‘But when I say what it is that I do not consider a necessity of art; when I say: tonality is no natural law of music, eternally valid- then it is plain for everyone to see how the theorists spring up in indignation to cast their veto against my integrity. Who today would want to admit that [my statement about tonality is true] even if I proved it still more incisively than I do here?’
Arnold Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony
A year ago, I began composing musical palindromes, pieces of music that consist of the same material forwards and backwards. This idea is not entirely new and has been explored in many particular fashions by individuals of the past. One can easily trace firm origins of this concept to the work of J.S Bach, even finding much smaller fragments of it in the infamous works of Renaissance composer Carlos Gesualdo. Western composers have always limited their creative output in one way or another in order to discover something in the uncountable creative considerations an individual can make. Using my own finite restrictions I was encountered by two firm issues from the beginning of my exploration into this form of composition.
The first met me before I had ever dared to scribe a dot upon the page. It was the question of what perspective I could look through. The general principles of traditional Western harmony have been ignored for decades and our tools can bend their guidelines. For example, the standardisation of tuning to the specific pitch of ‘A=440Hz’ decided in London, 1939, isn’t consistently applied as both woodwind and string instruments inevitably suffer in different climates. This highlights more of an ideal of music; a set of instructions to perform anything within the spectrum of a perfect resemblance or, as many would argue, an abstraction of what we know the ritual to have become.
Therefore a composer living today has volumes of ammunition to apply on the deliberation of what sounds they may wish to use. Abstract notation can be applied, dissonance can now sit center stage and digital plug ins can become one’s own obedient orchestra. I found all this overwhelming. Where would there be relevance in my work if I could pick any note or even use any sound? Freedom is alluring but anarchy in this context seemed colourless. I needed to create sound that didn’t require explanation, that didn’t insist upon its own significance. I needed to compose something that sounded ‘natural’.
I chose to legislate myself to the laws of traditional counterpoint. The restrictions are fairly pragmatic and their credence relies on a canon of empirical evidence. I now could put the pen to page and dream a little. Soon after however, the second issue’s shadow appeared and slowly crept closer.
When you write a melody, a theme, an idea, the ear, in essence, ‘learns’ it. Perform it backwards and you get something different. Not unlike the discovery of the conspiracy theorists who play records in reverse – hearing a distortion of the words, instrumental ideas can take on a different meaning aswell, wear a new set of clothes. I’d play the material of my pieces forwards and then backwards to complete them, though my mind was unsatisfied. I didn’t know how to listen to them. From this point I asked: why?
Musicologist Alain Danielou states that ‘Western musicians have a tendency to believe that their musical theory and notation are sufficient to express everything … yet we can observe the total inability of the Western system and notation to render the melodies and chords of Asian music without disfiguring them.’ The statement doesn’t necessarily point to wrongness in Western music but does show that the dominance of Western tonality can be challenged. Perhaps listening has more to do with tradition and less to do with nature?
Our ability to document to a higher degree than ever before has allowed the influence of nostalgia to become a powerful opium. Take our ancestors’ concept of money, originating from the fact that gold and silver are durable metals and therefore discoverable, we may instinctively believe this is all money is and can be. Such a belief would not take into account the currency of Yap called ‘fei’. Famously documented for being made of huge, round stones, the currency is too big and heavy to carry or steal, therefore ownership is determined through verbal agreement rather than physical exchange. One family who had lost their fei to a storm, still lay claim to their wealth despite its disappearance. Money has the capacity to become a mutually imagined concept, not a physical notion. Music has a similar flexibility.
Societies formed within finite surroundings, legislating themselves by all that they happened to discover and with a limited point of view built their truths on what they had access to. Our idea of music is much the same. Our ability to record, uncover and refurbish a wealth of historical artifacts does give us a greater viewpoint of our past but surely these discoveries alone can not completely define it? Just because we have found an overwhelming amount of information to support one idea of music, it does not mean that we have the whole picture and already know it to be what it naturally is. Music has been a catalyst to represent many different ideas in the past. A definer of character for Aristotle, a metaphor of magic for Shakespeare and a product of entertainment for Simon Cowell. These examples hint to the flexibility of defining music as such an act is influenced by the context of one’s own time. To assume that our idea of what is music has followed a consistent and logical path, may be the act of what psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as ‘theory induced blindness’.
Yet despite the modern composers and thinkers who have been aware of these ideas for a long time, huge majorities of individuals still listen to music created with traditional techniques and forms. Popular myths still live in popular culture. Prodigy in music, for example, relies on the notion that our music is inherently natural. To easily cultivate ‘excellence’ on a piano, a saxophone or an electric guitar of course makes use of one’s own biology, mental processes and physical characteristics however the instruments themselves are contemporary inventions. They rely on a social idea of what constitutes music and we become easily impressed when younger individuals execute this construction exceptionally. Out of our humble beginnings, we have now morphed sound into music and music into a provider of emacity, fueling our inner magpie by making the subjective coruscate, coloured by temptation, creating a particular type of relationship with sound that has very little to do with an objective, survival instinct.
Thus defining naturalism in music is difficult to do when the fuel that allows a significant quantity of it to run relies not just on the pursuit of wealth but a present-day notion of it. Complexity arises when determining truths in subjective concepts like music and what is ‘natural’ to them under such circumstances. Our association with music doesn’t necessarily unveil our intrinsic nature with it for nature is a fickle thing which has been misappropriated by too many to mention, and I am cautious to reference any credence in arguments nestled deep within it.
I continue to write my pieces of music that function out of the same material played backwards and forwards (my mirror pieces as I call them), trying to mold the clay into something recognisable but I doubt wholly natural. Music perhaps inhabits safely between nature and nurture within our standardised conditions, immortalized in the act of seeing the image of a Jack Russell Terrier listening to a recording of His Master’s Voice or even in viewing John Cage plucking an amplified cacti on Youtube. The unnatural use of nature, perhaps.