PBS 7: The quarter-tone and new harmonic resources

My last post raised the question harmony today, and hinted at the specificity of our historical moment, which has as a characteristic a general crisis in its harmonic logic since 12-tone music and its reaction via spectralism. While spectralism could indeed be seen – as François argues – as a reactionary force in music history, it nonetheless delivered potentially revolutionary material: i.e. the non-12-tone pitch (quarter-tone, sixth-tone, etc). I say potentially, since I’m not aware of any instance where the means (or system) to utilise it properly has been found.

How to utilise it properly? How to integrate these new resources?

You have two clear poles, both of which I believe unfruitful:

On the one hand you have the mere extension of the available material of a pre-given logic. 12-tone serialism (or a derivative) becomes 24-tone serialism (or a derivative); tonal (or quasi-tonal) music becomes expressively inflected by these new pitches. Some of this might produce an effective piece or two, but it appears to me like this would be a dead-end.

On the other hand you have the complete alteration of the logic of musical harmony. This is, of course the spectral proposition. Rethink all of musical structure from the standpoint of the structure of the harmonic series (conceived, in the end, as proportion). Hence, not integrating the quarter-tone into tonal harmony, but something like the opposite. This initially produced some fabulous works, but really did not last long and does not remain interesting, for reasons I’ve hinted at elsewhere. (Grisey is a singular figure who extends this in a particularly fruitful, but perhaps unreplicable way).

So for me, neither simply new material nor new form, these new resources are a question that will not go away. (For others, such as François, the whole question can be disregarded… To their detriment, I believe).

Yet this remains a practical question, not resolvable by theory alone. One great thing that Jerome Combier suggested I do is try to work out what the quartertone (and by implication other non-equal temperament pitches) means to my musical construction. He suggested I do so by writing sketches explicitly around this question.


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