Friday, February 12, 2010

Outmoded?

I've been talking with my sophomores about mode mixture, and this next week we get to the use of mode mixture as text painting in German Lieder. Steven Laitz talks about the dramatic role of the bVI, using Schumann's "Waldesgesprach" as an example. The bVI is supposed to create mystery through its otherworldly sound, foreshadowing the revelation that the woman encountered in the woods is not human. The harmony certainly is unexpected, taking a deceptive progression V - vi which is already surprising and adding extra chromaticism to it. But does that chord, really a key area in this song, sound otherworldly? Popular music and contemporary classical music has blurred the lines between major and minor modes so much – with the use of polymodality, pantonality, and world music modalities – that a simple borrowing from the parallel minor may not be striking anymore. We can still make statements about Schumann's efforts at text painting, since in the 1840s a bVI would definitely sound otherworldly. But can we assume that a typical audience will still find it so? I also wrestle with this issue of recontextualization when talking about parallel fifths and octaves with my first year students. I assure them that Bach kills a kitten every time they write one, because I can't rely upon their ears to tell them that it sounds wrong. Power chords and Debussy have broken the dependent voice taboo, so I have to rely upon stylistic practice to teach the concept.

This leads to the question, why teach it then? The quick answer is that enough Common Practice Period music is still performed that the students need to understand how it works, and how subsequent styles differ from it. But as we travel further and further away from the 18th century, I wonder how much class time we theorists will be able to devote to the stylistic nuances of that time period, at the sacrifice of 20th and 21st century stylistic practices.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is important to be able to have exposure to more than what is prevalent in today's studies. I should hope there will always be room for the old with the new.

Scott said...

There are two differing concerns at work here. First, I'm teaching students pursuing a professional degree, thus I need to choose topics that are relevant to their potential professional careers. The current shape of classical music would suggest that learning about the style of David Lang would be more useful than learning the style of Brahms, as it is contemporary classical music that is growing in popularity as orchestras and opera companies are slowly dying. Second, from a humanistic perspective on liberal arts education, I want to educate students on how to understand and thus appreciate as wide a range of music styles as possible. For a long time that meant learning about traditional tonality. It isn't about old vs. new, it is about reach and balance. Right now traditional tonality is winning the balance war, but I think a new balance will have to be made.

Daniel Wolf said...

Scott,

I believe that there are really two cogent strategies. The first is to teach the theory and practice of a particular repertoire, say 15th century counterpoint or late 18th century Viennese style, with model compositions, and then present possible extensions or variations on those practices. The alternative, to borrow a phrase from linguistics, would be a principles and parameters approach, beginning with the general principles — parallelism, for example — and then identifying the alternative parametric settings found in real repertoires, i.e. in repertoire "A", parallels are forbidden, in rep. "B" they are allowed under certain conditions, and rep. "C" is massively parallel.

Scott said...

Hi Dan, that is an excellent point. I basically take that second strategy, though there aren't any textbooks that follow that approach, so I find myself still prioritizing specific styles. Perhaps a new textbook should be written in that vein.

El Johno said...

a well rounded musician does need to know the past and the present on music. And much of the present is based upon the past. the world is based on actions and reactions. a good musician knows bach voice leading, beethoven's orchestration, Brahm's melodic invention, Schoenberg's pantonal ideas, serialism, and into what is now happening.

And there are many theoretical parallels between what has happened the last 100 years and the past. Look at voice leading in Schoenberg and Webern. much of it still follows Baroque counterpoint, especially things like...um... when lines cross between voices.

while looking at I-IV-V-I isn't quite as relevant in todays music, voice leading, text painting (which still happens) is important. Yeah, a bVI isn't a "big deal" now as the vocabulary has changed, but the idea of creating an otherworld sound is still apparent. historically, it was creepy sound. students need to learn how to historicize as well. i've had too many classes and spoke with too many people that didn't do that and it speaks to a lack of understanding...

composers learned from the past and use techniques and ideas from the past constantly. the harmonic language may have changed, but other ideas (like text painting) are still used today, just with an expanded pallet to draw from to get the same effect. if they never know the past techniques, the new ones will lack meaning...and not understanding your music leads to a performance that can't quite live up to its potential...things i've learned slowly over the past few years...