Spread and Decline
 
 

Atonality

The Austrian musician Arnold Schoenberg had devised many techniques for what he had termed ‘The Emancipation of Dissonance’ achieved primarily through atonality, or serial music, a technique whereby a composer would arrange all twelve pitches in a piece, having to exhaust all tones before returning to the original note. This actively denies a sense of resolution and results in a position autonomous of scale.

 
     

The word "atonality" later became a negative term to describe and to condemn music in which chords were organized with no apparent coherence. Riots erupted at both Austrian premieres of his two string quartets in 1905 and 1908. Such experiences led him often to feel persecuted by a public that could not understand his music. In later Nazi Germany, atonal music was discredited as degenerate music (Entartete Musik).

An earlier piece Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night, 1899) was written for string sextet in the chromatic tradition of Wagner's Tristan. As an Opera Trista had already stretched tonality to its limits.

 
   

The Student’s Pronouncing Musical Dictionary

(The Frederick Harris Co. 1958)

Published in London, almost 60 years after Atonality was first conceived, the dictionary fails to contain any concept of dissonance or atonality. This shows to some extent the rigid culture surrounding music and acts as a sign for the years of commercial borders to come.

 
   

Plinks, planks and plunks of nothingness              

Carl Heintze

Not long ago it was my unhappy fate to stay in a hotel where so-called music was piped into a kind of atrium on which my hotel room opened. As a result I spent about 12 hours off and on, but mostly on, listening to what a friend of mine used to call "elevator music."
This sound--I wouldn't dignify it with the word "music"--goes on and on and on all day and all night, not only in elevators, but also in hotel lobbies, in some restaurants and bars, and even in dentists' offices.
It seldom comes with lyrics and almost never arrives with any recognizable melody. Instead, there is endless noodling up and down the scale. One looks, but never finds, some recognizable tune, because there isn't any. There is seldom voice or voices as a part of the presentation, and if there is, it is in the tradition of modern rock: "Oh, baby, oh, yeah, baby, oh, baby, oh, oh..." and so on.
I've often wondered if anyone actually writes lyrics like that, or if they just make them up as they go along without really having to think about their meaning. It certainly sounds like it.
Moreover, the sound is generated by electronic instruments, mostly electric guitars, strummed, plucked or in some way sounded. Some are bass guitars that play a never ending bass line. As a result, there is often no drum beat, although that would be almost welcome in some cases.
There might be a piano, but more than likely it is an electronic keyboard, which can sound like half a dozen instruments.
There are, I am told, some so-called "bands" that are really a single keyboard player recording a whole set of tracks and then blending them together to sound like a combo. No wonder things sound confused.
About the only sense one gets by prolonged listening is that some instruments are in a higher register and are supposed to be the instrument carrying the melody, but it's no melody I know.
When I was younger this used to be called "Muzak" to distinguish it, I suppose, from "music." Muzak did play in elevators and in dentists' offices and lots of other public places. In its infancy, Muzak was at least recognizable as jazz.
Jazz, as most folks know, is supposed to be improvised, that is, played by individual members of a group on a single melody, with the lead passed from one to another in both competition and in a search for harmony. It doesn't always sound like this, but, on the whole, good jazz fulfills this requirement admirably.
Unfortunately the jazz age has passed and along with it, the most gifted jazz musicians.
What purports to be jazz these days is mostly noodling, wandering up and down the scale with no real insight or improvement of the basic melody. Usually the tune gets lost somewhere, and most so-called jazz players of the present day tend never to find it again. Or so it seems, at least to me.
But the kind of torture to which I was subjected in the hotel wasn't even that. Basically, it was sound to fill a space. Why blessed silence isn't better is not clear, but those who operate public places seem to think some kind of sound is essential to their business.
At first, when I heard this stuff that night, I felt a wave of pity for those desk clerks, bartenders, waitresses, maids and bell boys who have to listen to it all day and all night. But then I thought, unlike me, they probably eventually develop a kind of immunity to it. They no longer hear it. It just passes through one ear and out the next and never makes an impression.
If this is so, though, if we can eventually acquire an immunity to Muzak (or whatever it is called now), why do hotels, bars and other public places continue to use it? I once read that the general effect of such mindless music is to make potential customers cozy, happier and easy to manipulate.
In the dentist's office, for instance, it's supposed to make one more likely, if not to enjoy the drill, at least to tolerate it without abject fear. Maybe, although it doesn't have that effect on me, especially when I woke at 4 o'clock in the morning and heard it blatting away just as it had at 10 o'clock at night. Surely the hotel owner could have turned it off during sleeping hours. I didn't need it to fall asleep by. Instead it kept me awake.
But I realize, sadly enough, that the testimony of one music lover is not likely to cause the Muzak business to fold its microphones and go away. So the only other solution for hotel sleep is earplugs. And I've got them.
During the next stay, I'll be soothed by silence, not plinks, planks and plunks of nothingness.


Carl Heintze is a frequent contributor to the Los Gatos Weekly-Times. A collection of his essays may be found at http://www.doitright.com/Carl/essays