John McLachlan's regular column on composers and composing

Expectation has always been key to the enjoyment of music. Expectation here means the sense that what followed earlier sounds belongs, and in retrospect at least, seems expected or partially expected. Psychologists have pinpointed our enjoyment of music as being a play between the competing pleasures of being able to predict what’s coming, and being surprised. Overly predictable or unpredictable music is always less popular; the balance between the two is vital. Therefore, in a given place in a piece of music, if expectation is particularly strong, fulfilment is not always desirable. Or to put it another way, surprise really only exists meaningfully if we are expecting a fairly well-defined outcome which then gets abandoned in some way. This aspect of music is key to its grip or engagement with the listener, and hence ‘expectation’ is also frequently termed ‘expression’.

In the complexity or simplicity of contemporary music the norms in this area, as in all others, can be severely tested, so it is ok to wonder: is this a problem for OK music? The big justification for the general evolution of style (towards more complex forms) is that the more we experience music, the more attuned we become to what might lie ahead: like a chess master many options can flash before us, so it gets harder to surprise us. But is that really enough to justify what we get in new music, and was there a revolution rather than an evolution at some point? These are themes that, whatever position you take, will keep returning.

In tonal, classical times the music was ordered into handy phrases and these were ‘rhetorically’ connected. Various models have been discussed in detail by musicologists: pairs of phrases such as antecedent–consequent (call–response), the model and sequence beloved of Liszt, adjusted repetitions of motives with additions or subtractions, and decorated reappearances of melodies. Various such rhetorical devices existed, all with repetition (or more likely partial repetition) as the key to setting up expectation. This supported the thematic edifice of Western music: connecting phrase to phrase, and also connecting – indeed justifying – the whole piece as a unit.

Besides this, there seemed to be some sense that while themes/motifs could be endlessly invented for each new piece, there were also helpful archetypes operating in the background. Rising notes implied beginnings, falling implied endings, for example.

These thematic, linear aspects were further supported by expectations given to the listener in the field of harmony. Different chords in the tonal sphere stand in a relation of distance and connection to a home chord, the tonic. Over extended passages ‘distance’ could be implied by degree of dissimilarity to the home set; over shorter expanses, such as a single phrase, rhythmic arrival could be confirmed or denied by the harmonic aspect. With even simple harmony, a sense of ending could be suggested and even denied or prolonged. In more sophisticated harmony you had all that plus you could tighten the sense of immediate goals being satisfied by rubbing the musical strands against one another: devices such as preparation–suspension–resolution. By this and other means you could suggest smaller goals nested within larger goals. A truly powerfully expressive language existed allowing layers of foreground and background development to operate partly independently.

New Aesthetic Resources
So what happens in atonal music? Well first of all atonal music didn’t appear overnight, and consideration of the present situation can not be cast in the light of the classics without some understanding of the intermediate steps: the works of many composers such as Wagner, Debussy and Scriabin, who are considered tonal, but actually accelerated the process of stylistic evolution and led on to modernism. Schoenberg and Webern in particular were very much hung up on unity and coherence in music, and they believed they were expanding rather than shrinking the expressive force of music. They took pitch, rhythm and motive very seriously, and were not iconoclasts. Any loss of harmonic coherence was supposed to be replaced by strengthened coherence of theme. The erosion of the truly nested, multi-layered harmonic language (that had only recently arrived, in the broad scheme of things) arguably caused more pain to Schoenberg than to his detractors.

But if we fast-forward to the music of the 1950s–1970s, three decades that shook music more than the next three, it has to be said, we find that neither expression nor expectation is very much discussed. After there had been time to reflect on the second Viennese school, it was felt that they had not really understood their own contribution to music. This was to unleash complexity, asymmetry and incompleteness as new aesthetic resources, rather than as fearful destructive tendencies. The ‘emancipation of the dissonance’ as a new expressive resource (in Schoenberg’s phrase), became later the emancipation of asymmetry, of timbre, of noise, of the incomplete gesture, of silence, of the visual, theatrical, incidental, of hyper-complexity, hyper-simplicity and so on. Expectation got a hammering, but refused to lie down.

(However, composers always show a remarkable desire to be respectable, much more than writers or artists, and so the 1950s and 60s saw each stylistic movement shored up by hefty tomes of quasi-theoretical self-justification, usually providing a set of inaudible keys for the non-listening specialist.)

Young composers tend to hear any music with logical links that promise to lead somewhere as a naively gesturing sort of music that is somehow a kind of tonal music with all wrong notes (those archetypes of shape mentioned earlier tend to loom large in a young mind). And in some new music circles that is how it is always seen. Where this leads to in some camps is towards music in which there is duration but no rhythm, and there are pitches but choice of pitch has no structural role, even for the shortest moment. Oddly then, gesture – which is supposed to be what is wrong with ‘old-fashioned’ music – becomes everything.

John Cage, who is always so far out, is surely the godhead for such activities. But by no means all that followed from even him leads to non-expectation music. Feldman seemed to retreat somewhat towards expectation in his later ‘pattern’ works. But by favouring modified repeat to the degree he does, for some listeners his refusal to surprise often enough makes him mostly ‘non-expectation’.

Where does all that leave expectation in current new music? You might expect it to have died long ago. And at certain new music festivals it seems at best moribund. There are places where creating any trace of expectation seems taboo; but it is impossible to say that such and such a type or style abandons it: as soon as it seems so, a resurgence gets under way. So, in fact, any survey of the major composers of the last fifty years will show a spectrum of possibilities, from those who successfully resist expectation altogether (and with the existence of the archetypes, that requires effort), to those who, maybe after hearing minimalism, re-invented musical language to re-work expectation in a non-clichéd way (Ligeti). Some of the major names of the sixties turned in their later work to a more dramatically charged (which requires expectation) sound: one is struck by this when, for example, comparing Boulez’ Le marteau sans maïtre to his later Sur incises. It seems that the longer a composer produces, the more they want to address this issue in their music. If that is true, it is telling.

For an overview at this point in history, we see that composers can exercise the freedom to move right across a spectrum of possibilities. We increasingly find composers writing one piece in one place and the next one somewhere else on this line:

strong expectation: Ligeti (Études) / Carter / Xenakis
weak expectation
: Stockhausen / Boulez / Feldman
non-expectation: Cage / Carter

Polystylistic work even allows a slide across the continuum during the course of a piece. The key thing for the composer, wherever he/she writes along this spectrum, is to write well. Cliché is all too possible anywhere along it. Quality and consistency of writing are independent of position here. On the left is the risk of writing a kind of modern Hollywood score, on the right is the very real problem that the length of a piece (or any subsection) easily becomes an arbitrary decision, which can fatally weaken the listener’s engagement.

Raymond Deane happens to encapsulate this discussion in his note for his large orchestral work Ripieno; he writes: ‘the title evokes the possibility of an aesthetic of plenitude as against one of impoverishment; of dialectic, drama and perspective as opposed to the flat surface of post-modernism. Can this be done without lapsing into nostalgia?’

There he also touches on the problem of the elimination of expectation: some composers worked out – a long time ago now – that this was the next logical step for stylistic evolution. Unfortunately, because our minds are so adaptive, the elimination of this quality altogether turns out to require the elimination of musical material. Some of the most interesting music around is grappling with this issue, and also some of the most dull.

RTÉ has released a CD of Raymond Deane’s recent orchestral works, Ripieno, Samara, and his Violin Concerto (RTE CD 274). There is only room here to recommend it highly to anyone who wants to know about new music in Ireland.

Published on 1 July 2008

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info

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