making sense of sound
SENSE OF SOUND
In Plato’s time fools used to say
there are no rules for music that you play.
Being law-abiding when you write
a piece of music often won’t excite
the fools who will demand of you to break
its laws, while claiming that the word mistake
doe not apply to music. It is pleasure
that’s their bottom line, every measure
composed in any manner the composer
may wish. I do not want to be imposer
of any law that may inhibit your
ability to write, but I feel sure
that ultimately it is only fools
who break in music, as in life, all rules.
In music as in life there’s right and wrong,
and both of them, in order to last long,
must follow norms, as Plato once declared.
a view that by this poet now is shared,
while hoping antinomians are not friendless,
like Wagner making melody that’s endless.
Music is a stock that never should be shorted.
Like any lover that you may have courted,
it follows rules on which you should go long,
avoiding dissonances that sound wrong,
except for all the ones that are resolved
like problems that in life that have been solved.
Only by preventing disappearance
of rules can life-like music reach coherence.
Inspired by Plato, cited in “Making Sense of Sound, ” by James F. Penrose in the WSJ, January 27,2010, reviewing Ruth Katz’s “A Language of Its Own, ” describing a grammar of music that evolved over the centuries without any overt instruction, giving an internal coherence to music and allowing it to adapt to cultural and social change, with a shared understanding between musicians and audiences. Penrose writes;
“Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong way in music, that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure that it gave.” With these words Plato complained about the “promiscuous cleverness and a spirit of law-breaking” that characterized the music of the time—the fourth century B.C. Even then, it seems, music had a form and structure that guided its composition and performance, for “law-abiding” musicians anyway…. Beethoven, in Mr. Katz’s view, never damaged the system of harmonic tonality and “integrated” form, for all his iconoclasm. But a succession of composers––including Schumann, Liszt and, above all, Wagner––chipped away at coherence by preparing unprepared and unresolved chords, chromatic alterations, and above all modulations into remote keys. With his “unendlische Melodie (infinite melody) and other devices, Wagner savaged traditional musical structures even as he created astonishingly beautiful music. The gulf between past and present widened as the 20th century progressed––but there were pockets of resistance, Ms. Katz observes. Debussy joined the moderns in rebelling against the constraints of harmonic tonality but found coherence in modal forms and in melodic tonality. Composers like Bartok, Ravel and Janacek, though also pushing the boundaries of traditional harmony, appealed to the ear by retaining crucial elements of traditional tonality… [Ms Katz] is hopeful that musical tradition can regain its footing, perhaps by recreating the “abstracting” process that allowed Wesstern music, despite its inability to describe what it does, to beguile and fascinate us for so long.
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