In his short essay “Music and New Music,” Theodor Adorno reminds us that
The very notion that tonality is natural is itself an illusion. Tonality did not exist from the outset. It establishes itself in the course of a laborious process which lasted far longer than the few centuries during which the hegemony of major and minor has prevailed. The music that preceded it, the Florentine Ars Nova, for example, is just as unnatural and just as alien to contemporary ears, as are the works of the late Webern or Stockhausen in the proud ears of the normal listener. The semblance of naturalness which serves to disguise historical relationships inescapably attaches itself to the mind that insists that the rule of reason is unimpaired while surrounded by a world full of persistent irrationality.
As he hints at, the unnaturalness of tonality is easily forgotten. But it is a notion worth exploring. The emergence of an explicitly theorized tonal harmony has as its background Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1722 Traité de l'harmonie réduite à ses principes naturels, an attempt to scientifically formulate grounding principles of music. (All of your music theory textbooks have Rameau’s treatise as their ancestor.) It is no surprise, therefore, that Rameau, later in his life, came around to the notion that the so-called equal-tempered tuning system was the best of those available, as a 12-note scale with equivalent pitches is seems to be a not unobvious outgrowth of his notion of harmony. All of this is, simply, completely consistent with Enlightenment ideology’s attempts to dominate nature through reason and science. Equal temperament, until that point in history, was just one of many many possible temperaments; and it was certainly not commonly used -- its necessarily compromised thirds and sixths (and to a lesser extent fifths) were intolerable to ears for centuries before that. However, the tempting ability to play in all 24 major and minor keys was too much; technological advances in instrument production (most influentially, the invention of the piano), and the elegance of an octave divided into 12 equidistant half-steps were clearly too consistent with the prioritization of rationality to be resisted.
Thus, when Georg Friedrich Haas explicitly pits equal temperament against just intonation (a system of tuning using the sonically pure intervals based on the partials of the natural harmonic series) in his masterpiece from 1999/2000 in vain, he is not simply juxtaposing tuning systems. Though in a group discussion with Dal Niente colleagues Chris Wild and Austin Wulliman I called this opposition a musical metaphor for other things, including the political situation in Austria in the late 1990s (specifically the electoral victories of Jörg Haider’s ultra-conservative Freedom Party of Austria) I’m not sure that’s quite accurate either. In retrospect I think my comments were under-, not over-stated. Equal temperament is not merely a metaphor; rather it is the very instantiation in music of recent Western history, including the Enlightenment impulse and, eventually, the crushing and overwhelming disasters of totalitarianism and war that were its grandchildren in the 20th century. It is a severely systematized, artificial way of organizing sound; it is not “natural,” to paraphrase Adorno, though it’s so familiar that we might think it is (or, rather, forget that it is not); it is, however, “orderly,” to invoke the word Haider famously-controversially used as a vague apologia to Hitler’s employment policies.
To be clear: I am not saying that playing music from the nineteenth century on a modern equal-tempered piano is somehow complicit in fascist ideology. I am saying, though, that un-self-awareness of the nature of our musical materials is equivalent to the way we all thoughtlessly participate in a capitalist system, problems and triumphs in all, every day. To simply claim, as I did before, that Haas’s musical material is a metaphor for something else is to posit a separation between music and the world. My actual opinion is both more and less grand -- that the composition and performance of music is the world, perhaps “merely” part of the world. The thing that Haas’s in vain makes me realize is that every time we play a piano, it is an act that, however subtly, confirms or resists the history that has made us who we are; because the music we play cannot but be a product of that history.
Thus the opening of Haas’s work, a series of ceaselessly swirling arpeggios, scales, and figurations played at a number of pitch and rhythmic levels, all presupposing and relying on equal temperament for their existence, figuratively and literally plunges us into this paradoxical world of rationalized chaos. There is no tonal center, and while the patterns are clearly organized, they are ever-changing. The mood is bewildering and contradictory, like visiting a foreign city for the first time -- there can be no doubt that there are principles, rules, relationships (all deeply complex) at work here, organizing this overwhelming amount of information; but it resists, by virtue of its very scale, your attempt to penetrate and grasp it.
One of the strangest things for performers, is to sense (in a piece they’re playing rather than, say, in personal interaction) a composer struggling with his/her musical material. Especially in new music, where style is constantly being challenged, re-thought, re-written, re-worked, such a struggle is palpable even in the very best works (indeed, it might be claimed that their quality is the result of precisely this struggle). Haas’s solution to this struggle in in vain is unique -- he plunges the music into darkness. It feels like a despairing, throwing-his-hands-in-air gesture, as if he wants to burn the whole structure to the ground and start over from scratch. The music takes on precisely this character. It goes note by note, sound by sound, as if searching, considering, re-considering, eventually settling on the overtone series above the note B in an absolutely electrifying moment where the string instruments seem gravitationally pulled there.
Emerging from the darkness, the music feels purged. At first tentative, it gradually gains strength as a series of chords based on the overtone series. Actually, “chords” is a word that makes too many assumptions -- it is, rather, simply a presentation of the partials of the overtone series by the instruments. The intonation has been freed of its equal-tempered flaws, and this is hardly metaphorical. The musicians themselves, the humans on the stage, are liberated from their slavery to a twelve-note system that had circumscribed the music they play and their very instrumental techniques. They now make adjustments solely to play in tune, rather than, say, to master some sort of contextless orchestral excerpts. The overtone chords come across (whether they are or not) as composed in a completely unsystematic manner, radically free. The musicians play high partials, they play low partials, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, loud, soft, articulations of all sorts. It is downright utopian, to use Austin’s word -- it is as if no structuring principle is necessary in a post-equal-tempered world. Music can be a constant celebration of the harmonic beauty of existence. Particularly when the brass instruments (two horns and two trombones), bring forth a succession of descents and ascents of the overtone series with striking nobility, it is hard not to feel it as a sort of ur-music of primordial power, of a certain hair-standing-on-the-back-of-the-neck “naturalness” that Adorno is so careful to warn us against. Perhaps the the right word is “sublime."
Yet something goes wrong. How is this possible given this completely desirable state of affairs? And how does it happen? A climax on the C overtone series seems abortive, and a similar one on the G overtone series pits winds against strings as they struggle for rhythmic unity. They (literally) drift apart (pitch-wise) gradually. Equal-tempered tritone sonorities from the work’s opening return via the entrance of the accordion. (Tangentially: I wonder if the use of this instrument is a deliberate irony, the roots of the word "accordion" being in Italian and German terms related to a "concord of sound" or "to tune an instrument.") The brass bring back their utopian sounds, but now sometimes they play the same notes conflicting as part of different overtone series. Insidiously, snake-like, the swirling scale figures from the work’s very opening pages sneak back into the texture. Our utopia has gradually become undone, and we have hardly been able to notice the process as it has taken place. Stuck on audibly competing harmonics, the music again is plunged into darkness a second time.
While the truly terrifying 12 minutes that follow are a musical battle between equal temperament and just intonation, the winner is a foregone conclusion. A triumphant, prolonged standing on the C overtone series (surely invoking all of the teleological implications of the C major tonality in Western music since Beethoven's 5th symphony) collapses into tritones as soon as the bass note slips to B, the very pitch that had prompted the utopian section. This is music that has contained seeds of its undoing from the start. The response from the ensemble is, quite simply, to freak out.
After the emergence from this second round of darkness, the harmonic series initially remains intact, orchestrated as a series of huge block chords, descending slowly in register. However, it soon begins an acceleration that seems infinitesimally slow; and its pitch-wise descent is revealed to be a series of enormous Shepard scales -- a perpetual illusion that the music is getting lower in register when in fact it comes back to the same in the same place. The chords gets faster and faster until the pure intonation of the overtone series is no longer sustainable. We have found ourselves back to the swirling equal temperament of the opening. The overtone series emerges again from the brass instruments. And again, the descent and accelerando render the intonation unsustainable. The piece stops abruptly before this can happen too many more times. The implication is that it could simply go on forever; stopping abruptly is really not so very different, it is simply a more stark admission of hopelessness.
While a political metaphor might be clear, if a bit heavy-handed (something like: the perpetually opposed human tendencies towards a reactionary fascism and a hopeful progress are doomed to cycle endlessly, thus there is, in fact, no progress at all), the musical admission is just as despairing: there is, in a sense, no more form. Or rather, the form of the work failed. Or perhaps the composer has given up on it. Better still -- the form is incapable of accomplishing anything with, or solving any problems inherent in, the musical materials that it contains. This could not be more striking in a composer of the Austro-German tradition, in which the teleological forms of the 19th century constitute their musical inheritance (explicitly so in Haas, who has often engaged the music of his classical and romantic forebearers in his own). While the innovations in form in post-war central European music are diverse and extensive, few works seem question their project so radically -- or more precisely, offer an answer that it is so decisively negative.