Again on counterpoint and polyphony: goal-orientation

In his thesis on counterpoint and polyphony in the works of John Adams, Alexander Sanchez-Behar has a neat little section in the introduction detailing various ways the counterpoint-polyphony distinction has been thought about. I’ll come back to all of them in a future post, but one thing came to mind as I was cleaning the kitchen just now. Sanchez-Behar (2007) states that one

common distinction is dependent on stylistic differences that predate and postdate the seconda prattica: the music of the Middle Ages is described as polyphonic, while the music of the Baroque Era is more commonly referred to as contrapuntal. (pp. 13-14)

I don’t agree with this distinction particularly, but one thing that comes to mind is that I so often associate counterpoint with tension and resistance, whereas polyphony, in my mind, feels less antagonistic (see my recent post on this). Adorno talks of Bach’s music being properly contrapuntal because it ‘resists harmonic listening’. Which is to say that harmonic listening needed to exist beforehand in one form or another in order that it be resisted. The real sense of goal-oriented harmonic motion that emerged with the tonal system in the 17th and 18th centuries in this sense was indispensable for the particular way Bach-style counterpoint functions, and perhaps for counterpoint as such to emerge as a particular concept of its own.

Of course I’m not going to ‘go tonal’ in order to reclaim counterpoint, but I think this point about goal-orientation, cadence, and so on has to be thought about for a new approach to counterpoint. In general terms I feel parametric processes come to partially fill the role of the old tonal directionality. Of course multiple parametric processes neither produce a simple equivalent to ‘harmonic listening’ nor its ‘resistance’ (there’s no way to recreate the organic system that was tonal harmony), but there is a sense in which individual processes can be perceived as resisting global processes, as much as resisting other individual processes. These parametric processes, and I use Ferneyhough’s idea of ‘fuzzy parameters’, of course could be anything from intervallic or directional, to rhythmic, timbral, representational, historical, or intensity, morphology, etc.

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