Peter Farnbank, Composer .

My Thoughts on Modern Classical Music Composition


The following views are my personal ones, and do not presume to represent those of any other party. 


Confucius said, 

"To educate the people, one must start with poetry, progress with ceremonies and finish with music." 

thus putting clear emphasis on the pre-eminence of music.

What could I say about my musical thinking? If you ask me what musical language I use, I would say that it is predominantly neoromantic and “multi-tonal”. But it is not "multitonal" perhaps in the strict sense of the term as defined by Prof Edwin E Gordon (2007), where he considers that atonal music is really multitonal, since listeners can perceive tonality subjectively regardless of the composer's (atonal) intentions.

My Philosophy

So, this is what “multitonalism” means to me. 

It is the use of all tonal possibilities within the twelve semitones of the octave, and essentially should have an intended sense of key (or to use Gordon's term "keyality"). As such, multitonalism to me incorporates all mode- and scale structures whether "natural" or "synthetic" (including all oriental scales and extended scales, such as eight-note single-octave and multiple-note double-octave scales) and their resultant harmonic possibilities. These also incorporate alternative harmonic parameters, such as quartality and secundality, complex harmony (eg mirror-chords), pandiatonicism, polyharmony, polytonality, contra-harmony and even atonality (see Gordon's argument above). Added to this, multonalism cannot help but be partnered by complex rhythmic and metrical structures. 

Talking about complex rhythms, I remember with amusement an occasion in class when a fellow music student asked why the time signatures in a modern score changed every two or three bars whereas Beethoven would keep the same time-signature throughout the piece and simply use accents to displace the first beat of the bar. To this George our tutor blurted out, "Time's changed!" without realising the hilarious double meaning!

I don't believe that music truly exists in a random way - hence my resistance to aleatorism and what I call "soundscaping" in the music of some avant-gardists. Music must have order.  It must have design. Pythagoras was perhaps the first to find the mathematical order of musical properties, and modern composers like Xenakis, Messiaen and Gubaidulina are deeply interested in how such mathematicism could be transported in musical form. (Incidentally Maths was my second subject at college.)

Jarrett and Day (2008) put it nicely - music "is a block [of time] waiting to be chiselled into a specific shape that's meant to tell a story or convey an emotion". Even with modern sculptures (eg, Henry Moore), a creation must have a base on which to stand, and that base must be capable of holding to prevent collapse by the natural forces of gravity. Order and design are paramount, I feel, and for Confucius, music supercedes even the orderliness of "ceremonies".

Historical Evolution

One of the first books I ever read on composition had an introduction describing the evolution of composition, from the polyphonic to the late-romantic age. There it mentioned the language of the such composers as Mahler.  And then came the bombshell, "That language is of course now dead." At that I felt an enormous silent scream rise from within me.

In the history of music we have gone from traditional strictures of "polyphony" through an epic period of monodism (eg tune and accompaniment) or "homophony" to the modern practices of radical heterophony (eg serialism, aleatorism, atonality etc etc, and I still find it hard to accept "Symphony for Creaking Door and Vacuum Cleaner" as a bona fide piece of music). 

In so many ways parallels can be found with sociolinguitics, not only insofar as music is itself a language, but also in what music is for or stands for. Just as in socioliniguistics, we have seen the language of music progress from the "structuralist" position, through the "functionalist" position to the "modernist" and "postmodernist" positions. We may regard Polyphony (strict rules on tonal modes, counterpoint, rhythmic modes etc) as the "structuralist position", where every theory is structured to relate to God (eg, "tempus perfectus" a 3/4 metre, which is supposed to relate to the Holy Trinity, and "tempus imperfectus" (4/4) which is not). Thereafter the patronage of the church  music and nobility on secular (non-cleric) composoers may be said to mark the "functionalist" position, where music was composed to order - for functions etc.  As individualism stepped in to break music away from the domination of church and nobility, a "modernist" position may be assumed, and personal expressive freedom (a "modern" idea at the time) in music composition (ie "romanticism") took over. This would take us through the Monodic or Homophonic period. From there we can extrapolate to further modernist positions, such as the development of a new (modern) musical language (eg Hindemith's "equal-tempered" theory, Schoenberg's "serialism" etc), and further still into postmodernist positions .

The postmodernist position in social sciences (oh dear! I promised I wouldn't try to be intellectual) assumes that, well basically, "anything goes". Well, that may be a bit simplistic - but anything goes as long as you can justify the reasons for its existence. But then you can justify anything with "anything goes", can't you?

This has never sat comfortably with me - I'm always afraid that such "freedom" can lead to anarchy - in other words, breakdown of order. And if I may just clone a little gem from WS Gilbert - you know, the literary genius-half of Gilbert and Sullivan - if everything is something, then (surely) nothing is anything! So we could have a problem. 

The Circular Problem of Postmodernist Postmodernism?

By a twist of irony, postmodernism itself can be seen by a lot of current thinkers as a reaction against modernism and even  postmodernism itself. A "new" postmodernism, ie our current age, using old postmodernism's own weapon of plausible justification, can justify that orderliness, design, tradition etc can be reasons for the existence for reactionist (or even traditionalist) thinking and creativity - ie a "new postmodernism". (Sorry, hope I'm not boring you. If so just click and go to another page, but hang on a bit - we're nearly there.)

Ok, where was I? ..... Right......

I guess putting it this way, multitonalism resonates (excuse the pun) with new postmodernist thought in music and other art forms, and that is where I feel I have finally found my niche. If I were to give myself a label, my most favoured would be "neoromantic". However, I am not entirely happy with the term itself, because the "neo" almost assumes that somewhere along the line, romanticism in music somehow died, and hence neoromanticism is its revival - as in the case of "neo-classicism" and "Les Six". Whereas, I honest don't believe that romanticism in music ever died. It was pretty much battered by the new languages of twentieth century music, but at least one strand of it always somehow managed to survive. I mean, even Tailleferre, supposedly the least adventurous of Les Six, could hardly be labelled as anything "classical", when she could write music with such romantic pathos as this "Romance" (1913) or this "Reverie" (1964). However, insofar as the tag "neo" refers only to the fact of the music's modernity (ie its "newness" as opposed to nineteenth century romanticism), then I am quite happy to be called a neoromantic. Indeed I'd welcome it!

Music Without Melody?

There are composers today who do not believe that music has anything to do with melody or harmony or rhythm, and a large number write music without using conventional stave notation. Indeed a few hard-nosed ones contend that the very existence of such components are the very reason for classical music's demise. Webern was one of the first pioneers, when not satisfied with an atonal 12-note system, he would deliberately distribute the notes within each series among different registers so that the "melody" of the series hardly becomes discernible.

But this sort of idea is not for me. At college, we received training in engendering  music creation/composition written in tabular and graphic forms, predominantly for primary school use - after all it was the "Trendy 70's". After half a term I decided to switch to secondary-school music-teacher training, where at least I would have the opportunity to study stave-notated music and to teach curricular music to up A Level.

I will always write music that features a melody of some kind. To me melody and rhythm are paramount - they form part of that "orderliness". As Elgar once responded to a criticism of the use of a "facile" tune in his Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, "The people want a tune, to sing to and rejoice with". (Well, words to that effect.) That so-called facile tune turned out to be fleshed with the immortal words of Arthur C. Benson (1862 -1925) - "Land of Hope and Glory"! And what an epic musical icon of Britishness the "facile tune" has turned out to be! Nothing less than our Second National Anthem!

How could any musician justify writing music without a melody? Indeed, is it at all possible? Can the listener actually hear tuneless music? The neuropsychology of auditory perception, let alone the social cognitive psychology of aural mediation, would surely pick out any line of salient notes as a "tune". As Gordon (ibid) puts it:

"A composer only controls to a limited extent what a listener audiates. Meaning is given to music by the listener." (p 157)

Perhaps the only way you could write music without a tune or melody is to compose a piece that does not use instruments capable of producing pitched notes, ie percussion. Perhaps the best known work of this genre (probably the first) is "Ionization" by Edgard Varese. But even here, if you listen intently enough through creative ears, your  mind could either sweep you away altogether from the notions of melody (or "pitchedness"), as was Varese's intentions, or it could start to create a virtual melody for you!! (Try it and see! Click here.) 

As a psychologist I do believe that our human conditioning is such that, over millennia of natural and cultural evolution, our ears have developed a sense of melody and rhythm so powerful that the two cannot but co-exist. 

A Resolution? Perhaps?

OK, OK, I'll come off my high horse now. To find a quick resolution perhaps to the multiple directions into which contemporary classical music could go, we could seek solace in Stravinsky. I recall with much affection and amusement what George Self once said in class, "Yes, you can call Boulez a "serialist, if you like; Stockhausen is ....." Then somebody interrupted, "Stravinsky?" To which George chortled, "Oh, him! He's the entire history of music!!!"

Warming thought, that! If only all composers could be a little bit like Stravinsky, and give due respect to all periods of musical composition, even with a contemporary voice. After all, where would "West Side Story" be, had it not been for Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet"? And Shakespeare didn't write the music for it, nor did Thomas Tallis - Leonard Bernstein did!

Remember for instance the "Sanctus" in Stravinsky's "Mass", isn't that a Gregorian chant interspersed with 20th century brass splashes? So, in one fell swoop, Stravinsky has ushered thirteen centuries of music into his composition! And, remember those eerie moments in the final scene of Benjamin Britten's opera "The Turn of the Screw" - how superbly Britten painted the tension and spinechilling suspense of those moments with his 20th century compositional palette! Did Mozart not try desperately to achieve the same in his final scene of "Don Giovanni" with his 18th century resources?

So, musical thought may not have differed much over the ages, but the language has advanced! And though we have moved on, we mustn't turn our nose up at the classical music of old, because without it we would never have got this far in our musical evolution.

And so, you'll still find the odd fugue here and there in my music, although sounding not too much like Bach, I hope. I still find them terrific fun to write, and a tremendous thrill when the performers (including "moi") get put through their paces.

So, I (or we?) should really say "Thanks, Igor, for being a composer in the entire history of music! Are you sure you're not a time traveller?" (Only kidding! .... But you never know....)

But joking apart, I guess what I'm trying to say with all that rigmarole is simply this. Composers have been struggling throughout the centuries to find a language of musical expression that would be extensive and powerful enough to say what they fully want to say. Had Salieri or Buxtehude known about Gershwin jazz-harmonies or Jimi Hendrix "magic chords", they would probably have been written greater music. (But then so would have been every other prominent well-known composer - not least Bartok, who said on his deathbed that he was leaving the world when there was so much more he wanted to say in music.)  In multitonalism (ie the theory of multitonality in practice) the language of music has evolved to such an extent that we now have all the resources we could possibly ever need to turn creative thought into living music, and this is even without resorting to the use of microtones. (Although, as a string player I can't resist saying that microtones have been practised for centuries by unfretted string players, who play a flat-note almost a quarter tone lower then its sharp-enharmonic. But that's a different story altogether.)

The Final Word Perhaps

Perhaps Sir Roger Norrington should have the last word about music. I cannot think of any other narrative more true, sincere, inspirational and moving than these. (Click here please.)  

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Gordon, E E (2007), "Learning Sequences in Music - A Contemporary Music Learning Theory, Edition 7", Ghicago, GIA Publications

Jarrett, S and Day, D (2008), "Music Composition for Dummies", Indianopolis, Wiley

(will return to complete these....)






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