Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tonal and Atonal, Poetry and Music

There is a piece in the Telegraph by the pianist, Stephen Hough , followed by a discussion of tonality and atonality in music--how the tension between them generates affective power for the listener. Follow the discussion HERE (thanks to Gonzalo Barr for linking this in FaceBook.)
As I read this piece I was thinking how over the years I've grown tired of much of the classical repertoir, while the works of Berg/Stockhausen and such--music which once left me confused and unmoved, I find now far more engaging and affectively rich; so too, I thought, with literature--poetry in particular. I wonder if the tension (as described in that article) is not more between the music and the listener, than in the structure of the work. Isn't it perhaps our need, our driving desire for order, for meaning, that in being challenged, engages our interest and arouses our emotions? If the problem is too easily or too completely solved/resolved, we grow bored.
We return to powerful works of art--of any kind, empowered by what we have already mastered, but are drawn back in by what has remained beyond us, not because chaos or imperfection is pleasing in itself, but because we cannot let it be. Difficulty matters, but it is a particular kind of difficulty, that of integrating what is new for us with what we have already learned, what we come to understand: the pleasure of discovering that, in a sense, what we have discovered we have known all along, but have only now learned to see, to hear, to understand. Isn't this what we mean when say there is nothing new in art, why we can't speak of 'progress' in art, as we do in science or other fields of knowledge?  Note how the musicians in this  piece, in discussing modernist atonal music, return to earlier precidents, Motzart, Hyden, as if to say: here, in these examples we have mastered, we will find what we need to read/hear what is still new and undiscovered--not only in more recent works, but what has remained beyond us in their anticedents. If in my reading, I stopped at Shelley, Keats... or Yeats, I would have grown sated, bored. Confronted by Ashbery, the Language poets, FLARF... I return to the older works with renewed understanding as I recognize the genetic (and generative) threads, as it were, that lead from one to the other, from generation to generation.  

8 minutes ago

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