Conditions of counterpoint today

While Adorno identifies the condition of counterpoint for the Schoenberg era (simplifying: the dissolution of harmony lead to an emancipation and fusion of counterpoint and thematism) at the time of his articulation of this, the moment was already past. We are now half a century further on, and new conditions exist under which composers labour. My contention is that counterpoint is still, or once again, a necessary question for composition, yet the meaning or function of counterpoint is determined by the tendency of the development of musical production. There is no eternal ‘counterpoint’ and there are no polyphonic principles that can be transported (without significant translation) across time. There is only concrete counterpoint emerging from the contemporary materials themselves.

Here’s the set of musical conditions that counterpoint finds itself in today as far as I can tell at this point:

  1. The condition of the collapse of harmonic space continues, no new harmonic terrain equal to tonality has been invented or generalised. The succession of musical events is radically polyvalent. On the other hand, the negation of tonal harmony in free atonality – or its serialist systematisation – itself became exhausted some time ago.
  2. While the collapse of tonality brought about the dereification of verticality (smashed its ‘immediate’ unity), the single line held firm as the ‘part’ to which the whole of the vertical was ceded. This presumed unity of the individual part has since been radically critiqued and fragmented – some of the music of the new complexists demonstrates this. (Funnily enough this returns the single line to something of the solo counterpoint of, for example, Bach’s Partitas, yet without the implied harmonic world to unite it). The deconstruction of the single line as a unity (bringing all new nuances of feeling and direction) has a tendency to strengthen the unity of the whole over the parts, since the more divided the parts internally, the more ripe for synthesis they are with other parts.
  3. The note as such has been thoroughly critiqued, dereified, and while the critique was somewhat off the mark (insofar as the gestalt is the basis of music, not the note), it has had the effect of opening out a new set of resources and a new way to explore musical material. Of course this has the regressive function of reemphasising ‘natural’ periodicity and process, and ‘natural’ perceptual capacities, and certainly leads back to a premodern polyphony of the kind of discordia concors.
  4. The instrument as a given unity has been undermined. Violin ≠ Violin. Rather than an instrument being an abstractly unified quality that can be placed on top of a note or line, now the instrument itself gets explored. The instrument is deinstrumentalised, it is no longer a means to an end – it itself finally speaks. One explores the infinite nuance of the instrument.
  5. These last three conditions all tend towards strengthening the vertical over the horizontal, and correlatively a degree of fetishisation of sound as such, unilinear formal composition, and the return of periodicity. The tendencies have been away from counterpoint, yet radical counterpoint stands at the birth of emphatically modern music, and is critical to the constructive dereification of music that modern music is. Without counterpoint today, we have the tendency to let the dereifying work of the previous conditions become undone on a vulgar sound fetishisation, relapse into simple periodicity, etc. (So a call for counterpoint today is a countertendency, unlike Schoenberg’s day when it was the logical extension of the general line of march of music as such. There is something quite prescriptive about the demand for counterpoint. It is absent).
  6. A counterpoint of today would have to work through conditions 2, 3, and 4 in order to come to a counterpoint proper to our historic moment. Any serious emphasis on counterpoint today will do violence to these tendencies, limit them, perhaps destroy their effect. There must be gusto in this – it can’t be too polite to these tendencies. This is important. However it is important that counterpoint is not an abstract negation of these tendencies. If it tries to be an abstract negation, it will end up replicating – in weaker forms – earlier musical expressions. (This has certainly been my problem until now).

Ok. These are assertions. A ‘proper’ PhD would have to do substantially more research to justify these claims. For my PhD, I have every intention of at least showing that there have been works written over the past few decades that indicate these tendencies. Also, it is clear that I’m sticking to an idea of history that is close to the Hegelian/Marxist one, not the postmodern one. But more importantly, these are issues raised practically. As a composer, one can feel the life or death of the materials they work with. I can feel the weakness of material I use, or its strength – and these conditions outlined above are first felt in composing. Of course composers come up with all sorts of different positions, and many will be wrong because they’re not listening to the actual tendency of things, and aren’t bringing critique into play – nonetheless this intuitive component is ineradicable and it is the condition of possibility of composing truly in the first place. Theoretically I will need to elaborate on the epistemology of my work, but the starting point will be to say that the practical is primary.

So, what to do next? I’m going on a writing retreat from 14 Oct to 4 Nov – ok, it’s not that glamorous, I’m housesitting for my parents – so what will I do?

  1. It’s clear I have to better acquaint myself with the conditions 2, 3, and 4 on a practical level. I should study a small handful masterworks that really show how these critiques are carried out, learn the notation, etc. Listen a lot to these pieces and copy out some of the score for my own benefit.
  2. I have to read some more Adorno, but also the book ‘Polyphony and complexity’ edited by Mahnkopf, Cox, and Schurig, as well as some interviews with New Complexists, Spectralists, and Lachenmannians (the standard-bearers of the three post-serialist anti-contrapuntal tendencies).
  3. I have to compose a handful of short 2- or 3-part pieces that begin to grapple with these conditions, starting from the 4 I wrote for Ensemble Interface’s visit.

Sounds like fun.