18 Variations

on an Introduction by Johann Sebastian Bach
("Widerstehe Doch Der Sünde," BWV 54)


for Piano

(1) Eb Major (2) Bb Major (3) G Major (4) D Major (5) B Major (6) F# Major (7) Db Major (8) Ab Major (9) F Minor (10) C Minor (11) A Minor (12) E Minor (13) A Mixolydian (14) D Phrygian (15) G Lydian (16) C Dorian (17) Bb Major (18) Eb Major

Date Duration Listen
30 November 2011 22'48" Realization (.MP3) Score (.PDF)
31.3 MB 232 KB

Yet another in a little collection properly tagged "See? I can write diatonic music, if you hold a gun to my head," this is by far the most disgruntling piece I've composed to date. It took forever to write: not because the work itself proceeded any more slowly than normally, but because the motivation to actually do the work was frequently not at all there. I continually berated myself the whole time for doing nothing more than repeatedly solving the same tired, boring, old problems in voice-leading that composers have solved and over-solved for centuries, now.

The irony, of course, is that writing serial pieces (at least the way I write them) involves exactly the same process. The only difference being that adjusting the voice-leading in a serial environment feels like a titanic effort to fashion coherence and meaning out of a howling void, while the same task in a diatonic environment resembles an endless struggle to avoid creating insipid clichés. Enthusiastic critics might interject here that I have obviously chosen the serial environment as my principal element specifically on purpose to mask the fact that my musical imagination tends ineluctably toward insipid cliché from the very beginning - and I will not argue with that assessment.

And yet there is something more to it. While I wholeheartedly agree with Schoenberg's now-hundred-year-old conviction that diatonic music had played itself out as a groundbreaking creative force with Post-Romanticism, I don't for one minute believe people ever will - or ever should - stop writing diatonic music. There will always be a need for nursery rhymes, after all, if nothing else - or even if only nursery rhymes for adults; while Bartók, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Shostakovich, and others penned great masterpieces in tonal idioms post-Schoenberg, the fact remains that the total landscape of music changed forever during the 20th century - and the genii will not be put back in the bottle. On the other hand, while I profoundly appreciate the experimental efforts of the New Vienna School and its descendants, I don't for one minute believe silly arbitrary rules about tone row development designed to make even the least little hint of tonality "impossible" as a guiding principle have any reasonable future in the evolution of Western Art Music. The overtone series underlying every credible modern theory of tonality is not a fantasy; it is a scientific fact. Composers can make a conscious hash of it, but any multi-voice piece will inevitably express some form of tonal progression. They can restrict themselves to certain very restrained kinds of anti-tonal harmonic schemes and write beautiful and compelling music; but in the end all they are doing is pursuing the negative, shadow form of what had for centuries been common practice. True mastery will not flee from tradition or forever struggle to make it do handstands, but will strive to integrate the new practice into a larger theory reconciling the old and the new in a higher synthesis. As Schoenberg himself observed about the revolutionary addition of thirds to melismatic organum during the twelfth century, in his Harmonielehre [Carter, tr., 1978, p.69]:

Singing in octaves and fifths no doubt satisfied in a thoroughly natural way the taste of the time; it was in accord with the nature of sound and with the nature of man, thus it was beautiful. Nevertheless, the possibility of adding thirds to the octaves and fifths and of using contrary and oblique motion very likely produced a heady enthusiasm that came to hold everything of an earlier time to be bad, although it was merely outmoded; such enthusiasm we can indeed observe in every great advance - not only in art. [The enthusiast] so completely forgets to be grateful for the preparatory work done by the predecessors that he hates that work and does not stop to think that the present advance would be impossible without it. Yes, even if that work was full of errors. And the contempt for what is outmoded is just as great as it is unjustified. Whoever keeps a correct sense of proportion will say: I personally would not like to do what is outmoded because I know the advantages of what is new, and because it would be untimely. One should be untimely only in running on ahead of the times, but not in limping along behind.

So, yes: I personally do not like to do what is outmoded because I know the advantages of what is new. From time to time, however - as in this case - I will work in outmoded styles because I still have everything to learn about music and nothing to teach. The experience will be profoundly disgruntling to me - particularly, as in this case, during the last four variations in the series, when the prospect of further developing the original chord progression finally became a form of exquisite torture worthy of being placed in the bag of tricks of a Cheney or a Mubarak - but the task will ultimately be completed, with or without its quota of insipid clichés.

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