Atonality as Alternative

The following is the text of a comment I posted on Greg Sandow’s ArtsJournal blog. It is the third and final comment I left in a thread of conversation dealing with the issue of how to bring young audiences into classical music.

My comments here resonate with a lot of the criticism I’ve been writing on this site, particularly as it concerns critic’s prescriptions for contemporary music.

Hi Greg-

Let me say that I very much appreciate this conversation, as the deeper we get into it, the more I am coming to understand what is at the heart of my hesitation toward today’s “classical music solutions,” so to speak, which, to me, are dangerously falling into a single trend.

It seems that these solutions invariably favor TONAL MUSIC. I’m using the word “tonal” in a broad sense; I would consider middle eastern music, even with its microtonal inflections, as music of the tonal variety, as would I consider most pop music to be of the same category; every pop song in the world, even of the noise kind, has some kind of tonic or gravity to a fundamental bass tone, or at the very least, uses diatonic chord progressions as the basis for composition. Humans like tonality: it is fundamentally natural, and strikes the human ear, and heart, in innumerable ways. Bon.

But there is no popular idiom that has fully embraced pure atonality, which leads me to believe that atonality, rather than being a state of tonal affairs that occurs along a logical, historical progression/continuum of aesthetic events, presumably leading to a new development beyond it, is something quite different altogether.

I think we have all found that there is no development beyond atonality. It seems like an end to a line of historical progression. (Of course, I am including microtonalism and noise/silence music as atonal; anything that endemically avoids both diatonic constructions and tonic gravity.) At least, that’s what, I feel, most critics of atonal systems have surmised about the situation.

But let me propose, rather, that, instead of being an end, from which there is no other direction to turn but BACK, atonalities are actually a kind of ALTERNATIVISM. If tonality will always be the main musical voice of all cultures of the world–as it is today, no matter what subtle variance musicologists may discover-then atonality will always be an alternative method of musical experience. It is “the other,” not the end.

That being understood, if the current climate of the classical music hall is to favor music that turns back, or “looks back,” as Alex Ross said on Charlie Rose last week, then it is squeezing opportunities for atonal, or truly alternative music, to be accepted into concert performance. And that is a dangerous environment to foment. If atonality, if alternative tonal composition cannot find a home in the classical concert hall, then where will it find a home?

I should make clear that, I don’t actually oppose trying to engage younger audiences in classical music. But all the solutions that are being proposed, almost across the board, emphasize a resistance to atonality, and, instead, almost relieved, promote virtually tonal composition.

Thanks for engaging.

I capitalized words or phrases I would normally have italicized.



  1. this is interesting … do you have alternative suggestions, in terms of engaging new audiences?

  2. Well, let me say first that, sometimes curbing ill-conceived “solutions” does just as much good as finding the right one.

    Furthermore, most of these solutions have a topical focus, and really only treat the symptoms of the large problem that exists in our culture: We do not teach our young people to appreciate music. They learn to consume music, moreso now than ever. But appreciation simply isn’t taught, and it can be: It should be, the way we teach young people to appreciate literature and math and science.

    That said, programming is definitely going to be important in attracting new audiences. The solution is simple: program the very best work–regardless of the theory behind it–and people will come. Tonal? Atonal? Noise? There are great examples of all of these. But to defer to eclecticism is simply myopic.

    My issue with many of the efforts that are aimed at remedying the programming end of things, is that they seem to imply that the closer classical music sounds to popular music, the better chance we will have of attracting a popular audience.

    This is dangerous on one hand, and falacious on another.

    On the first point, as I have said, this will inevitably favor music written in conventional tonality, which may further tighten listeners’ culturally inbred resistance to alternative forms of harmonic expression. The pioneers of atonality faught long and hard against history to have their work respected and entered into the canon, that is, before it became the canon.

    And as for the second matter, classical music cannot replicate what popular music already does better. And to even try is absurd, in that, by trying, the difference between them is obliterated, not because popular music and classical music have mutually met on some middle ground, but because classical music has disolved the aesthetic rigors that make it distinct and alternative, which necessitates its own kind of attention and a new experience of music: in the concert hall.

    But again, the real solution is in making music appreciation as much a part of our school curriculum as the other areas of study. Until that happens, we will always be painting makeup over an old face.

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