A Very Short Essay…

…on the Nature of Musical Language in Relation to “Atonality” 

What allows the pitch languages of Schoenberg, Webern, Nono, Lachenmann, and Sciarrino to reach so far beyond that of both neo-tonal composers such as Stravinsky and Bartok and true-atonal composers such as Boulez and Babbitt? That is to say: what allows them to convey far more complex, expressive, convincing, and thorough musical structures—in essence, to create New Music which achieves what the greats of the common practice period did? 

To build off of Charles Rosen’s observation in his study of Schoenberg, the concepts of “atonality” and “emancipation of dissonance” are in-and-of-themselves inherently oxymorons. Without tonality and consonance persisting as the musical lingua franca, these concepts would be meaningless—not only to talk about, but to perceive. Indeed, it is specifically because their atonality is composed within—more than “in relation to”—the tonal system that these concepts are both able to be defined and to mean. Even when the music cannot be heard tonally, this is not because it has denied or refused tonality, but has mastered it.

Tonality, like all language at its core, creates a contract. There is a necessary and genuine expectation on the parts of both the sender and the receiver, that language, and thus the contract, will be upheld. In short, language maintains the assumption that a speaker is (at least) “efforting” to be understood—regardless of whether they are understood or not in reality. (Unless of course one specifically chooses to write nonsense poetry, which has its obviously beautiful equivalents in the music of Satie, Cage, and Ligeti.) This assumption of an “efforting to be comprehended” persists through the music of each composer which this essay defends, despite their varying expressive needs for writing outside of the traditional system.

Jaques Derrida, building on structuralist semiotic theories on the interreliance that all ‘signs’ (words and concepts; spoken and written) have on other signs to establish their meaning, wrote of the inherent self-difference in signs that creates a ceaseless ambiguity of definitive meaning. But this needs not lead to a nihilism of “nothing means anything.” Rather it is the belief that nothing means one thing. And herein lies the beauty of both music and poetry, their inherent ambiguity. It is that the same sign possesses finite, but nevertheless plural, meanings which gives music and poetry their power and beauty. 

This creates an essentially dialectical case against such (bourgeois) New Music which fetishizes sound and perception—or art that fetishizes image and perception—as an end in itself: in possessing infinite meanings, this music ceases to not only be language (or in relation to language,) but to be sign. In meaning anything, it means nothing. The contract is broken. Moreover, this argues against the creation of new musical languages to try to replace the old tonal system, which simply ignore the inherent contradictions of the musical language all Western citizens share. It is the mastery of the contradictions and limits of language that create beautiful (musical) writing. The beauty of this “atonality” is the agonizing impossibility of speaking what must be spoken within the traditional syntax.

This speaks nothing of form, though an interesting parallel could be drawn. While neo-tonal and true-atonal composers worked with the surface level of form relations of the past (i.e. ABAB’A’CA”…. etc. ad nauseam,) the composers that this essay lauds have made efforts to expand upon the dialectical and/or spatial nature of form that was at the heart of the music the common practice. 


Counterargument: “Art does not need to be language or representation”

Rebuttal: Indeed, it does not require this. But my aesthetic beliefs stem from the reality of our society and not an idealized form of art or society. Following György Lukács in his defense of the realism of Thomas Mann, I would agree that realism is an important tool in allowing us to “penetrate… objective reality, and to uncover the deeper… mediated, not-immediately-perceptible of relationships that… make up society.” However, I strongly contradict him in his espousal of various forms of modernism, which while non-realist, exist in a framework in relation to realism. For example, the works of Schoenberg, Kafka, and Joyce most definitely achieve the ‘penetration of objective reality’ which Lucács lauds, albeit through different but equally clear means to the same end. It is the finitude of meaning, the overflowing from realism, the attempt to realism, that allows this art to escape idealism and individualism. In that way, the critique is really of constructivism.

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