 'O Freunde....'. The first entrance of the 'arpeggiated arpeggios' of the resonant instruments in 'Repons' gives me exactly the same thrill. As someone who is open to electronics in music, but who finds few such works successful, I can think of no better justification for composers to keep working to integrate electronics into composition.

  Re: Negative atonal music  Misuc at 16:51 on 27 April 2008

Although I am with Nicolas here, I am not sure he is being quite fair to Jim. Tonality is a 'system' or 'language' that most of us have assimilated to a greater or lesser extent. Beethoven didn't come to the conceptions behind his late quartets raw or naked. He used what was there: potential developments that were inherent in the 'system'. We have the tools to understand what he understood. Music is not a based on a fixed system of static preexisting 'objects' or even 'parameters'. Listening and composing music are each journeys of discovery into how those ''objects' arose and how they can grow and change. To listen to a piece of music is to recreate it. To write it is to discover it.

I cannot claim to understand every word in Shakespeare: the complexities of the language,and of the plots, the historical context, the literary references, the 'non sequiturs'. But he was building on a common culture. in so far as we share that culture already, we can get a tremendous lot out of seeing his plays. Beyond that we can do the required reading. The same goes for Beethoven.

Already by the 20th century such a 'common culture' had evaporated. Composers could pretend it hadn't, and then find they were talking platitudes: or they could invent new 'languages' and find they couldn't say very much at all. For a language to be a means of communication it has to be shared, just as a coin has to be accepted to act as currency.

To one degree or another Varese, Stockhausen, Xenakis each consciously, deliberately and methodically attempted to disown, deny or ignore any common heritage (only later to perhaps reinvent it in a rather crude or arbitrary way). This meant that an 'immediate emotional response' was all that was left for them to aim at: the most that their artificial 'language' was able to convey. To build a drama out of the mad scenes in 'King Lear' without having provided a context, background or progression, would be 'cheating' to a traditional Shakespearian - and this, by analogy, is what so much of the music Nicolas is talking about is doing. To get beyond mere immediate emotional responses takes more.

  Re: Negative atonal music  Misuc at 19:00 on 27 April 2008

Well. Nobody pleaded with me to give them the benefit of my wonderful theories about tonality etc.

But I can't resist giving the short version, because it is very simple and non-controversial: I don't think there is anyone who would disagree, and it might help in getting our ideas to move forward a bit.

In its developed form - i.e. by the end of the 18th century, tonality has become that system through which the time-scale of a piece is determined to the greatest extent by the pitches chosen. For example, even in the most elementary preclassical piece, the mere change of an accidental [say, F to F sharp in C major] can effectively double the length of the movement. This is a quality unachievable in any other system: not even the proto-tonality of the 16th century [triad-seeking polyphony + cadences] Even Bach could not transcend the limitations of the tonality of his period. Here motifs build to sequences which seek to overflow their sectional barriers and have to be contained. Out of these compartments a structure is built. The structure is 'artificially' imposed on the musical material, instead of arising out of it as-it-were by necessity. So long as the sequence flow does not overwhelm the structure, the harmonic resources are much greater than could be encompassed easily within the formal demands of the subsequent period. in the Baroque, the force of tonality is extremely strong - at a local level. But its dynamic cannot stretch over the length of an over-all structure. Try it. You can bring even the most far-ranging fantasia of Bach at any point with a few short bars and a cadence back to the home key. you might destroy the whole point and balance of the piece this way, but it could be done, and the piece would be heard as 'making sense'.

You can't do this with even the stupidest 'sonata form' movement in the emptiest sonatina by Clementi or Kuhlau. This shows something about the relative influence of individual genius and the collective/conventional limitations/potential of a 'system (though it might take a genius to discover a system's potential).

This goes towards an explanation for the different 'tonalities' of Bach and Beethoven.By the time even of the first works of Beethoven, there had developed a whole series of differentiated and specialised figures, clauses, sections and sub-sections, both vertically (melody + accompaniment) and horizontally (beginnings, middles, ends, developments, transitions, codas etc. - all controlled by the ever-changing forces of tonality) How this came about is the story of the shifting balance between composer, patron, performer, public etc. whereby it became established that the composer took control over the very time-scale of the piece - and not the prince or the church or anything much to do with the social occasion for which the music was supposed to be written. Composers developed a taste for wishing to communicate directly with their public.

[This is all a bit simplified of course, but history is not just a random collection of happenings].

if you follow this thread through the 19th century and beyond you will come to clues towards explaining the effectiveness of the 'multiplication' device described by Boulez and other features of so-called 'atonal' music. But this would also mean going back into the roots of tonality itself and how it dissolved. I will leave this for another discussion. This discussion in turn might also help to explain something which Nicolas described earlier: ["The notes?He'll find them,eventually,as long as he has a clear idea in his head.And if it's not clear in the beggining,keep on working and it'll clear up.with time."]

  Re: Negative atonal music  Gary Green at 23:08 on 10 June 2008

Hello all
I bet you thought this post had died off, or I'd gone to sleep.

Thanks for all your posts in response to my original question/comment about atonal music. I wanted to go off and listen to and digest a few pieces you suggested I should listen to - I would have liked to have listened to more before I responded, but unforuntately I couldn't find very many recordings to listen to.

Some compostions you suggested made me feel the same about atonal music as I did originally. Please don't take this as a slur on your music tastes... I just didn't enjoy them and I felt they didn't sound positive. The choice of instrumentation also affects my attitude to music too, so this probably colours my viewpoint. I can't always say that I feel positive about hearing a C major chord either... maybe it's just the way I play it!

I did enjoy Dutilleux's Metaboles and Nono's Liebeslied (although Nono didn't come across as entirely positive). I find Schoenberg's Piano concerto easier to listen to now and I feel it makes more sense that it did when I first heard it, but I still find it difficult to get my head around all of it. I do however like the way it surprises me in moments when I still think it's going to provide the obvious answer to a phrase when it doesn't - despite the fact that I've heard it about 30 times now.

I'll still carry on looking for other pieces you've all recommended and thanks for pointing me in the direction of Dutilleux and Nono.

Thanks, Gary

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