The new ECM release of Steve Reich’s ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ arrived in the mail the other day. This is not my favorite Reich work, nor am I convinced that the long fade-out at the end of side one and the fade-in at the beginning of side two do much to enhance what otherwise sounds like a live performance. But there are certain advantages in listening to music at home. In this case there was a piano nearby, and as I listened to the album, I became interested in picking out the pitches Reich was using, and attempting to figure out how the piece worked harmonically. This pastime proved most interesting, and I began pulling down other recordings that seemed relevant. By the end of the evening I decided that the Reich work is in a special kind of D major, that Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Coming Together’ moves in a very different kind of G minor, that Brian Eno’s ‘Discreet Music’ sits in another type of G major, that one could easily find 20 or 30 other composers working in similar ways, and that the new tonality can be defined as a general phenomenon. I figured I ought to write something about how the new tonality works.
The greatest difference between the new tonality and traditional European tonality is that the recent music doesn’t have much to do with chord progressions. You don’t hear clean shifts from dominant to tonic chords in the new tonality. Instead, you hear basically a scale, and the chords and melodies that arise may be any combinations of notes from this scale. Since there is no concern for the chord progressions that propelled traditional European music, and which continue to propel most pop and folk music as well, there is no need for a strong bass line to carry the progressions. There is often, if not always, a tonal center, but this is usually just the note that comes up most often at the most important points. It does not have much sense of finality. And when this tonal center changes or modulates, it is usually just a question of shifting the emphasis from one note to
another, rather that bringing in a whole new set of chord progressions, as Beethoven would have.
Reich shifts the tonal center frequently and quite craftily in ‘Music for 18 Musicians.’ According to Reich’s program notes, the piece follows a slow sequence of 11 chords, but I hear it as a sequence of tonalities. The first main section of the piece sits on a D-major scale, and the music really does feel like D-major to me, even though there are no actual D-major chords. Most of the time most of the scale is present, and this makes for sappy harmonies, which in combination with the overdressed instrumentation of clarinets, strings, voices, and mallet instruments, makes the piece as a whole awfully lush. But other things are going on underneath the lush. After a while, the weight shifts toward A-major, and eventually to a bright E-major feeling. By the end of side one, we drop into C-sharp minor. Side Two takes us from C-sharp minor back through E major, A major, F-sharp minor, and eventually all the way back to D major. Of course, this is not a triumphant return to the tonic, the way it would have been in a 19th-century symphony. The music just drifts back. It’s a return, but no big deal.
Of the many recordings of new music that are almost totally unknown, Frederic Rzewski’s Opus One album is about the finest one that I happen to know about. When I run into listeners who feel that avant-garde music is too insular or too intellectual, or just irrelevant, I try to find a chance to play this album for them, because it changes their minds almost every time. I’ve listened to it many times, been touched by its political messages, felt its rhythmic power, and strained my concentration to the hilt trying to follow its melodies as they gradually grow longer and longer, but this time I began thinking of Rzewski’s music as a case of the new tonality. Of the three pieces on the album, ‘Coming Together’ is particularly interesting in this way. Here the sound is basically G minor, though it uses only five of the seven notes normally occurring in G minor and might be more properly considered a mode. The scale is simple and it works well, but the really interesting thing comes toward the end, as one of the melodic progressions gradually winds itself into a corner, where it begins to produce a whole lot more B-flats than Gs. The shift is gradual but, in this limited context, crucial. The music begins to feel like B-flat major, seems bright and optimistic, and fits the climax of the text perfectly. It also fits Rzewski’s rigid melodic system, which gradually eases the music back to the G-minor realm.
Brian Eno’s ‘Discreet Music’ is not quite so crafty, and like many overdubbed electronic works, it sometimes falls slightly out of tune, but it is a good example of the new tonality, and a good piece to mention here, since it is relatively familiar. Here the scale is G, B, C, D, E, and since either G or D is generally present in the bass register, the music has a simple, relaxed G-major feeling. Listening carefully for shifts in the scale, however, I began to think I was occasionally hearing the pitch A in the upper register, I never really could hear it, and concluded that I was picking up an aural illusion or overtone of some sort. But then, toward the end of the piece, there it was. A little line with an A in it. Eno had kept this note practically inaudible until the very end, and then, finally, let us have it. That may not seem like a big deal, but in music this clean and simple, the addition of one new tone can be a major event. It is in this piece, at least if one is tuned in on that frequency.
These are only a few examples of how the new tonality works. A few weeks ago I reviewed a David Behrman album, which is a particularly sophisticated and successful case in point, and there are many others, including quite a few that are generally considered jazz. For so much music to return to old-fashioned keys after 50 years of dissonance and atonality might seem to be a reactionary development, and I doubt that anyone would have predicted this 10 years ago. It is not really reactionary, however. The new tonality did not arise out of any particular respect for Beethoven and Mozart. It came about primarily, I think, because the younger composers began studying ragas, listening to scales from Africa, Indonesia, and other parts of the world, and observing that there were a whole lot of good ways of writing music with simple scales and tonal centers. Considering music from a cross-cultural point of view, one has little choice but to conclude that the dissonance and atonality that has dominated Western classical music is a very odd phenomenon and that, for all its assets and power, it just doesn’t have much to do with music as a whole in the world as a whole. It is understandable that young composers in the ’60s would have wanted to find a more universal musical language that related to the larger picture. Being trained in Western music, they have generally stuck with the Western tuning systems and Western instruments, and they have evolved a kind of tonality that does relate back to European music of the 18th and 19th centuries. But only partly. When Terry Riley titled one of his early works ‘In C,’ he didn’t mean ‘in C major’ exactly, and he certainly didn’t mean that he was working with tonic and dominant chords again. He was really working ‘in C something else.’ It was a new tonality.