Philip Joy - Blog

Philip Joy -

Philip Joy -

"ALL THESE NOTES" - preparing the ground for neo-tonal harmony

In an informal lecture given by Robin Holloway to Music undergraduates at Oxford in 1987, which I attended, the composer described his musical upbringing. He was raised, he said, in the post-war environment of serialism, where only certain notes could be used . Any order of notes which betrayed a hint of tonality was anathema. Atonality, arrhythmia (I have learned since that this is heart condition..!), textural complexity and opacity of form were the order of the day, and British composers were expected to toe the line. Having been a keen Proms listener through my teens I was an avid follower of New Music. I did not want to be left behind (despite a love of Shostakovich!) What Holloway described was the orthodoxy I recognized, and having written a lot of classical and romantic pastiche, and having been made fun of for it, I was eager to be in the vanguard. I listened with interest.

This is a blog not a scholarly article, and many of my readers will have lived through the period, but a look at the post-war musical milieu is revealing. In the 1950s to be a leading European composer was to eschew all past forms of expression in favour of the stern aesthetic of mature Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio. This was an era when it seemed, to many ordinary UK listeners, that the only newly written music to be commissioned, performed or aired by the BBC (the three were inextricably linked) was that of the High Avant Garde. Even by the 1980s, when I was up at Oxford, Twentieth Century music history was still being taught along these lines, (I paraphrase for effect): Poor Rubbra, he s still in the Nineteenth Century, but the rest of us are being true to a post-tonal world. The old musical language has exhausted itself. It is time for something completely new: whose hat is in the ring? You may well ask, what of the listeners? But that was not a matter of concern to the true composer! If we left them behind it was up to them to catch up. As the prophet Milton Babbitt hath said, and it remaineth true: who cares if they listen? I jest not. This really was the way I was brought up to think.

Recent historical research has shown that special funding was given to the Western avant-garde at this time, for political reasons. Behind the Iron Curtain, Soviet and East-Bloc composers were labelled bourgeois or decadent if they wrote anything which went beyond the post-romantic language of Khachaturian. Even famous Shostakovich had to watch his step. In the West, however, our artists were free! Free to write whatever we liked. And the more modern it was the more it was evidence of Western freedoms. Serialism was a kind of (forgive my vulgarity) up yours to the Communist system, and the Arts were inducted, as they have ever been, to the political war of ideas.

It was a supreme irony, therefore, that the West had gestated one of the most controlled musical languages ever: Total Serialism! The principles of Schoenberg were applied not just to pitch, but to rhythm and form, duration and all the other aspects of music as well. Perhaps our society was not so free as we imagined? A fascinating parallel may be seen in the history of Biblical Studies during the same period. Those training for the Baptist Ministry in the 1950s were required to eschew all intuitive interpretations of the Bible in favour of a variety of Criticisms . The only valid commentary was one which first reduced the text to a pseudo-scientific jumble of presumed historical sources, redactions and word studies. What cold comfort to the soul these provided can easily be imagined. No wonder the churches emptied all over Europe. Similarly the radios were switched off whenever new music came on.

By the 1980s, however, even at the time when modernists such as Peter Maxwell-Davies and Harrison Birtwistle were at the height of their fame, others like Holloway were beginning to question the prevailing orthodoxy. The Minimalists had rediscovered repetition and consonance, Klaus Hashagen had shown that pure improvisation with a microphone and a bongo drum could create music which was as much Avant Garde as the most tightly controlled system serialism could offer, and Messiaen continued to plough his own unique and colourful furrow.

But, said Robin Holloway, whose viola concerto had so recently been premiered and in which there was actually a tune take a look at the piano keyboard. He gestured to the immaculate Steinway - all these notes he said, are available to you. I was taken aback. Did he mean I could use ANY notes, in ANY order or combination? That was tantamount to counter-revolution. Indeed! He said there was freedom. We did not need to feel restricted, we could use any order of notes, and to create any chords or any texture we wished. There was no need for an octave taboo, or a necessity for dissonant intervals to trump consonant ones. I began to realize that I did not have to languish forever in some kind of Brian Ferneyhough Dungeon of Invention . Liberation from a sterile orthodoxy begun for me, that day!

Ideas are important, and it seemed to me from that lecture that it was high time for a reconvergence of ideas between the average concertgoer and the average composer. The trend, which first started when the Second Viennese School established their private society for the performance of their own works, had in fifty years created an almost unbridgeable gap between the creators and consumers of what has become known today as classical music. I knew then the gap needed to be bridged. It is my hope that the Neo-Tonal Triad can bridge that gap, and it is that which keeps me composing. Robin Holloway s informal lecture opened a way out of learned attitudes which were actually of almost purely political origin. It was an essential preliminary for my discovery of the Neo-Tonal triad. That day was important in establishing the truth that all these notes are available. It set the tone for my future search for a harmonic style familiar enough for audiences to relate to, yet fresh enough to satisfy that lust for the new, which has been the unique contribution of the Arts in the West for five centuries. The ground had been prepared!