Monday, October 3, 2016

Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (2)

In Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1), we examined tonality, atonality, and post-tonality, and explored two possibile ways of using tonal chords in a post-tonal context. 

One way is to superimpose triadic structures in order to create sonorities that would not normally be found in tonal music; perhaps the most famous example of this is Stravinsky's "Petroushka" chord: A combination of F# major and C major chords. Another Stravinsky example comes from the Rite of Spring, in the section called "Augurs of Spring/Dances of the Young Girls," which features a strongly-rhythmic repeated chord and irregular accents; the chord is E major in the lower strings (spelled enharmonically as Fb), and Eb7 in the upper strings.

A second way uses triadic-based, tonal chords in progressions that do not follow the chord-flow practices of tonal harmony (e.g., avoiding descending fifth root movements). 

I will explore the first idea (e.g., Petrushka chord, and other combined sonorites) at greater length in my next post, but  the objective today is to expand on the second idea, using the last musical example from Post-Tonal Harmony Ideas (1) as a starting point. 

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The example below is a very short composition written specifically for today blog post, beginning with the piano chord progression from the end of my previous post. The first five bars are virtually identical (dynamics and octave doublings have been added), but a trumpet enters at the end of m. 5. The piano chord progression is repeated in the second system while the trumpet plays a new melodic line, and the last two systems are an expansion of this chord progression, while the trumpet continues to play its melody.

For the trumpet notes, I picked pitches that, at the point they begin, are not part of the accompanying piano chord, although several subsequent piano chords include the pitch being held by the trumpet. My rationale for doing this was to increase the sense that this was not intended to be heard as an example of tonal harmony.

Have a listen; discussion to follow:

Dreary, isn't it? ;-)

As a reminder, the objective was to (a) create a succession of tonal chords that do not follow the typical chord progression patterns in tonal harmony, and (b) expand this into a short composition.

You might well ask, why would anyone want do such a thing? Isn't this like putting old wine in new bottles (i.e, repackaging something old and calling it new)?


This was an experiment. Whether it produced anything useful or not is up for debate, but there would have been no way of knowing if this approach (and yes, it is rather like putting old wine into new bottles) had any useful compositional possibilities to offer had we not tried it. FWIW, I don't know of any music that actually does this, although I would not be surprised to find that others have explored this approach as well.

Exploring new ways of using old harmonic structures completely violates the spirit and practice of modernism, and I therefore suspect many contemporary composers would reject this approach. We live in what some have called a "post-modern" period, however, within which this sort of exploration is completely appropriate.

Whether it is appropriate or not, the main thing most composers would want to know is this: Is there any situation in which this approach could be compositionally useful to me? I suggest that you ask yourself this question while playing the audio clip above at least three times, and, if you haven't run screaming from the room by the end of the third play-through, please share your thoughts in the "comments" section below. It's fine to decide that you do not find it worth exploring, but, whether you find it potentially useful or useless, I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Also, if you would be willing to share a chord progression that you came up with, and that fits this approach (tonal-based sonorities that do not follow the harmonic progressions associated with tonality), please do so in the "comments" section.


Cleary Maddigan said...

Cool topic, I find this post useful. I am often confused and when it comes to making post tonal sonorities that sound organic. It's cool that one can use and combine traditional harmonies to make post tonal ones. This technique looks helpful and can not wait to try it out on my own. Would it be appropriate to resolve each new sonority traditionally. for example if I had a B7Maj9 stacked on a C7Min9 would it be ok to resolve it to a EMaj stacked on a Fminor Chord.

Clark Ross said...

Glad you find this useful!

Regarding your question, what you are describing sounds like bitonality, with each of the two "stacked" dominant seventh chords resolving "correctly" within the context of tonality (i.e., B7 to E, C7 to Fm). As to whether this would constitute post-tonality or not, my feeling is that bitonality is inherently post-tonal, and thus your example could be considered post-tonal as well. That said, an argument could be made that by using dominant-tonic harmony so prominently, albeit in two different keys, your example is a little too close to tonality to be considered truly post-tonal.

As a teacher of composition, however, my feeling is that it is important to try approaches and techniques you have not tried before, and I therefore would encourage an exploration of bitonality, if you haven't done much with that previously and it interests you. To me this is much more valuable, in terms of a learning experience, than being overly concerned over whether bitonality is "truly" post-tonal or not.

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

For my next composition this is really something I want to explore. As you know, I struggle a bit to stray away from the tonal world. This method using old/traditional harmonic language and using it in a new way is something I find very attractive to listen too. Your composition was really great. The more tonal language presented in the piano was still enough for me to stay grounded and be attracted to it. The trumpet line was really great too as it weaved in and out from dissonance to consonance. I really enjoyed this post. To my personal music taste this compositional idea presented a great tonal and post-tonal balance.

Also just reading the discussion in the comments a great piece to listen too that explores the idea of bi-tonality is : Enchanted Bells by Alexina Louie. Here is a reasonable recording of it and listen to about 1:10. It’s a really great effect.

-Robert Humber said...

I remember the first time I REALLY "listened" to something bitonal. It was rite of spring and I was absolutely addicted to the piece for a year straight. I know it off by heart at this point. Bitonality is definitely a beautiful tool to play with in your compositions, Cleary. I filled around with it a little bit last year in my wind Quintet piece, I would like get more in depth with it though I think.

In regards to the trumpet piece, the chords were interesting but the part I liked the most was the way the trumpet note would change to a clashing non chord tone but then the piano would answer with a chord bringing back to a beautiful chord tone. It was like the piano was catching the trumpet's fall repeatedly, reassuring it... I love the sound of dissonance resolving to consonance. A favorite example of this is the last minute the last movement of Schnittke's piano Quintet. Spine tingling stuff.

Flutiano said...

I find it interesting to see what you did with the chord progression from the previous blog post in this composition. With the trumpet line playing so many non-chord tones, I have a hard time hearing many of the the chords as tonal chords even though the piano part is made up of tonal chords. I quite like the piano part in the third system . . .

I think this is a very interesting technique for writing music. I'm not sure if it is something that I would use very much, but I definitely think I could benefit from writing a couple of pieces this way! Even just as an exercise, I think it might help me expand the types of ideas that come up with when I'm working on compositions. At any rate, it never hurts to have another technique in the composition bag o' tricks!

Kristin Wills said...

What I like about this piece is that the trumpet notes are fairly long, and you have a lot of time to think about them. I found that because of this, I knew exactly where I wanted the trumpet line to go, but it always ended up going to different notes than the ones I expected. This is effective because it really keeps the audience's attention, they want to find out where it ends. While the trumpet part was harsh and dissonant, the piano part was sort of calm and beautiful, even though it was not tonal. I find this style of atonal music very interesting.

Jordan Mills said...

Even though you mentioned it may not be standard practice among most post-tonal composers, I think this approach would be very useful as a stepping stone for those learning to compose post-tonal music. It would serve as an excellent transitional composition technique to get those who haven't worked with post-tonal sororities, to work with something that is familiar in a completely new way, eventually moving on to completely modern sororities.

I see the value in this style of approach as both a educational tool for new composers who are learning, as well as a method of composing for experienced composers. I believe this approach could lead to some very interesting compositions and I look forward to trying it myself.

Stephen Eckert said...

I most certainly will explore this idea and do think it is of value to experiment with this approach. This approach could be expanded upon by using by once having found a progression that suits your taste, applying inversion, retrograde and sequences (such as in a desecnding minor 2nd pattern) to it. composers like Liebermann and Rautavaara often use tonal chords in ways similar to this. Not as the basis for the entire composition, but certainly including them all the same. I will definitely consider this when composing in the future,

Josh McCarthy said...

As a fan of film music (what? Josh likes film music? Who knew!?) I am very fond of any type of mediant relationships, from the C major to E minor that is used throughout "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them", to the doubly chromatic mediants of almost any mood change of any dramatic movie ever. I try to use them in my work when I can, since they are so powerful in terms of atmospheric changes, you can go from a happy stroll though the woods to all of a sudden heading a bush being rustled behind you like tat *snaps fingers* with just two chords. I feel like everybody should use these relationships in their writing.