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21st Century Music


21st Century Music

19 October 2015 / William Anderson / On the Beat

We are now mostly homophonists improvising primarily with a few big unordered collections of pitches–diatonic & octotonic, whole tone & chromatic hexachords.

We are all tired of anything that moves like a row. We are tired of being hemmed-in like that.

In the 20th C. the octotonic set was a preferred extension of its subsets. 20th C. music had to leave the diatonic behind. This is no longer the case. We now want to leave the 20th C. behind.

The minimalists helped with this. They dealt exclusively with diatonic and pentatonic sets. America helped us with this. Americans do not cling to the past. Perhaps it’s more difficult for Europeans to forget. Are our European compsoers getting over Schoenberg, Boulez, Stockhausen?

Americans cannot get over the Beatles.

Therefore, at the moment, the diatonic collection is a somewhat preferred extension of any of its subsets because the octotonic world is passé. That’s me where my ears are. Nevertheless, the octotonic set is unavoidable, as Carter noticed.

Moreover, the diatonic world is in our bones. The octotonic is still new enough to produce some sense of impending revolution.

It’s not so much that the revolution faultered. It felt like a revolution, but was really just a moment, a pause.

In short, we can mess around with the diatonic extensions of a sweet little diatonic collection until we are bored with that. The next extention of that diatonic sound could push into the octotonic. The result could easily sound early 20th C., like Debussy & Stravinsky. The 20th Century composers eventually concentrated on rows, which provide lovely customized contexts for familiar smaller collections. It was a time of thorough cataloging and parsing. Carter made exhaustive lists of chords. The problem with this is that it moved too fast. It left people behind. A row, or any conceptual innovation, can become a private affair. Only those who care about its creator will listen into it. Others will look for the coin of the realm, will look for that which is understood and traded publicly.

Babbitt’s use of arrays was a big step in the direction of homophony. It un-ordered vast pools of pitches. As the array derives from a row, the moves in the row might inform the looser goings-on in the arrays. A row can be taken as a pool of moves rather than a pool of pitches, and such readings of rows informed Babbitt’s uses of arrays, as I understand it. Therefore, when row-things became stale, they did not become completely irrelevant. They still provide customized contexts for useful little collections of the foreground.

We can get there from here.

Arrays give us the unordered collections and the freedom to think homophically. The rows that generate the arrays can still suggest unique moves through the space.

The next step is to dispense with rows and arrays altogether. That leaves us in a world that is not much different fron Debussy and Stravinsky. What is different is a number of hexachords that have become more familiar through repeated exposure to them. For example, the B hexachord is the blues hexachord. It’s not a stretch.

Today, we don’t like anything that smells like a row and some of us do not want to slide into overt octotonicism either.

20th C. composers had a preference for octotonic extensions of octotonic subsets. Octotonic trichords are also diatonic. (right?) The octotonic was an easy way to un-ground those diatonic trichords. The century had a strong desire to forge ahead and avoid the usual (diatonic) associations. We are now ok with the usual associations. 21st C. folks are tired of forging ahead, tired of prejudicing the octotonic, which can sound like a bad habit.

While the diatonic and octotonic contexts are the most obvious extensions of their (not identical) subsets, I see these other contexts, listed below.

Moreover, I distinguish between the diatonic hexahord (no tritone) and the Lydian hexachord (yes tritone).

Through long familiarity these pools of pitches might be considered “coin of the realm”–>

– B hexachord (the blues hexachord–023457)
– E hexachord (an augmented triad of 5ths–012678)
– the mystic chord
– the all trichord hexachord (the Carter hexachord)

I am trying to descrbie a shift in musical values where we still seek the particular, but we do not start with the particular ( as in a row or array ), we start with a scary absolute freedom, more homophonically conceived.