Further Discussion with Mark Gould: September 12, 2007

Journal entries by composer and pianist Laurie Conrad

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Further Discussion with Mark Gould: September 12, 2007

Post by figaro » Fri Oct 26, 2007 7:34 pm


Image: working on the revision of the Song "The Storm"

Wednesday, September 12

I received this e-mail from composer Mark Gould today:

Dear Laurie, how lovely to hear from you again - in fact only in the last day or two, my conscious mind drifted back to our conversations. Evidently, you must have picked up on these communications and so we are conversing by more 'accepted' means.

I have just moved lately, and am without internet connection for a little while - I am typing this quickly at a friend's.

I must answer your questions more deeply, as my original statements are like icebergs with only a little peeking above the waterline; so I will think for a little while and write down my thoughts as best I can

But in the meantime - yes twelve-note music is to me, derived from the overtone series - higher partials yes, but also more close relations - notice how, when we write twelve-note music we notate using relationships from tonality. So from moment to moment, tiny fragments of one key then another saturate the music. So I think twelve-note music represents all intervals down to and including the semitone, and therefore all partials up to perhaps the - or - partial.

LC: Could you explain this further, dear Mark: “when we write twelve-note music we notate using relationships from tonality.”

“So from moment to moment, tiny fragments of one key then another saturate the music.” This is beautifully written, and I understand your meaning and find it very poetic and true - from a certain point of view. However, if many chromatics are used in the row, these fleeting tonalities do not appear; i.e. some twelve tone rows are built largely on augmented fourths, or half steps which then become intervals of the seventh. In those instances, perhaps philosophically I could agree with you, but in my opinion the ear would not. Then again, there are so many ways to set up the row: if the row itself in some way outlines chords or uses many fourths or fifths - then your statement is easier to grasp and accept both philosophically and aurally.

Still: this was not Schonberg’s vision, these glimmers of tonality. Schonberg’s aim was to isolate each pitch, in a way make each tone in the row its own universe - that is why the concept of each pitch in the row having its own fundamental tone more appeals to me philosophically. From your standpoint, a fundamental tone underlying the entire row would be philosophically more pleasing. And it is possible that both are correct, that both sorts of fundamental tones exist and are activated in our material universe.

However, even though these glimpses of chords and harmonic intervals can exist within the row and therefore in the score, in the music itself: the definition of tonality is more than just using fragmentary harmonies or chords. There are progressions and formulas for progressions, especially the relationship between tonic and dominant and the relationships of all the other tones to the tonic that cannot be ignored when speaking of tonality. And these progressions and relationships between harmonies form the “key”. So to say that “tiny fragments of one key and then another saturate the music” - fragments so fleeting might not fit the definition of “key” or “tonality”. Although, even the most harmonically chaotic twelve tone music can seem to have a tonal center, in the sense that Stravinsky might say one tone represented the tonality of his composition. That one tone represented the tonal center, the tonic, and in some mysterious way held the dominant, subdominant, mediant and all other chordal relationships within itself - and drew the ear to reorganize what it had already heard in relationship to that one tone.

In some of my early songs, the last note of the song seemed to have a feeling of “tonic”, even though the row itself did not suggest it - but the implied “harmonies” leading up to that final pitch, and the slowed rhythm brought the ear to recognize the final tone as “tonic”. You might say this feeling of “tonic” was more psychological than actual ...

Well, I am a purist. Even if I serialize my music, if I break rules - and I consider using broken chords in my row breaking a cardinal twelve tone rule - then I am not using the twelve tone method, even if I am using twelve different tones in my row and using the techniques of inversions and retrogrades. That is why I say I no longer write twelve tone music, even though I sometimes still use a repeating row ...

When I used the twelve tone system most purely, many years ago - an overall framework of sound emerged that cannot be found in tonal or polytonal or even atonal or semi-tonal music - and in that latter musical grouping I include using a row based on chords.

I say these things to promote further discussion, dear Mark, not to undermine your beautiful vision, your remarkable words: “So from moment to moment, tiny fragments of one key then another saturate the music.” I find those words elicit an image so very evocative that I can visually see the music itself, those fragile fragments of tonalities unfolding from the row ... Changing like the colours of the sea under a changing sky ...

Mark: I have been trying for a while to describe what I mean by 'evansescent', in the sense of twelve-note harmony. The only way I can is by describing something completely unrelated to music.

On a late spring/early summer day, with the sun high in the sky, I often go out to a park or garden, put out a rug and take a book (music-related usually). As I lie on my back and read the book, the sun comes round and I use the book to block the sun out. However, if you hold the book so that the edge of the sun is just behind it, but almost peeking out from the edge, you can see all of the tiny motes of dust, pollen, airborne seeds, insects - everything tiny and insubstantial that swims in the ocean of air above us. The sun shines through their tiny bodies and filaments, forming a bright halo around each one. You suddenly appreciate the great depth of air above you, and can see things to quite a height. However, this image is very 'thin' like a shaft of light in a room, and you can only see a tiny 'slice' through the air. So, as each small thing floats or flies through this shaft of direct light, each is evansescent upon your senses, present only for a few moments. I think it is a beautiful sight, and is at its best when the pollens or early insects are present, and can be good when dandelions and other airborne seeds are at their height.

And that is my definition of evanscent.

LC: Beautifully written, Mark. Would you explain: "I find that what ends up being composed is music using the total chromatic".

Mark: I suppose I meant that is rather than considering the twelve notes as equals, there is a tendency for an inequality in the music, one or more notes are emphasised in the music - think of a note as a bass pedal tone or a sustained chord for example. Therefore these unequal notes pull the twelve notes away from a true equality, and like chromatic music, notes become auxiliaries to others.

LC: Yes, I see what you are saying and agree. However, this was not Schonberg’s original concept. His original idea was equality and independence for each tone in the twelve tone series.

Also, when you wrote, "Here I don't like really to think of microtones but a 'tuning' or 'intonation', in the sense of which notes we choose to write music with.": Are you saying that you consider microtones true entities, true pitches, true intervals - & not merely an alteration of tuning, i.e. playing a "real" tone either sharp or flat ... ?

Mark: I do yes, but only in the context of the scale in the composition - just as one sees colour contrasts in context of a painting. I was made very sharply aware of this in 1991 when I attended a conference on microtonality - some compositions appeared 'out of tune', just as you describe - but this was because the context of the 'tuning' was outside the tuning itself. The music was really in a different scale to that being used. Other compositions never appeared out of tune, in other words the notes were 'right', 'in tune' with the music created using them.

This is the biggest problem with microtonality - the whole concept of 'intonation', which is the context of music and the notes we use to 'intone' or realise the music. Intonation is the means by which we determine that which is 'in tune' or 'out of tune', and to my ears is very dependent upon the music.

LC: Yes, otherwise there is no frame. Without a frame, sharp and flat cannot exist. I suppose unless we use a tuning machine to determine A440.

Pianists cannot tamper with pitches, with intonation, as they play - but almost all other instruments can. And often an instrumentalist or vocalist will instinctively raise the pitch of the leading tone or the third of a major chord etc. In this case, those raised (or lowered, for instance the third of a minor chord) pitches would not be considered microtones - rather they are more establishing the frame of a major or minor tonality or key, or some other mode.

Mark: On my website I have four short pieces written using a special scale derived from the tuning of 19 notes to the octave.

LC: Could you further explain this “special scale” and “This scale is derived analogously to the diatonic scale, and it even has a triadic harmonic structure, but the triads here are very different from those of out heptatonic diatonic.” Perhaps give us the intervals of this special scale, or the pitches? Did you write these four pieces? Also: what is your website address?

Mark: So far, everyone who has heard these works has commented on their naturalness in the context of the microtonal tuning and that the scale itself is very different from the diatonic. This implies the intonational context I believe in to be largely true. Tuning is therefore cultural in origin - habituation to a tuning context with a scale used culturally being accepted as the norm for musical expression.

The fundamental tone -

This is an interesting concept that has been delved into by several composers. The best known example is Harry Partch. I strongly recommend reading 'Genesis of a Music' but confine your reading to those chapters concerned with tuning only - the rest is strongly polemical, and whilst an interesting read, I would not necessarily subscribe to his views.

with kindest regards, and hope this email finds you well.


LC: For a fast, immediate response, without much thought or time - what you sent me was quite extraordinary. I’m not sure you could have done better, even after much rumination. I have given my own quick responses, and hope they are as clear and insightful as your thoughts on these interesting subjects.

Here it is in the low seventies and the leaves are beginning to turn - and half my plants are in from the gardens. The first frost is still nowhere in sight. Thank you again dear Mark for these interesting and valuable discussions.


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