10 January 2010

Church of the Exasperated Semitone

Returning again to the theme of musical training changing modes of perception, it occurred to me tonight* that there's a logical and straightforward explanation for why someone with an interest in bebop and post-bop jazz (music which is very much "tonal" music in the broad, lower-case "t" sense of that word) may also be drawn to atonal classical music, or at the very least, a way to draw a connection between the two styles that is simplistic yet still very much relevant. In some corners even today, of course, bebop might as well be atonal, and no one who lives there would bat an eye at such concurrent interests, but we haven't the time to waste with the "3 Chords and a Mule" crowd, so let's assume that we're speaking to those with a bit greater breadth of experience and maybe even just enough musico-technical knowledge to understand in the broadest possible terms the difference between Benny Carter and Elliott Carter.

The central harmonic innovation of early bebop was the extension of triads to include sevenths, ninths, elevenths and thirteenths. The seventh in particular gained a tremendous amount of importance, becoming equally important to the third in every way, a point underscored by the advent of the "shell" voicing (usually attributed to Bud Powell, though I'm sure as with any such attribution, it leaves out many who contributed in some small way). Even something as simple and seemingly incongruous with extended tertiary harmony as the two note root-major seventh voicing found a home as part and parcel of Monk's sound, and has in this respect, if no other, become de rigeur for modern jazz players on all instruments.

You can see where I'm going with this. In atonal classical music, the interval of a major seventh (or more properly in this context, the interval of 11 semitones) is a close relative both of the semitone (1) and of the minor ninth (13). The interval C-Db, for example, could refer to an ascending 1, an ascending 13, or a descending 11. In each case, we start on C and end on Db, just not the same C or the same Db. Dodecaphonic composers use this ambiguity to create variation within unity (don't kill me for saying that as if I believe it, I'm just trying to contextualize things). And of course, Schoenberg famously coined the phrase "emancipation of the dissonance" to refer to the fact that in "pan-tonal" music, as he preferred to call it, the traditional hierarchy of consonance and dissonance (still imposed by brute force in university music theory courses to this day in spite of his best efforts) ceased to apply. So again, we have a situation where the interval of a major seventh, the kissin' cousin of the dissonance par excellence, the semitone, has been accorded full musical citizenship and allowed the opportunity to become absolutely central to the sound of an entire musical idiom.

I use the word "opportunity" to imply that this did not happen concurrently in two historically significant musico-stylistic movements on different continents as a matter of mere dumb luck or coincidence. Is it possible that the major seventh is more inherently a consonance than than a dissonance, or at the very least, that its ghettoization in the latter realm was more justifiable on mathematical grounds than on perceptual ones? It would be foolish to make such pronouncements for all time, yet from where I sit with my peculiar set of experiences and historical vantage point, this certainly is a compelling hypothesis. What's for certain is that I have not seen the last of detractors of both idioms blaming an attraction to one on the other. They have my ilk all wrong, though: at least in my case, my interest in these two bodies of music developed concurrently, just like the bodies themselves did in the first half of the 20th century. Neither was a gateway drug to the other so much as each spoke to something that was simply "in the air" for me as a young adult, much as their concurrent development could be said to embody something that was "in the air" at that time.

The idea persists that a mere tolerance of, let alone an attraction to, music where unpartitioned major sevenths run rampant represents a pathology, a bad habit, an intellectual pose, and so on. When will it stop?

*A couple of glasses of wine and an audition of Lutoslawski's "Concerto for Orchestra" tend to make things occur to me rather rapidly.

No comments: