Vertically Challenged?—Harmonic Deficiencies in Young Composers

John Adams’s recent entertaining yet penetrating essay posted on his website ( sparked a dialogue on the subject of harmonic deficiencies of young composers.

The entire Adams essay is a great read, especially for those familiar with the composition master class, but the part of Adams’ essay that generated our ensuing dialogue was the following. (Be sure to follow his link at “with blank stares.”)

    “I try to deal with the real nitty gritty, the mega-issues, as difficult and as dangerous as that may turn out to be. One very daunting challenge for young composers is how to judge the scale of what they’ve constructed. Since most pieces written in school settings are understandably brief (say between eight and twelve minutes), building a meaningful and satisfying expressive form is a challenge. Inexperienced composers often give over the larger part of their pieces to relatively low-interest, low-event material. Most pieces start slowly and for a long time haven’t much to chew on. I often have to remind students about Beethoven and how gratifying it is to have a powerful, confident idea stated in the very first bar. But then…one has actually to have a powerful, confident idea, and those don’t come a dime a dozen.
    The other issue that plagues so many student compositions is vagueness of harmonic language. We live in a post-style era in contemporary classical music. Students are blessedly free of the kind of bitterly divisive battles of style and orthodoxy that made life so brutal forty years ago. But the down side is that the “anything goes” climate of composing now produces thousands of pieces with no real internal cohesion. The harmonic character of a piece is of absolute, essential importance. It’s how we know immediately that a Messiaen piece is by Messiaen or why we can identify a piece by Ligeti or Feldman or Reich instantaneously. Unfortunately most young composers come to their profession with little awareness and even less interest in creating a unique harmonic profile for their music. This is one reason why so many pieces resort to OSTINATO—it’s a kind of default mode to create a gravitational sense in the music.
    But these comments often are met with blank stares. Either the young composers are unaware of the lack of harmonic comprehensibility in their pieces, or they believe that other aspects like instrumentation or dynamics or repetitive design will trump harmony.”

Adams doesn’t sugar coat it for us, and he is right on the money, in my opinion. I was first drawn into the discussion when my teacher at UI, David Gompper, showed me an email exchange with one of his former teachers, Glenn Watkins. In his brand new book entitled,
The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, and Memory,” Watkins says this:

    “Stravinsky’s ‘late style’? Breaking new territory or a dead end without issue? Abstract or personal? National, neonational, or cosmopolitan? Ritualistic, playful, or historically oriented? All of the above? Among the many elements that constitute the final profile of the composer, perhaps one can do no better than to note Stravinsky’s infatuation with the harmonic element of counterpoint. Recall his comments as early as 1952—just prior to launching his own investigations into both Gesualdo and serialism—to the effect that what he found ‘wrong with most twelve-tone composers’ was that they were ‘indifferent to the vertical aspect of music.’ It should be no surprise, then, that in his last major work, the Requiem Canticles, Stravinsky planned his serial rotations to generate vertical harmonies as carefully as linear melodies. To single out this particular issue as a constant would seem to stand somewhat at odds with his legendary profile as a rhythmicist. The two strands were never immiscible, however, and ultimately proved to be congenial companions—a claim that could also be made for Gesualdo, whose extraordinary harmonic voice was spawned from a contrapuntal web.” (The Gesualdo Hex, p.202)

I don’t know about you, but this excerpt puts Watkins’s new book at the top of my summer reading list.

Besides the common theme of “vagueness of harmonic language” or “indifference” to harmonic considerations, both Adams and Watkins make important connections with the past—Adams with Beethoven, Watkins with Gesualdo. (As an aside, I remember when I was an upper class undergraduate composer who was beginning to look at graduate schools. I sent an email to University of Michigan composer William Bolcom asking if he had any advice for a young composer who was preparing for graduate studies in composition. His reply was curt: “Go study Beethoven.” Not the response I was expecting.)

After reading the Adams, I was immediately reminded of an article written by Tristan Murail which we graduate composers at the University of Iowa read and discussed in our Composition Seminar. The part of Murail’s essay that I personally found most penetrating when I first read it was his emphasis on the “functionality” of harmony. I was fairly comfortable with my harmonic sense and was quite confident in coming up with sounds that I found engaging, but what I found deficient in my harmonic language was the linear component—the connectedness of my harmonies, or lack thereof. My harmonies were nice, I felt, but did they progress? Did they really “function over time?”

Here’s Murail:

    “Unlike the evolution of formal elements, where we have moved considerably away from our point of departure, spectral harmony has steadily grown and flourished aided by ever improving technological and scientific support. When I speak of harmony, I refer to something very specific. What has been called frequencial harmony. I think this term is more accurate than ‘spectral’ harmony since it includes harmonies far beyond just spectrum. Through this approach to harmony, it is possible to create harmonies (or timbres) which are completely invented, through analogies to the spectra found in nature. Most of my pieces, in fact, are built on structures which are not direct spectral observations: this is what I call frequencial harmony. These harmonies are conceived outside the domain of equal temperment, even tempered quarter- or eighth-tones and form an unlimited harmonic realm, which happens to be contiguous to timbral space; thus placing us in a domain where harmony and timbre are more or less the same thing. There are often striking sonorities in ‘spectral’ pieces that many people attribute to some arcane craft of orchestration we have developed. They don’t understand that those sonorities are in fact created through the harmonies, the notes, the pitches. Or rather, that pitch structures and orchestration have become one and same thing.
    I realize now that, over the years, I have struggled to develop an awareness and an expertise in this domain of harmony that few people have taken the trouble to seek. I am very surprised that this harmonic dimension has completely disappeared from composers’ preoccupations when, in fact, it is so rich and powerful. I can recall, in the eighties, other composers going so far as to mock me for worrying too much about harmony: this was simply not done. This attitude is reflected in many of my students; their most common deficiency is the lack of harmonic awareness. They write music which may have strong gestures, but which ultimately does not function over time because harmony fails to support the form. Harmony, through its relation to form, gave tonal music its strength; nowadays, it has too often been reduced to a simply decorative function. The mere existence of pitches even seems to be a nuisance for certain composers. I think it is time to reconsider the role of harmony and timbre within formal constructions — and this does not only apply to ‘spectral’ styles.”
(from “After-thoughts” Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 19 (2000))

Murail, too, implies that composers who are harmonically deficient or indifferent would be well served to look at music of the past, especially considering how “harmony relates to form.” By the way, in the same essay, Murail has equally insightful things to say about melodic considerations, but that’s for another discussion. For now, these considerations regarding harmonic deficiency provide plenty food for thought.


About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae.
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4 Responses to Vertically Challenged?—Harmonic Deficiencies in Young Composers

  1. Glenn Watkins says:

    Bravo for your rich post! Reading this I now believe that young composers are beginning to turn the corner and a new dawn awaits!

  2. lukedahn says:

    Thank you for the kind comment. I do hope we young composers don’t let you down! I look forward to reading “Gesualdo Hex” this summer.

  3. Joe Dangerfield says:

    I also find what Murail says about the confluence of sonority, timbre, and orchestration of particular interest, and something with which I have struggled for many years. Plenty of fodder for discussion on our way to Houston! 🙂

  4. lukedahn says:

    Perhaps even 17 hours worth of discussion fodder! 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Joe.

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