The Problem With the "New Tonality"

Atonality? The verdict is in.  There is not a large enough public for works written in atonal idioms to make  the case that there is anything but an esoteric future for atonality (with the partial exception of theatrical works; opera and cinema for instance, where it fares rather better than in works without dramatic distractions).  There are enough performers who like this repertory to keep the great atonal masters alive, however, especially on CD.  But genuine public enthusiasm for new works in an atonal idiom? Not even in Germany.  And another problem: it is perfectly possible to hide technical deficiences in atonal music, unlike with tonal music, where clumsy voice leading, short breathed melodic material, incompetence with cadences, etc. is ruthlessly exposed. 

And exposed it is. Neo-Tonality won’t really work in the long run. New tonal works from Glass to Pendereckei to that whiz kid who’s written a million symphonies by the age of 2 at Eastman prove this.  And it is not really the fault of composers, many of whom sincerely want to connect with a reasonable sized audience. Furthermore, I find it difficult to respect composers who don’t patently want an audience, even if a narrowly constricted one.  And academic colleagues hardly count.  I believe it was Jakob Druckman, who opined at a composition seminar at Peabody Conservatory in the ’80s (when I studied there) That there wasn’t a composer alive today as competent as Paul Dukas.  If it wasn’t Druckman, it was still somebody prominent.  So what’s the problem?

1.  The minimalists understood profoundly that new tonal music had to be mostly non-chromatic. Allowing chromaticism in just starts the ball rolling all over again, and we’ve been there, done that.  History happened.  Chopin, Wagner, Strauss, Schoenberg, Boulez and Babbitt happened.  But the minimalists found that their limited harmonic means were, well, limited. But there was good reason to rebel against oversaturated chromaticism, of which atonality was the final expression. 

2.  Composers are no longer trained in the necessarily rigorous way of the old days.  Kids at conservatories don’t know the difference between an augmented 6th chord and an incomplete dominant 9th.  They don’t know when to use the first inversion, etc.  They just don’t…and I know, I’ve heard a lot of this stuff. And I promise you, you have to know this stuff!  It’s not some outdated overly technical stuff that some pompous Poindexter clings to because he’s a pedant, it is the very stuff of which any tonal (that is, traditional Western tonality with the octave divided into 12 parts) music consists. Contemporary tonalists often choose chords willy-nilly according to their limited conception of what “sounds good”.  A lot of this stuff ends up sounding like Prokofiev, who may have been a master, but who was not a master of tonal harmony.  It sounds attractive, but in the last analysis sounds arbitrary as well. 

3.  Traditional tonality is limited.  It is incredibly resourceful, but not limitlessly so.  And it is no more acoustically natural or mandated by nature than atonality, for example.  It’s a brilliant system created by the mind of man, not the mandate of nature.  This is provable at the piano, for instance.  By retuning a piano you get different reverberations, different resonant sympathies, which would result in different but viable tonal systems. How about the overtone series, then? Isn’t it true that the most audible overtones of a given pitch outline the tonal triad?  Yes, indeed.  But other overtones are there as well.  I liken the phenomena to written or verbal expression, with varying degrees of complex expression.  Beethoven’s 5th uses the simple words, let’s say the Hemingway words, but Strauss’s Elektra uses more recondite language, like Joyce words, for instance. 

What is the solution, then?  I’m not sure. By the way, I anticipate that the legions of admirerers for the new tonality will vehemently disagree with this article.  I appreciate that, and am certainly open to modifying my viewpoint, and will continue to attentively listen to much new music, both tonal and non-tonal.