Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I am hereby resolved!

This weekend I was listening to Terri Gross's interview with Steven Sondheim, and was struck by a very amazing claim that the musical master made: harmonies can resolve, but melodies cannot. He really said that. Gross was asking about the ending of a song in Sweeny Todd, and asked how Sondheim had picked the final note to sound so unresolved. Sondheim replied that the note couldn't sound unresolved by itself, it was because the harmony was unresolved that the note stuck out. This should be of immense surprise not only to the countless theory text authors who have distinguished between Perfect Authentic Cadences and Imperfect Authentic Cadences, or to every theorist who is an advocate of voice-leading, but also to Carole Krumhansl and her followers who showed through probe-tone experiments that melodies do indeed create expected resolutions. I think Sondheim is relying too much on his piano background, and not enough on the things he learned from Milton Babbitt.

Earlier in the interview he told Gross that "discordant" meant "incorrect" and was not synonymous with "dissonant." Not according to my dictionaries and thesaurus! I got the feeling that Sondheim was really making these statements to act as a high priest of music, creating barriers to the sacred mysteries of melody and harmony through insistence on idiosyncratic jargon. He was putting the layperson in her place, making clear that only a trained adept could comprehend how "Send In the Clowns" was structured.


Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for mentioning the interview, Scott. I found it fascinating.

Kozguy said...

Hah! We were talking about this interview just the other day. One of my TAs brought it up and mentioned that there had been some pushback to what he had said, including letters written to NPR in protest. In fact, if you look at the article about the interview, they seem to have scrubbed some of the more interesting quotes, though the entire interview is still available in audio.

Peter (the other) said...

Perhaps on account of the forum, you had expectations of what kind of person/intelligence Sondheim may be and/or the kind of discourse he would bring. Then, we are always surprised at the marvelous human quality of perversion: we can learn to love drinking whiskey, inhaling burning tobacco or listening to serial music ;-)

In my interviews with film composers I have found that their composition process is at such an intense, not quite at the level of consciousness, act that when queried about it they either obfuscate or allow themselves to be easily led, rather then to say "I don't know why I did that, it just felt right."

But I haven't yet heard the interview (ducking and running).

Scott said...

Peter, I don't have a problem with him saying that it felt right, or that he has strong opinions. But it really did strike me that he was being totally condescending to an expert interviewer who was being very gracious and enthusiastic about his music. Which isn't cool.

Peter (the other) said...

Scott, you're absolutely right. Ever since I heard that idjiot Gene Simmons (of the band KISS) be such a jerk with her, I have felt protective of her (although her grace is always a perfect shield). But people of great accomplishment are just as liable to be idiots and jerks as us mortals. Ms. Gross may be no music theorist, but she always seems to ask questions that reflect an authentic relationship to the work (in all fields), which is what makes her so enjoyable to listen to.

Yet, Sondheim is 80 (the new 60 :-) ), and I have witnessed many otherwise reasonable people grow to be short, sharp and rude after a certain age as if they are acutely aware of an impending end. May it not happen to us.