Monthly Archives: November 2014

Is tonality dead?

That autopilot mentality … – and ditto the Classic BRITS’ smorgasbord of stale musical leftovers – freeload off the hard fought-for expressive truths of others, reducing to nought those dark, sometimes unknowable, contradictions that give composers of integrity a reason to get up in the morning. Tonality is asset stripped; removed from the context of its own history and the word ‘soundbite’ becomes wholly apt.”

Philip Clark, Gramophone

Philip Clark also writes in the same article: “Earlier this summer my Gramophone colleague Ivan March wrote a blog post headlined ‘The Art Of Melody’ in which he floated that hoariest assumption of them all – that the word ‘tonality’ is somehow interchangeable with ‘melody’, while ‘atonality’ represents a simple negation of that, as Ivan put it, ‘discordant groups of notes and chords, which entirely fail to appeal to the listener.’ “

Stephen Strauss concludes from Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan‘s research that “children seemed calmer and more content when harmonious sounds were played”.

And Graham Lynch writes “So, is tonality dead or alive? I don’t know. But I do notice that consonant harmony has made more of a return, but within a pacing and context that is clearly 21st century.”

First of all though, what is tonality? And what is the difference between working in tonality and working with tonality—a distinction that Reinhard Febel, my old colleague from the Mozarteum, makes.

Must tonality be functional? Or is it more about consonance?

Must it be triadic? Or is tension and release the key issue?

To be considered alive and well, must tonality still be developing?

Turning this another way, is tonal music dead music? Or is it a matter of the music’s function i.e. to what end the music is being made (entertainment, spiritual services, advertisting)?





What constitutes success?

Self-mastery is the supreme victory–
much more to be valued
than winning control over others.
It is a victory
that no other being whatsoever
can distort or take away.

The Dhammapada

(attr. to Siddhārtha Gautama aka Buddha)

What constitutes success in music and musical composition? High profile popular artists like Robin Thicke are considered runaway successes. But their claims to off-the-cuff songwriting processes–which feed the creativity myth by the way–have been challenged in court. Plagiarism seems the most likely route to success he and his cohort used in the case of the song Blurred Lines. Whichever way the court case goes, Thicke has freely admitted that 75% of the song was made before he even started contributing.

So what we have above are two starkly contrasted views of success. The one being the invisible, personal success of the meditating recluse achieving victory over his own mind, the other being a highly visible success which appears hollow at the core (and indeed offensive to many).

What then, as composers, do you consider to be success? Is widespread recognition essential? If so, how widespread? Do you need to be a household name or just respected amongst your peers?

Are performances essential to your concept of success? If so, how high-profile must they be? Consider, for instance, the difference between a hastily-rehearsed, inadequately performed orchestral commission in front of 3000 people, and the presentation of a detailed collaboration between yourself and a highly-dedicated pianist at a house concert of 15 people. Now that’s a leading question of course, but consider nonetheless which is most successful and in what terms–artistic, musical, technical, career progression, kudos, publicity, etc.?

Is financial gain essential to your concept of success or is Bourdieu’s sense of cultural capital more apt, with a diverse range of assets such as education, social standing, hipness, youtube hits, Facebook followers, etc.?

How is success achieved? Is it more networking than hard technical work? More social than solitary? What ratio of promotion::composition hours should you be aiming for?