Counterpoint by Mark Nicol – Music and silence

| September 30, 2020

It is a tantalizing music, which flirts with silence. Yet perhaps that infamous work by the avant-garde composer, John Cage, entitled 4/33//, consisting of nothing but, flirts too far. True, that was Cage’s most endearing aesthetic.
When the music of man falls silent, one lineage of utterance will rate special mention.

Prized amongst my trove of CDs are the haunting flute of William Two Feather, mesmerizing chants of Yunchen Lhamo, the transcendental meditations of Ravi Shankar. The melismatic seduction of the minaret caller should be there.

Yet musical expressions emanating from the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Australia have one limitation. These are fairly static traditions, produced by cultures confined within Ancient or Primitive modes of discourse.

The one and a half millennia stretch of Western musical expression yields an astonishing extension of technical development, moral range. This is an outpouring of profound expressive evolution, increasingly one revolution after another, reflective of Western cultural development itself.

An insight into the connected financial stewardship, expressive evolution of Western music was broadcast on ABC radio a while back, “Who Pays the Piper”. Succinctly, the Roman Catholic Church, then secular courts, aristocratic patronage, and finally the cashed up Commons have held the purse strings.

This genealogy aligns with the political evolution of Western culture, moving from expression under an ancient regime to struggling ordination of the modern. Each step in this progression gave rise to distinct new music.

The first human music was fashioned in the primitive landscape. The basic essence of tonal and metrical structuring is evident in native Australian music, in all Primitive World music. But it was that more sophisticated grasp of tonality developed in the Ancient World, which passed into Western hands.

Mesopotamia and Egypt, undoubtedly produced fine musicians. But it was the Ancient Greeks who codified the mathematical basis of logical tonal relationships found within the harmonic series, the first practical ratification of musical scales. Many things Greek were appropriated by the Romans.

Church Music

Likely, stylistic elements in Grecian music also passed into the first serious Western tradition, the Gregorian chants practised within the early Catholic Church.

Gregorian chant is similar to the muezzin’s invocation to prayer. The Moslem melody is more florid, free, uses Middle-Eastern scales piquantly dissonant. Highly pious, the Christian chant is more measured, constrained. It utilizes a wider range of scales, ‘modes’ less harsh in structure, more suited to harmonic, polyphonic development.

After several hundred years Western church musicians developed organum, melodies intuitively doubled at the fourth or fifth, as per Chinese/Japanese practice. The first polyphonic writings were simple, crude. But, via that search for glorious expression subsidized by the Roman Church, by the 16th Century this devout school furnished a quintessential art.

Emblematically, this is the smooth, masterly polyphony, the masses of Palestrina. Majestic Christian cathedrals were designed to acoustically accentuate the antiphonal effects of this noble, ethereal music.

‘Spem in Alium’, the 40-part English motet by Tallis, represents one pinnacle of Renaissance music. But this was the age of confronting political ideologies, the Renaissance premonition of the modern, the Counter-Reformation assertion of the ancient.

Radical secular madrigals, composed by Monteverdi, Gesualdo, invoked powerful expressions, testaments to humane loves, affectations, horrors, deemed sacrilegious within the church. The court musician already represented the voice of a new power base in the West.

Via its Counter-Reformation charge, the Catholic Church aimed to re-seize the ideological voice of Western art. Palestrina was commissioned to censure church music, to remove profane dissonances, excessive polyphony obscuring religious texts. Theocratic proscription reached across the Channel too. Tallis’ later works contain no ornate polyphony, are composed as simple homophonic anthems.

The Baroque period ushered in dramatic transformations. The rise of instrumental virtuosity, style, the ingenious development of equal temperament tuning, and new cultural thrusts forged an entirely new aesthetic. Bach used up more potential of the new 12-note language than anyone via the intellectual extravagance of his fugues, sacred works, court entertainments.

This was the new, angular language of counterpoint, simplified scale systems availing greater harmonic complexity, modulation of keys. The Chaconne for solo violin, Bach’s extended work over a simple ground bass, is as much “The Odyssey” in music. It is the narrative of a life confronting faith, an impossible realization conveyed on four frail strings.

In England Handel composed grandiose works on more secular themes. In Spain Scarlatti composed many fine keyboard Sonatas, the first natural arias designed for a non-vocal instrument, others bleeding with violent Hispanic dissonance.

The Classical Era

The congenial C.P.E. Bach transits us into the Classical era, the realm of music controlled no longer by the Christian Church. This is an elegant art, divested of turgid intellectual complexity, sanctimonious morality. The opera, that light courtly entertainment initiated by Monteverdi, comes into fashion. Mozart’s art is the crowning jewel in this epoch, his intuitive balance of charm, pathos, drama, architecture, producing a music pleasing and edifying.

Beethoven heralds the Romantic impetus, the assertive artist no longer bending to church or court. Yet the emphatic self-testament, human proclamation we hear in Beethoven’s sonatas, symphonies, is presaged by the bravura contained in Bach’s exuberant organ works. Contrastingly, in the late string quartets Beethoven produces an aristocratic aesthetic, the point of view, again, as from above.

Enter Chopin’s salon works, poetically lyrical, organically dramatic, tracing the full vertical potential of the diatonic/chromatic language. Wagner emblazons a Germanic vision torturously struggling ‘towards being’, towards moral deliverance.

This manuscript augments the technical, expressive landscape, delivering the first full realization of chromatic harmonies, modulations. Teutonic Romanticism finds a catharsis in Mahler’s “Song of the Earth”, an exquisite denouement in Strauss’ tragic “Four Last Songs”, a return to Mozartian radiance in Korngold’s bookend opus.

Modern Music

Confronting the 20th Century, Schoenberg faced ‘the abyss’, recognizing that all linear and vertical possibilities of the 12-note scale system had been exhausted. He plunged off the cliff, developing a synthetically ordered atonal music, an illogical art where consonance equals dissonance, peace pain. A century of atonal lemmings followed, occasionally producing sensible music.

The twilight epoch of Western music was the most wonderful. Debussy, Ravel fashioned music opposing the Germanic thrust for meaning with a sensualistic celebration of the evanescent. The tyranny of the bar line is supplanted by rhythmical fluidity. Structured harmonic discourse gives way to impressionistic colour, dissonance for effect. The line between melodic and harmonic figuration is blurred.

Russia mercurially enters the stage as a phenomenal producer of pedigree music. Co-students Rachmaninov, Scriabin, deliver diametric aesthetics, retrospectively and heart-achingly romantic, incandescently futuristic. Scriabin develops a language partially disfiguring harmonic logic, allowing the fiery mystic to be in two clashing keys, two worlds at one time.

Stravinsky, the iconoclast, rocks the artistic world with three, increasingly dazzling deconstructions of Western musical language: “Firebird”, “Petrushka”, “Rite of Spring”. Avant-garde naifs think this is a new beginning. Stravinsky knows that the bag of tricks has been emptied, never composing in that style again.

Custodianship of Western music passes, in the early 20th Century, to populist promoters, patrons. A Commons music, oblivious to technical exhaustion of the language, celebrates its day in the sun.

The parade of vogue dance styles encompasses ragtime, foxtrot, Charleston, quickstep, swing, jitterbug, jive, twist, disco and funk. Afro-Americans vend the naked sufferance of blues, the upbeat sophisticated rhythms, harmonies of improvisational jazz. The American ballad takes its harmonies, orchestration from German Romanticism.

Commons ownership of Western musical expression achieves an historical first, in the late 1950s. A music written expressly for and by youth culture achieves centre stage. Rock music reaches its zenith in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, producing astonishing works. Via Miles Davis, jazz realizes its end-line expression in the 60’s, its traditional form peaking earlier.

Meanwhile, Shostakovich, the last classical master is near the end of a life struggling with the problems of modernity, integrity, the precarious play with a despotic regime that would silence him. Ligeti confects micro-polyphony, a weird white noise hymn, a “Requiem”. This enticing sound-world defines one final limit of palpable possibilities.

The last incantations of Western musical art are wrought out in declining realizations. Accomplished Australian classicists, Dean, Koehne, attack the century-old language problem from opposite ends, atonal, tonal, striving for tangible novelty, monumental simplicity. Does either product rise to the canon?

Youth culture satiates itself with gutter grunts, somnific trance, skeletonized ballads. Populist virtuosi perform trite, technocratic miracles, Van Halen soloing, metaphorically, “Much ado about … Glass contrives snippets of melody, meaningfulness, into comforting tapestries.

Is this more than a technical impasse?

What next, if a culture becomes morally satiate?

I see a dead bird by the side of the road. Some projectile, some artifice of Western civilization has felled it. It will sing no more.