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    Post-tonal voice leading query

    Yesterday I posted the following in Essays & Endnotes (Notes from the Pluriverse {5}):

    A note on post-tonal voice leading. There is a vast area ripe for research re note {4}which I will not even try to pursue in the detail it deserves. Both Bacon and Luening were greatly influenced by Bernhard Ziehn's theories. Busoni called Ziehn "Die 'Gotiker' von Chicago," and was inspired by him to take up the study of counterpoint once again. John Alden Carpenter studied with him also. In Howard Pollock's bio of Carpenter, there is this intriguing passage:

    Carpenter wrote hundreds of harmonic and contrapuntal exercises under Ziehn. Most of the harmonic exercises involved short progressions; starting from a given triad or seventh chord, he would quickly move to some distant triad via passing tones, a whole-tone bass, or some other designated way. Some of the results sounded like Wagner or Franck, some like Reger or Busoni, some like modern jazz, and some like nothing recognizable.
    There is a growing literature on Ziehn, but Neoriemannians looking for some new connections during this stormy period (I believe Ziehn was not too keen on Riemann's work, but that's irrelevant) might start by looking at his 1911 
    Five and Six Part Harmonies with reference to the above passage quoted from Pollock.

    Does anyone know of any studies currently being done on Ziehn's 1911 work as NR transformations? Or does anyone have any comments re possible intersection of these Ziehn examples with recent speculative work on post-tonal voice leading of Straus, Lundburg et al? (Please reply for all here on SMT Discuss rather than privately.)

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    • 5 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Stephen: This is a great idea. The barrier, of course, is that Ziehn's progressions typically involve seventh chords and other dissonances, and despite a lot of ideas (Childs, Gollin, Cohn, Douthett and Steinbach, Tymoczko), there is no consensus about what the appropriate generalization of neo-Riemannian transformations to seventh chords (or other non-triads) is. But perhaps examining the bevy of examples in Ziehn's book would be one approach to sorting this out (?)

      --Jason Yust


    • (BTW, there's a strange feature to the software package SMT Discuss is using whereby if you mark something as a "question," you (the one asking the question) are required to mark any responses as "accepted" or "rejected" as if the question is some sort of pass/fail test. I won't click on this feature again, but for now, all of you should know that any and all "answers" will be marked "accepted." (But I won't be passing out any miniature trophies - sorry.))

    • Well it's aways nice to be accepted!  Regarding post tonal voice leading I woud argue that while post tonal theory is a valuable tool for analysis and the comprehension of contemporary music language, post tonal theory is not a single language or process for the contemporary composer.  Post tonal serial composition technique reminds me of classical physics - if you know where an object is in space you can predict where that object will be in time.  Modern physics tells us that this is not so.   I refuse to compose music based on post tonal theory or subset theory because it's "process oriented" and the abstract relationships that are formulated might be artistic and mathematically interesting, but questionable as enjoyabe music or music that people [in genera] want to listen to outside of the ivory towers.  Is the purpose of music to create labyrinths of distantly related abstract relationships with complexity as a forgone conclusion or is the purpose of music to create sound and music that people [in general] enjoy and like?  I'm speaking of current music, not the revolutionairy music of the early 20th century which makes artistic and profound musical sense for its time.  

      Before I'm lambasted as a musical conservative commoner, let me say that nothing is further from the truth.  I was reared on Penderecki, Xenakis, Varese, Stockhousen, Boulez, Cage, Ives, Webern, etc.,  and I absolutely love and adore contemporary music from my heart and soul.  However, I sincerely believe that while the value of post modern theory is descriptive, it offers little [new or creative] directions for composition unless one needs to rely on process as a substitute for imagination - a trap I'm no longer willing to fall into.  Musical periods have their limits - the Baroque period lasted from 1600 to 1750, the Classical period lasted from 1750 to 1827, the Romantic period lasted 50 years or so overlapped by Impressionism, and the Post Tonal period of the 20th century is now 115 years on - and technology moves quickly these days.  So I would posit that the question may be post Post Tonal voiceleading?   

      Assuming that we are not returning to the diatonic common practice period; and that serialism and the post tonal set theory surrounding it has run it's course for current composers IMO, the topic of voice leading takes on new meaning.  As a composer I have come to accept that Plato was correct - some concepts are eternal.  A composer will use counterpoint, hamony, phrase structure, form, homophony, polyphony, dare I say the word melody, as in the concept of melodic shapes, orchestration, etc. regardess of the language he or she chooses or the epoch they live in.  Counterpoint is as essential to Steven Reich as is was for Machuat.  I'm not sure the voice leading in Reich's "Different Tranis" can be found in post tonal theory unless there are voice leading rules for electronically pitch manipuated train sounds.  

      There are new directions in music possible, always -  but they are not found in the algebraic formulations of post tonal set theory, rather in the synergistic geometry of R. Buckminster Fuller, in the conceptual realities of modern physics and technology.  "If you want to find the secrets of the universe , think in terms of Energy, Frequency, and Vibration" - Nicolas Tesla 

    • Carson & possibly others,

      Following is my personal approach to a few things musical. It is not necessarily aligned with current best practices.

      First, neither I nor anyone I know of is trying to force a set of inviolable musical "rules" -- compositional or otherwise -- on anyone living or dead. The meaning and function of "rule" -- as with that of "mathematics" -- within music & the arts generally has been so successfully misconstrued and maligned that at this point it would take either an Act of God or Tommy Lee Jones armed with a mega neuralizer to set it aright in the general understanding. This unfortunate circumstance will not keep me and others from continuing our use of any tool we discover that might be useful in probing the deeper connections in music.

      Music is larger than its theory, but it cannot be expressed without theory. Theory is a game. Like any game it has rules. As a composer, if you don't want to accept the rules you perceive for the game you perceive others are playing, you are free to change or ignore any or all of them. The effect is you will be playing a different game -- which you are free to do. What you are not free to do is to play without rules. That's a rule. Rules affect decisions but are not necessarily the result of reason. Rules may be applied consciously, subconsciously, unconsciously or out of ignorance. My guess is that composers & others worthy of the title musician prefer a mix of the first two whereas audiences generally prefer to think of composers and performers as amanuenses chosen by one god or another and who therefore don't do real work for a living.

      Second, my definition of "voice-leading" is simple: ways of getting from A to B. Some are direct note-to-note, some Schenkerian, others go all over the map. (A & B may be chords, the traditional way of introducing a much deeper concept; A & B may extend to mean musical events such as paths between two rhytmic complexes.) Note I did not say a prescriptive the way -- there are many ways & I know of no composer who would throw out a way because someone else already used it or because some "mathematician" worked it out "outside time" in abstracto. Composers notoriously steal-&-deny when compiling their personal play books -- that's what makes analysis challenging and even fun (and why so much blood is spilled over it when it's turned into a blood sport).

      Third, I dislike the term "post-tonal" for reasons I have given elsewhere. I only continue to use it without scare quotes in its close-to-literal meaning to distinguish music that is difficult or impossible to categorize using CPP theories. This usage includes but is far from limited to that other problemmatic term, "atonal."

      Fourth, trying to get back on topic:

      The fact is that during the "crisis" (my term for the years ca. 1890-1920), a lot of stuff happened that reverberates to this day. The more we know about that period the more we can understand what's happening today. There are still a lot of unknowns begging to be explored.

      Here's an example of one of the many possible strands relevant to my original question. 

      Another interesting side-bar on [Ruth Crawford's] Chicago years would be to scan for the influence of Bernhard Ziehn, whom Ferruccio Busoni met in Chicago in 1910 and from whom he learned a version of dissonant counterpoint that he applied in his Fantasia Contrappuntistica.

      This is from a review of Judith Tick's book on Ruth Crawford Seeger by Austin Clarkson, a student of Stefan Wolpe, and it involves a theorist, Ziehn, whose theory was applied by a composer, Busoni, in writing an actual piece of music. In the end, I suppose, one just finds this interesting or not. One might choose to learn something from Clarkson, Tick, Crawford, Ziehn, Busoni, and Wolpe -- or choose not to. But none of them is trying to tell us how to compose our own music or, as one irate anonymous reader of my blog charged, trying to frog-march the audience into failed theories.


    • Hi Stephen, 

      I concur with everything you said and I agree.  I was concerned that my response might be construed as "composition is a free for all and rules aren't important" assertion, which would be ignorant and amateurish to say the least.  Any good composer must have some system of logical information and language if they are going to write any music worthy of the title art.  I'm not attacking Post Tonal theory, it is the effective tool for describing the current contemporary musical languages (pitch classes, sets, tranformations, permutations, z-relationships, mapping, etc.) and I'm sure it is still in the process of being developed and explored.  

      The extended chromaticism of the late Romantic period eventually collapsed and was replaced by newer atonal concepts from various sources and composers.   The period you refer to as "the crisis" has been explored compositionally at least 60 - 80 years culminating in total serialism and computer models for finding extended subset relationships by composers like Babbitt.  I concur that there is still important theoretical research necessary and being done for that period.  There doesn't seem to be much interest for concert audiences for this music however (and even Boulez has admitted that in his writings) - at least one never hears those works in concert [much], on classical radio stations, in the musical marketplace, at the symphony, nor are any concert tickets being sold to those performances that are economically sustainable - they are important works that relate to the development and historical teleology of 20th century music, but the disconnect is there is no audience or interest any longer in those directions for composers unless they are financially secure enough to write anything they want [Charles Ives] for the sake of art or don't mind starving to death.  

      Most music composition/theory students are required to learn the important forms of musical history and it's very commonplace to hear the "modern atonal" models at composer salons by composition students who are exploring "post tonal" genres.  A lot of that resource rests on emphasis of Post Tonal theory study and the implication that the right aggregates and motivic/harmonic/rhythmic permutations will be "new" and that musical audiences will enjoy the abstractions for the sake of abstraction, and I suppose many do.  Although that is not reflected in current trends of professional concert programming.  In my domain - Seattle Washington, the excellent Seattle Symphony rarely plays any contemporary music and when they do there is little attendance.  Both Mozart and Debussy said that music should be an enjoyable listening experience.  That doesn't mean that music is mere entertainment requiring no listener challenges or intellect - it just means that music has the opportunity to be pleasing in some way.  That aesthetic seems to be ignored in favor of being "a modern art composer" who writes music for advanced intellectual purposes for a small elite audience - no thank you.  As a composer I'm returning to the people.  That doesn't mean I am returning to the past or what's already been done, and that includes many of the tenets of "post tonal theory" (as related to composition, not pure musical theory scholarship).