From Scratch, Chapter 13 (University of Illinois Press, 2014)
Since the revolution in aesthetic attitudes wrought by John Cage circa 1951, it has come to pass that virtually anything is possible in music. And yet not everything seems equally urgent or necessary and, without a sense of necessity, one’s musical activities can quickly degenerate into mere entertainment or redundancy. One area of investigation which has that sense of urgency for me now is what I call “harmony” – i.e. that aspect of music which involves relations between pitches other than those of sheer direction and distance (up or down, large or small). It has gradually become clear to me that any new development of harmony in this sense will involve more careful considerations of intonation, and the design of new tuning systems, and the work of Harry Partch has thus taken on a significance quite above and beyond its dramatic (and even heroic) character. It has become, in fact, an indispensable technical point of departure, just as Cage’s work has provided us with an essential aesthetic foundation.
Why do I correlate new developments in harmony with the design of new tuning systems? Consider the history of musical innovations in the early 20th century. Around 1910 a crisis occurred which profoundly affected subsequent events. Tonality, which had been a primary basis for musical organization for some two hundred years, was seen by many of the more progressive composers of the time as having been exhausted. In response, these composers set out to explore other means of musical organization – involving other aspects of music, some of which (like rhythm) had remained nearly static since the very beginnings of the “common practice” period. Harmony, as such, was either ignored or maintained at the same level of development it had reached in 1910. In the absence of some fairly powerful new organizing principles, post-tonal music might well have become utterly incoherent. The fact that it did not is evidence that these composers did indeed discover such organizing principles, and that – in a more general sense – it is quite possible to make music without “harmony”.
Now, however (1984), we find ourselves at a point where these various other aspects of music have all been quite thoroughly explored. Although it would be naive to imagine that nothing new is likely to emerge in these areas, it can certainly be said that none of them has remained “static” in our century. Rhythm, timbre, texture, form, and even the aesthetic premises and social functions of music have all been reexamined and elaborated to an extent without precedent in any earlier period of Western (or perhaps any other) music. What has not changed since that watershed year of 1910 – at least in any progressive-evolutionary sense – is harmony, and it seems time now to confront this issue again, since it can hardly be ignored indefinitely. It is far too basic (even primitive) an aspect of auditory perception ever to be suspended entirely.
One of the new directions taken by some composers after 1910 did involve the expansion of the pitch resources beyond the 12-tone tempered tuning system (or “12-set”), by way of simple subdivisions of that set (the quarter-tones, sixth-tones, etc. of Busoni, Ives, Haba, Carillo, et al.). But where these expansions were not harmonically based, they did not – and indeed could not – solve the problem that had arisen with the “exhaustion” of tonality. Thus, the music that was written in such tuning systems still required other “organizing principles” in order to maintain coherence. The failure of this music to solve the specifically harmonic problem was not due to any lack of skill, talent or vision on the part of these composers. These qualities most of them had in abundance. Their great expectations of what might be accomplished by such subdivisions of the 12-set were, however, the result of a misunderstanding of the basic nature of the 12-set itself.
That is, this pitch set is not simply a useful or convenient (much less arbitrary) “division of the octave.” More essentially, it is a pitch set which approximates certain just intervals (of the “5-limit”) fairly well (although it requires a tolerance range of about a seventh of a semitone for the ear to interpret the tempered major third in a triad as a just third). And the 12-set evolved historically in precisely that way – as a solution to the harmonic problem of tuning keyboard instruments in such a way that the important harmonic intervals would be available within a wide range of modulations of the tonic without encountering an intolerable “wolf” at some point. Thus, the 12-tone, equally-tempered scale was originally a harmonically based tuning system, and any extension of this system must also be harmonically based, if it is to have any effect on further developments of harmony.
The real problem with the 12-set, of course, is not the relatively small number of pitches it makes available, but the fact that a very large tolerance range has to be assumed even for it to be regarded as a “fair approximation” of the basic intervals of the 5-limit – and even greater ranges are involved with those of the 7- and 11-limits. Although some “progressive evolution” of harmony is often suggested or implied in works by early 20th-century composers using this tuning system, it can only remain mere suggestion or implication. It can neither be made explicit, nor clarified, nor built upon, without going beyond the confines of the 12-set.
Partch’s solution to these problems was to use just intervals only, and his work will stand for a long time as the most important pioneering exploration along the edges of this latest frontier. But other solutions are possible, including other temperaments, if these are “harmonically based.” In either case, our task now, as I see it, is to investigate the unknown regions beyond this “frontier”, equipped with the resources already developed by Partch (and a few others: Lou Harrison and Ben Johnston have extended these resources quite considerably, and explored some of these regions), while at the same time taking care not to lose sight of the new freedoms already won for us by Cage’s “revolution” (otherwise, the results are bound to be regressive in one way or another).
Is a rapprochement between their two worlds possible? Perhaps not. Partch would almost certainly not have given it his blessing, and Cage will probably be at least a little wary of my concern with “relations between pitches . . .”. But the sense of what’s necessary changes with time (and Cage’s own more recent work is itself a demonstration of this, with its renewed use of “chance methods” as distinct from “indeterminacy,” and its emphasis on “discipline”). One can even find in his writings another rationale for such an effort, if one be needed, as where he says (in A Year From Monday, p. 19):
Where there’s a history of organization (art), introduce disorder. Where there’s a history of disorganization (world society), introduce order. These directives are no more opposed to one another than mountain’s opposed to spring weather. “How can you believe this when you believe that?” How can I not?”
This was written some twenty years ago, and in the interim Cage’s numerous and varied introductions of “disorder” into the art of music have taught us to listen with ears and minds more open than would earlier have been thought possible. Perhaps it is not too soon to be able to say that art, too, now has a “history of disorder,” as well as order, and thus that the question of order vs. disorder is no longer the most pressing issue.