Tag Archives: new music

Dissonance in Music — Beautiful Tension

In 1728, Johann Heinichen published a treatise on composition and thorough bass titled Der General-Bass in der Composition. In this large, rather comprehensive book, he writes:

“Intervals are divided into consonances, or good sounds [Wohlklingende], and dissonances, or evil sounds [Ubelklingend]. The consonances are the 3rd, 5th , 6th and 8va, and the unison is also included. Consonances are deemed as such because when two tones are sounded at once both tones do not annoy [verdreißlich] the ears, but are pleasant. The dissonances are the 2nd. 4th, diminished 5th, 7th and 9th. Even though the dissonances constitute the most beautiful part of present-day/today’s music, they were nevertheless called evil sounding, because they seem to insult the ears with the first striking of the keys. Thus, they inevitably have to be made nice sounding and have to be resolved through certain artistic practices.”

Clearly, he is having a difficult time with the concept of what “dissonance” is. He says that they are Ubel sounding, “evil” or “nasty.” Yet, they also constitute the most beautiful part of music today; that is, when they are treated properly. In simpler terms, he is naming the tension that occurs when two contrasting sounds are put in dialogue with each other. Though it was written nearly three hundred years ago, this tension that he names is what often seems to make music most interesting. It becomes a theme among the great works.

Now, in 2014, I wonder what sort of new music can make use of the form of dissonance (two contrasting sounds are put in dialogue with each other) with a new style. My theorist friend, Christopher Antila, once told me that there are many different kinds of dissonances. For instance, he said, at the end of Shostakovitch’s fourth symphony a C major chord is held for almost two whole minutes. But, he says, because of the musical activity that precedes it is so dissonant without idiomatic 18th century treatment, the C major chord actually sounds “dissonant.” It feel unresolved, as if it needs to finish somewhere.

How can a major chord, that chord which most typically resolves dissonances, be, itself, dissonant? Context, I think, seems to be the answer. It is the resolution of dissonances that seem to be the most satisfying, not necessarily the dissonance, or consonance themselves. Again, this is what I think Heinichen is referring to. So, if it is not the particular intervals themselves, in themselves, that define what “dissonance” is, then tension can be found with a host of new resources.

New resources: such as organ and electronics. I recently gave the Canadian premiere of Morgan’s “Adam’s Fall” for organ and electronics. Mogan has described the piece as “a fixed electronics track comprising of five repetitions of a set of six chords (taken from the closing cadence of Bach’s harmonization of the chorale Durch Adam’s Fall) [which] is played while the organist improvises from a pitch-set derived from those chords. Each recorded statement is fractionally flattened and sharpened in alternation in a converging pattern, creating a dialogue between the absolute pitch of the organ and the variable pitch of the electronics.”  Consequently, the (pre-recorded) chorale sounds more dissonant at, say, 4:42, or 6:09, than its first appearance. These sounds seem to writhe in agony, and yet there is something deeply satisfying about hearing this discomfort in contrast to the pitch set of the organ, which is in tune.

Or, to take a very simple example, look at  the THX quality sound intro.  It is so satisfying when it resolves towards the end.

In a similar vein, Giacinto Scelsi’s In Nomine Lucis employs half pulled organ stops in order to create strange dissonances and harmonics. Because the various organ stops used, the lack of air in each pipe creates a variety of dissonances. And by juxtaposing these dissonances in various ways, a new context is created; thus, some sounds become more dissonant than others. I find the result extremely terrifying yet beautifully satisfying.

What am I saying here? Something quite simple. I think that there is a lot of good music to be made using the tension that occurs between chords which are  “in tune” and chords which are “out of tune.” My idea is not radical. Tuning systems used to be exactly this: some chords sounded purer than others; thus, certain dissonances and consonances also had greater and lesser tensions depending on the context. You can read an introductory book about it here, or you can see a very basic demonstration on youtube, here.

In sum, interesting music seems to thrive on tension. Let’s expand upon tension that has not been exhausted. And let us look for new ways to create tension. Let us continue to make interesting music!