Polyphony or counterpoint?

“Common to all polyphony is its multi-leveled discursive construction consisting of both the shared discourse of all voices in the totality of their concord (Zusammenklingen) and the independent discourses of each of the participating voices. The discursive substance is therefore detectable not only in the overall course of the piece, but also autonomously.” (Schurig, 2002, p. 277)

That’s Wolfram Schurig in his article ‘Polyphony and shape: Attempt at a concept of complex polyphony.’ Like Cassidy, he believes that one of the main aspects of a contemporary polyphony should be the decoupling (or abstraction) of the polyphonic layer from the individual ‘voice’ (so that a voice may be criss-crossed by multiple polyphonic layers, or a layer may be made up of the work of multiple voices). He says: “[The voice] becomes an empty place-holder into which, according to the need, particles of a discursive layer are entered, which allow themselves to be assembled only in ensemble with all other voices” (p. 277).

But I’ll leave that aside for the moment. The point I want to take up quickly is this definition of ‘polyphony’. Personally, I’m committed to the term ‘counterpoint’, and not necessarily ‘polyphony’. I feel more drawn to counterpoint because the term foregrounds the idea of ‘relations’: punctus contra punctum, point against point. It implies an antagonistic relation and perhaps even that relations are the essence or meaning of the approach. Polyphony, on the other hand, simply denotes the simultaneity of multiple sonic elements, it doesn’t imply relation or non-relation. It is an ontological assertion: sonic layers exist. Not a logical or phenomenological assertion: ‘there is a point which relates to this other point’.

Very few composers in the 20th century use the term counterpoint in any serious or consistent way, and I can’t think of any after WWII. There for, a period, the term ‘linear counterpoint’, but this seems to really be a contradiction in terms, and it didn’t last long. Since that time various ideas of ‘polyphony’ have come up. The preference for the term ‘polyphony’ over ‘counterpoint’ could be partially put down to the association of counterpoint with the particular 18th or 16th century rule-bound practices. But it is possibly more attributable to a general trend away from internal relations between lines in favour of external or non-necessary relations between lines. In a sense we could say that the Jameson’s divide between ‘the dialectic’ versus ‘dialectics’ is at stake here, with the post-1945 music world opting for the latter. Implied in ‘punctus contra punctum’ is the concept of ‘negation’. One note is set against the other. Perhaps by way of this negation the two are then ‘synthesised’ into an organic unity. This idea seems less feasible today for both technical and ideological reasons (these two are fundamentally the same, or result from the same process). Firstly, the breakdown of the tonal system (or any clear dissonance-consonance relation) and of common phrase and metric structures means that a ‘necessary’ or ‘internal’ relation seems more or less impossible. Secondly, this idea of necessary relations yielding a final synthesis in whatever dimension (rhythmic, harmonic, etc) is largely undesirable since the idea of an unmediated totality appears ideologically unacceptable in an art music context.

Against this I nonetheless feel that the term counterpoint is the one we should be interested in today, not because we want a return to some pre-established harmony, and certainly not because we wish to fetishise antiquated styles in some academic ‘golden-age’ thinking, but because we need to preserve a conflictual or dissonant or antagonistic idea of relations. Counterpoint puts down the challenge of thinking the necessity of relations (both internal and external) in a period where liberal, individualist ideology—which denies the constitutive nature of relations—is still the enforced status quo.