Music Composition Class Assignment for 12.1.2017
In class we studied the most recent era of music by its most common label of “Contemporary Music.” This period starts in the early 1900s and continues up to the present day. Within that span of roughly 100 years, music underwent several transformations driven by markedly different ideas about the nature of music and the world.
The preceding era of music, the Romantic Period, had become increasingly aggressive with the use of dissonance and the pushing of musical boundaries to the point where Wagner’s infamous “Tristan chord” is said to have destroyed tonality. This sense of tonality being “done with” and passé lead Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg to believe that the logical future of music rested not in tonality, but in atonality (or as Schoenberg preferred to call it, “pantonality”). In order to create this new breed of music, Schoenberg created a system to avoid the typical features of traditional music, namely key areas and the existence of tonics (chords or tones that felt like “home”) and dominants (chords or tones that pulled you back to “home”). This system involved the selection of 12 different notes which one could use as a sort of “key,” but which was often called a “tone row.” From this tone row the composer could create a myriad of different patterns, as long as they never emphasized one note above any other. This typically meant playing the whole tone row all the way through, though additional intrigue was added when the row was played backwards (retrograde), or upside down (inversion, where the intervals between notes are the same, but they go in the opposite direction of their normal form) or upside down and backwards (retrograde inversion). Additionally, tone rows could be transposed, leading to a whole new collection of notes with which to perform all the same methods previously discussed (retrograde, inversion, etc.). This style of music, while highly academic and logical, was not particularly popular with audiences.
Following the rise of atonality, and particularly popular between the two world wars, there was a differing movement known as “Neoclassicism.” This movement contains a large number of composers that are fairly well known to us, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravisnky, Benjamin Britten, and Paul Hindemith, among others. Neoclassicism came about as a reaction against the extreme emotional volatility of the late Romantic period, which many people felt had contributed to the highly depressing and fruitless events of World War 1. By returning to the aesthetic principles of former musical eras, these composers hoped to find the order and harmony that the late Romantic period had lost. While these composers featured more emotional restraint than, say, Gustav Mahler, they remained distinctly 20th century due to their use of advanced harmonies.
Following World War II there were yet more musical developments, namely the rise of aleatoric music and minimalism. Aleatoric, or “chance” music, was music that involved an element of unpredictability in its structure. This unpredictability could take fairly mild forms, such as having structured times for performers to improvise, but often was used to create far more shocking effects. John Cage, probably the best known proponent of this movement, composed a piece in which there is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence on the part of the performer. During the performance, whatever ambient noise or coincidental sounds happened to occur were thought of by Cage as the intended music (i.e., if someone happened to cough once during the performance, Cage would just say “Yeah, that’s what I wanted to have happen. I want to give 4′ and 33″ for complete coincidence to happen”).
Minimalism, whose most prominent proponent was Steve Reich, dealt with creating straightforward processes that would continue for the entire duration of the piece. For example, in Clapping Music, two performers initially clap the exact same rhythmic pattern, but soon one performer is required to shift the rhythm forward by a single eighth note. This process of one performer shifting the rhythm forward while the other one stays consistent makes up the entire piece. Eventually the two performers line up again, the process runs its course, and the piece is finished.
Assignment: Your assignment for these next two weeks is to write a 12 tone piece in the style of Arnold Schoenberg. To do this, first create your tone row. Pick twelve unrelated notes (don’t just create a normal key or anything, make it weird!) and make sure you don’t use the same note twice (i.e. don’t have Db and C#!). Then, make sure you don’t emphasize any one note throughout your piece (don’t try to create a “tonic” out of anything) by using the whole tone row in order all the time. To help you figure out all the possible combinations of your tone row, here’s the link to this awesome matrix calculator. Just put in the notes of your tone row and it will fill in the matrix for you! http://composertools.com/
P.S. The 20th century also gave rise to percussion literature and percussion ensemble music. This was largely due to the same attitude that led Arnold Schoenberg to create 12 tone music: percussion music was a kind of “last frontier.” Consequently, percussion music, especially early percussion music, tends to be pretty weird. But go listen to it anyway, it will definitely take you to a very different and interesting tonal sphere!
Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music: https://www.youtube.
Arnold Schoenberg Piano Concerto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Penderecki Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima: https://www.
John Cage’s Water Walk: https://www.youtube.com/
Edgard Varese’s Ionization: https://www.
Musical “happy moment” this week is totally this fantastic and hilarious fake commercial for a giant stereo LP of all your favorite 12 tone music “hits”: https://www.youtube.