Sunday, June 05, 2005


Atonality refers to music without a tonal centre, that is, without a home key. The method of composition for such music, the twelve tone system, is founded by Arnold Schoenberg. Ever since the time that this system was developed, it remains controversial. In this age, I thought we ought to have accepted this system and start to appreciate the beauty and limitations of the twelve tone system. Looks like this is taking more time than needed to blend into the music scene.

This system has polarised all responses to it. You either love it or hate it. I have listened to a selected few pieces of atonal music, and out of a scale of -10 to 10, with 0 being neutral, I'd rate such music around 4. But throughout history, it seems that this Second Viennese School wasn't given a very warm welcome by the music scene. Audiences had shouted abuse and fights had broken out in the middle of such atonal music concerts. Is atonal music truly that repulsive to our ears? Dissonances have been present ever since tonality came into the world, yet why do people detest music that contain only dissonances? We've accepted modernism in other art forms, like Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, James Joyce's Ulysses and others, then why not modernism in music? That's what abstract expressionism in art is all about. Maybe to those people who denounce this system of music, art is defined as anything that seems good to them and anything that doesn't suit their taste is thrown into the trash section. Isn't that myopic and self-centered? Is that what appreciating the arts is all about?

Yes, I agree that it isn't music which you would listen for leisure, it's very heavy music which makes you think. I'm not sure about the others, but I've fallen asleep in some concerts of tonal music because they're too boring. (Do not mistake that for bad music. The music can be touching yet boring at the same time.) But in concerts where atonal music is being played, it's as if my senses have been awakened and it sets my whole mind working, searching for the intentions behind the composer's mind in composing such music. And from my experience, it tires the listener mentally very fast.

But to think that some have connected atonality with nihilism (belief in nothing). That's a scary thought. I went to check up on nihilism and one of the best quotes in art for nihilism would be found in Shakespeare's Macbeth:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Act 5, Scene 5)
That's total disillusion in life itself and a view that the human existance is without any meaning or truth. That would be satanic. Seems that when people don't like something, they'll find ways and means to link it up with another thing of the vilest nature, like the people who have branded Christianity as a nihilistic religion for Christians looked forward to God's kingdom in the afterlife and therefore removing meaning from this earthly life. Sorry for the digression, but I can't help but touch on this topic since it came into my mind. What an irony that is, nihilism is the absence of faith and hope, yet why brand Christians as nihilistic if they're looking forward to the coming of God's kingdom upon this earth? This really proves that some people do not have a fully functional brain at all...

Alright, back to the topic, abstract expressionism doesn't mean having no meaning. Atonal music isn't irrational, I believe that atonal musicians are still in the right frame of mind to understand what they're writing, yet they're using this twelve-tone system to express their thoughts and feelings. Of course, such thoughts and feelings wouldn't be easily felt by the average listener and it takes a greater set of ability to understand and appreciate such beauty of the music.

A tip from me. When listening to an atonal piece of music, do not have any expectations in mind. Keep an open mind and take what that is coming. Don't ask me about interpretation, I have absolutely no idea how does one go about playing atonal music and Schoenberg has commented that his music wasn't supposed to sound so modern, just that they've been badly played...

No comments: