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Foreign Bodies

Jan. 11, 2013
Posted in: Music Philosophy
The term “foreign bodies” is frequently used to describe modern art music, because it underlines the transition of dissonance from being a foreign element, to their full emancipation… a complete annexation of whole musical works, so to speak.



Whereas Stuckenschmidt describes the traditional elements of music, such as four-, eight- and sixteen-bar complexes, cadential sequences of specific triads, etc. as “rigid rules” and “the crystallization of centuries of standardized practice,” (“Twentieth Century Music” page 30) I like to see these standards as simply the state of development up until and including today. After all, composers of all ages had to take the tastes of their audiences into consideration. More often than not, their livelihoods depended on the appeal of their works to these listeners. And as far as the great composers are concerned, the crystallized practices allowed them to play with the expectations of the audience; as a matter of fact, many of the great moments of music would not have been possible without the skillful manipulation of expectations. I am saying this because the development that music underwent over the past hundred or so years is much more linear and causal than a casual listening by unsuspecting ears would suggest. To listen for links between the music of our times – as cacophonous as it may sound at first – and the good old evergreens, is to embark on a fascinating journey into a temporal space where sound and thought interact to create fleeting sculptures of vibrating air. It is my hope that over the course of the ensuing posts, I will be able to get a few more people interested in the “art music” of our times.

Knowing where things come from is just as important for relationships we form with works of art, as it is for interpersonal relationships. A historical view is therefore in order.

The emergence of the idea of triads as momentary distillations of a collection of pitches from which a composer could draw his material, (or put the other way around, the triad as a representative of a larger collection of tonally related pitches) brought with it the possibility of justifying (theoretically and aurally) the occurrence of the most dissonant note combinations. It is the “passing” from one triad to another – the motion – that allows the ear to perceive these clashes as a necessity, at worst; or as an element of momentum – at best. If we then add the concept of motivic unity and development – and perhaps the “living will in a melody” as Ernst Kurth calls the kinetic energy of a melodic line (“den lebendigen Willen im Melodischen,” Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts, Ernst Kurth)-, we are bound to encounter moments when even the most skilled composers “lose control” over their creations; moments when the music gains a life of its own. Some of the most striking and beautiful examples of friction between harmonic and melodic considerations can be found in the works of J.S. Bach – a composer who could certainly have avoided any lack of control, if he so wished. (Example). It is my belief that the history of art music can be characterized as an ever growing craving for these moments, and I do not hesitate to propose that Bach took great delight in moments when the Fortspinnung of a theme gained so much drive as to overrun any and all rules of good counterpoint. What followed over the course of the ensuing centuries was an expansion of these foreign bodies. At the dawn of the twentieth century a much more conscious and calculated incorporation of pitch combinations that make no sense in traditional harmonic theory emerged most outspokenly in Vienna. It is in connection with this repertoire that the term “foreign bodies” is frequently used, because it underlines the transition of the nature of these bodies from being a foreign element, to their full emancipation… a complete annexation of whole musical works, so to speak.

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