Inside 20th-century music; Rhythm and tonality

In music, rhythmic regularity and harmonic clarity, in greater or lesser quantities, are the means by which the listener feels coherence and assurance in what he's hearing. These are basic musical facts, but it is amazing how contentious it becomes to bring up the issues of rhythm and tonality in serious discussion of the music of this century.

Rhythm is the order and sequence in which we receive signals in time. It determines how we take in the music's passage through time, its vitality and its breathing spaces.

Speaking of rhythm in a localized sense (rather than, say, the larger flow of whole works), the more repetitive or recurrent a rhythmic musical figure or texture is, the firmer the hearer's grasp of it. Grade school chants and Sousa marches prove that obvious point well enough. Art music, however, be it Felix Mendelssohn or Bela Bartok, is involved with subtlety and by nature begins to take chances, to play around with the listener's absolute certainty. Used appropriately, this play is heard as variety, sustaining the interest. Too much departing from what is expected or too much time elapsing before its return, and thwarted expectation turns, less gently each time, into frustration. Music which has hardly any rhythmic variety we find boring; that in which nothing returns recognizably, we find annoying. Again, basic.

Harmony also has its principles for guiding and fostering the hearer's sense of place in the progress of a composition. And one of the major contributors to coherent harmonic perception, I say with apologies to those who still today wish it were not so, is tonality.m

Tonality is commonly described as setting up an expectancy of a tonal center, a leaning toward a resolution on a key note, called the tonic. But anyone who knows the music of, say, Chopin or Debussy can testify to the fact that it is the "leaning" part that is important more than the arriving at tonal centers. Resolution, as such, is not terribly crucial in many passages in Chopin or Debussy, where there tends to be much slipping and sliding through a maze of keys. Obviously what's important to our enjoyment is the expectancies we understand. So much so that leaving can take the place, momentarily, of arriving.

Understanding and recognition are buoy and lifeline to the listener paddling his way through an unfamiliar work. But these are the very items that would appear to be the most ignored or denied by much of what is called "modern music." So the layman feels -- and so does the thoughtful professional, if he starts assessing the humanm inroads made in 70 years by atonality, serialism, and rhythmic hypercomplexity. With composers like Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, and Elliott Carter and their disciples purveying tonal deserts and rhythmic jungles, the severing of the lifelines for even the intelligent ear would seem to have become an end in itself -- a reaction similar to the visual challenges offered to many by the abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock, for example.

The dilemma is that art of any kind needs, thrives on, ambiguity of one kind or another for interest, and thus rhythmic and tonal uncertainty dom have their places in music.

It would be folly to get embroiled here in all the arguments surrounding these two vital features of the art. But one point, perhaps, could stand to be made. Audiences can be led quite far in the thickets of complex, confusing rhythms if the music at the same timem has firm tonal rootedness. This is true of music in all periods. For example, the opening of Wagner's Das Rheingold:m an interminable wash, in immense blob, of E-flat major sonorities. Rhythmically, the music is almost spineless, with no seeming direction, but the ear follows along becausem of that unchallenging tonal recognition.

By the same token, music can be "all over the place" tonally, with no key at all, or with such vague suggestions of one that nobody is able to take notice; but if, at the same time, there is a pulse to pull the ear along, the listener has something to fasten onto, even if he may have no inkling as to what the harmonies are all about. Something like a polka by Shostakovich, or, more important, some atonal or polytonal pieces by Wallingford Riegger or Darius Milhaud, illustrate this well, with a confusing harmony set in a rock-solid rhythmic punch that leaves behind no serious doubts.

Rhythmic regularity and tonal stability. The ear can follow music for astonishing distances when provided with only one and not the other. This is proved in many passages from the composers I have mentioned, and in the music of countless others past and present. It is music that neglects both needs at once that has problems in holding an audience's attention for very long. Music that lacks both rhythmic assurance and harmonic intelligibility, if not actual tonality, runs the risk of stranding the listener, leaving him adrift in so much sound without oar or rudder to guide him.

I intend nothing more by all this than a reminder of the importance, not only for the composer but also for the listener, of being aware of the large role ambiguity plays -- the enhancement it can bring to our enjoyment and the perplexity it can generate when treated intemperately.

There is an old adage about the duty of composers to produce music that children can hum and cabbies can whistle. As an overstatement, this deprecates not only a lot of cabbies (andm children!) I have known, but also the fascinating possibilities inherent in musical subtlety -- ifm we remember to remain open to them and can forgive and forget the abuses of our trust along the way.

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