Some still think contemporary means atonal
Recently, I was posed the question of why our music in OCTET was contemporary if it did not sound atonal. It was a surprising question considering the world wide exposure of new opera and orchestral music by the likes of Adams, Glass and Reich which is clearly not atonal. But, old habits and thoughts about music die hard so, I thought I would try to address it.
Today, contemporary music does not only mean atonal. With our ensemble OCTET we are trying to move the language of music forward with the knowledge of what came before us. Nowadays, atonality is a very broad term. Personally, when I think of atonality what first comes to mind is Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra from 1908 and its legacy.
Here and with his later 12-tone works, Schoenberg wrote with a new harmonic language combined with traditional forms and gestures. In the mid 20th century, new composers came along that utilized atonality with new compositional techniques such as serialism. They created a completely different sound from Schoenberg’s initial transformations.
Some composers today write music, which also happens to be atonal in its sound world, and in gesture is reminiscent of mid-century avant-garde. There are also some that use a mix of atonality and tonality (which usually approaches modality) as their harmonic language combined with a strong focus on forging new rhythmic landscapes.
Actually, the musical language of contemporary composers is all over the map. The influences are greatly varied but, ultimately, should be personal and ones own.
As with most artists of any medium, my early works did not use my own language. They were pieces based on composers that I admired such as Iannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Ligeti, Earle Brown, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and many others. It was mostly their tastes and not mine that informed the music. Looking back, it wasn’t until my mid to late 20s that a voice began to emerge. Up until then I was writing music the equivalent of musicians playing in a cover band.
Today, my pieces use a language that has evolved over many years of experimentation. I expect that it will always be in a continuous state of refinement, flux and evolution.
In my Quiet Rhythms for Piano Books I & II (2010) triads are layered that sometimes may sound harmonious and other times may sound inharmonious combined with rhythmic layering and structures that do not fall under traditional music forms.
Combining and layering different melodies, harmonies and rhythms create cycles that drive the duration of a section of music. Some of the pieces from Quiet Rhythms have been arranged for OCTET such as the work Camille and the Piano Concerto.