A couple of days ago I talked about our friend Arnold Schönberg, and the musical ills he’s been blamed for — unfairly, in my view. It is true, though, that he was one of the first composers to get seriously into writing atonal music. Now, the word “atonal” is a slippery customer. People often use it to describe music or sounds that they simply don’t like. And, perhaps by correlation, people tend to assume that all atonal music is ugly. And I don’t mean just “Oh, that rug is interesting but it wouldn’t fit with the color scheme in my living room” ugly, but rapaciously, pro-actively, in-your-face communist-plot ugly. But “atonal” is actually a rather innocuous little musical term. It simply refers to music that is not in a major or minor key (or other diatonic scale-based mode — but don’t ask me to define all that unless you want to be here all day) in the traditional sense. It has other organizing principles. Or maybe no organizing principles (though the choice to eschew organizing principles is, in a sense, an organizing principle, now isn’t it? Just like when you were a teenager and boldly decided to be a non-conformist, and got mad at your parents when they observed that you were non-conforming in exactly the same way as all your friends). Either way, it means no offense, honest. Maybe a better word is non-tonal — sounds less confrontational, no?
Anyway, it can be difficult to know where to begin when you’ve decided to join the Cool Kids of Music Nerd-dom by writing music that is not tonal. And today I wanted to keep it simple, so I picked an interval to play with. Today’s program is brought to you by the major 3rd and the minor 6th! “Aha,” you say, “but you said an interval, not two intervals!” Very true. But guess what — do you know what you get when you turn a major 3rd upside down? That’s right, you get a minor 6th. Here’s an example, if you don’t believe me:
And that is really my only strict organizing principle in this piece — the rest of it was pretty intuitive. And hopefully not, you know, that bad kind of ugly.
One performance note: I’m finding it difficult to record a really nice, soft sound from my digital piano. You can always turn the volume down, of course, but there’s a specific sound that a “real” piano has — or rather, doesn’t have — when you play very very softly. There should be no hard “edge” at the beginning of a note or chord. If I had a grand piano I could do it. Did I mention that my birthday is coming up? 😉
Click play to listen:
Thanks for listening!