Monday, December 17, 2007

Removing the safety net

Alex Ross (whose excellent book The Rest Is Noise I'm reading at the moment) calculates that today is the centenary of atonality. This of course is something you can argue about until the cows come home, and is probably a bit arbitrary, but I like the idea as today is also Beethoven's birthday, and happenstance always appeals to me.

Beethoven these days is rather less controversial than he once was, but atonality still has a power to annoy, which pleases me greatly, as those who get annoyed are on the whole small-minded people who deserve to be annoyed.

Atonality has a special significance for me, as it was those school exercises in listening to and repeating an atonal melody, and later writing one (which I found quite easy to do, despite its being trailed as a more difficult exercise than the similar tasks we were given with tonal melodies) that really first put the idea in my head that composing wasn't necessarily just practised by dead people, but was something I might have a go at myself.

Schoenberg didn't actually like the word, preferring to talk about pantonality. It's a significant distinction, as it makes it about extending and enriching something rather than removing it, which is what you can hear happening in Schoenberg's music leading to his break with key signatures. It was something that was in the air (Schoenberg wasn't the only composer moving in this direction), but he was the first to stand up and say what he was doing (and more importantly the first that anyone took any notice of). It wasn't the action that was radical, so much as speaking its name.

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