Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Hucbald…

It shouldn’t be too long before I  can post my next article in the series  ‘Pythagoras and the Music of the Future’. It has taken me some time partly because I have made a start on ‘digitising’ some of my earlier compositions to enable sharing.

The first fruits of this will appear in my next post introducing my composition, Songs of The Aristos for brass & computer-generated tape. The accompanying sound file was created using Sibelius 7 and the marvellous, free sound recording software Audacity. I am still ‘finding my way’, especially with the latter, so any audio clips that I post may leave something to be desired in terms of ‘engineering’. Please forgive.

Going back to Pythagoras and the harmonic series for a moment, I want to share a quote I recently came across, which I have a great deal of sympathy with. It’s from A Monk’s Musical Musings – an excellent, very comprehensive blog by a scholarly guitarist who goes by the nom de plumeHucbald‘.

“Lacking in all music theories that I am aware of from Western history is a neat and tidy description of why music works, and why it has evolved as we see from the historical record. There is no Einsteinian General Theory of Musical Relativity… yet.

For such a proposed theory to be compelling, it would have to relate directly – in all of its aspects – to the very nature of sound itself. Harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, melody, and form would all have to be explained as having originated within some feature that God and nature have given to sound, and sound alone. There is only one candidate for the feature I am describing, of course, and that is The Harmonic Overtone Series.”

I couldn’t agree more with the second paragraph. In fact, I think that study of the harmonic series could probably lead to a musical ‘Theory of Everything’ let alone Relativity! The problem for me is that Hucbald doesn’t seem to have much time for ‘modern’ i.e. non-tonal music judging by subsequent comments in his blog. It’s almost as if he holds the belief  (and if he doesn’t many others do) that post tonal music has somehow become divorced from the properties of the harmonic series. I can only agree to a certain extent and this is something I’ll be addressing in my forthcoming articles.

Nevertheless, for those interested in such things, there is a lot to be gained from looking at;

A Monk’s Musical Musings: Musical Implications of the Harmonic Overtone Series: Introduction.

2 thoughts on “Pythagoras, Heraclitus and Hucbald…”

  1. Thanks for the props and link!

    My relationship with what I call post-tonal music is a bit more complex and nuanced than you indicate, and this, of course, may be my fault for objecting too strenuously to some of it. The fact is, from my perspective, that most post-tonal music is simply bad, exactly like most tonal music is. It is also needlessly ugly a lot of the time, and some of those composers indicate that is what they are going for. I’m not sure intentional ugliness is much of an artistic credo. It sure doesn’t resonate with me, in any case.

    My main point about problems with abandoning tonality, though, have to do with absolute instrumental concert music versus program or film/stage music: When music creates its own context, that context has to be in some aspect reflective of the many modal systems that are possibilities implied by the various resolutional paradigms of the overtone sonority (The systems I demonstrate in the series you linked to). If it’s not, over 90% of lay listeners object to it.

    If a film or play is creating an extra-musical context, however, there is no such desire for the listener to be couched in a modality, and the extra-musical context supersedes the musical one. My favorite example of this is the soundtrack for There Will Be Blood: Arvo Part has some music in there that was conceived as post-tonal concert music. I remember hearing it years ago, and I thought it was a failure in the concert context, but in the context of the movie it was marvelous.

    So, atonality has it’s place, as does noise art. In fact, back in the 80’s and 90’s I was creating lots of noise art with synthesizers. What I found, though, was that having a video along with the, “music” made it more interesting (Like an evolving Mandelbrot set, or the like). That was my first hint that musical and extra-musical contexts are crucial differences to understand.

    Best of luck!


    George AKA Hucbald.

    Oh, and BOOKMARKED!

    1. Thanks to you too, for the comment and the bookmark. I think my recent article addresses some of the points you make, but I have a few other thoughts that I’d like to share.

      ‘Ugly’ is a very subjective judgement and so can’t really be used as a justification for any kind of general statement about any kind of music – post tonal or otherwise. As for certain composers actively wanting their music to be found ugly, I can’t think of any examples, but there are those of course, who challenge traditional notions of beauty. Having said that and turning towards other arts, I can’t imagine that Francis Bacon particularly wanted some of his paintings to be found beautiful, so you may have a point.

      I think that most atonal, or if you prefer post tonal, music is couched in some sort of modality, although now, the number of such modalities is so much greater than in say, the classical period. But the modalities at the ‘upper’ end of the harmonic series are different to those in the lower regions. I’m going to write a bit more about this when I do the next article, on rhythm, but for now, I’d just say that it’s partly why octaves and regular, divisive rhythms don’t fit too well in atonal music. For example, in the first movement of Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, there is a sudden, brief fragment; forte, in octaves. This always comes as a shock to me – it has the ‘jarring’ effect of a dissonance.

      On the other hand, I feel pretty sure that some listeners less familiar with this kind of musical ‘environment’ would experience a brief moment of relief at this point, and they might even anticipate a resolution (as if they’re about to wake up from a bad dream) – because the whole piece to that point had been heard against a ‘virtual’ tonal background and therefore, as dissonant. The modalities are confused.

      The 90% of listeners you mention are probably hearing atonal music against such a tonal background (this is what I am talking about, in my article, when I say conditioning) which, by the way, is why atonal music can add a great deal of atmosphere in the theatre or the cinema. But really, needing this is a bit like needing stabilisers on a bicycle or ‘water wings’ in a swimming pool! Fine and very useful at first, but there needs to come a stage when the music can be heard and appreciated simply for what it is. I’m sure you know the story about Debussy remarking that he wished people would hear La Mer without thinking of the sea!

      Thanks again for the comment and keep up the good work.

      Best regards.

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