Lines, lines, lines

When I say I’m investigating ‘counterpoint for the 21st century’ people tend to say “yes, interesting! i wonder if there is a counterpoint that is not of lines, not of melodies, but of something else.” I have always had an aversion to this. Here’s Adorno giving me an excuse for my aversion:

… musical meaning today can probably no longer be readily captured in concepts such as antecedent and consequent that arise indirectly from particular kinds of musical material. Furthermore, the more general such concepts become, and the more they distance themselves from the historically determined musical material, the more they lose their power to influence it. Principles such as similarity and contrast and their interrelation are too abstract to create meaning on their own; music can pay careful attention to such concepts while still losing sight of their inner significance. Nevertheless, the traditional formal categories of musical language and their abstract silhouettes should be retained rather than simply jettisoned. (‘Criteria of new music’, in Sound Figures, p. 160)

Now, this is ambiguous, but for me the take-home message is that there is a point at which a category becomes much too abstracted from musical material and becomes musically meaningless. While abstraction is necessary in all musical categories, and increasingly so, there is a tipping point where it becomes more a philosophical category than a musical one. I feel this is what happens when counterpoint is made to mean simply ‘two or more things happening simultaneously’: timbres, events, etc. Without the line, however radicalised, counterpoint becomes a meaningless abstraction. The point is to ‘negate, preserve, and elevate’ the category.

As Adorno says:

The composer’s vigilance must activate the power of the universal in the radicality of the particular. (ibid.)