Harmony Book Hardcover – 15 Apr 2002
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With the publication of this remarkable tome, students of Elliott Carter's music and theorists with an interest in contemporary music, have a detailed guide to understanding the music of a great composer. In addition, Harmony Book is a valuable study of the post-tonal harmonic possibilities within the twelve-note chromatic scale and will be an invaluable resource to serious composers of every style interested in expanding their own harmonic practice.
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I suppose Lacan would have or Zizek would find now something fascinating to say with the indulgences in today's new music,what is it, what does it represent, what incomplete dimension of your unconscious does it reside in.
Perhaps music creativity existing within the realms of the modernist language,post-Ferneyhough is harboring an aesthetic in exile,afraid to come out of its embattled neglected shell, like the intimacy of a Dutch lens grinder,a forgotten art.
Today it is actually more interesting, at least with new music, to discover the creative pathways of a work than the actual work itself,like an elaborate dinner setting where the food never comes(John Tilbury,pianist said that on radio) a new work for much of the time under-rehearsed,and played once,perhaps twice never to be heard again, and never recorded for consumption. And then there are primary new works which the citizens of a free democracy never get to hear at all. This the cause of cultural marginalization, we simply never hear some aspects of the creative spirit,even though the Silicon Valley has fashioned a saturation point of image,icon,aesthetic and place. Someone, some human body politically does decide who will get a Pulitzer,or what new premiere work the Chicago Symphony will play this year. In fact we seldom remember the Pulitzer winner's actual prize music,Can you name the work or even remember a moment from it??we listen more to the opaque cultural power a Prize represents, who cares about the music.Well Habermas said opacity"Undurchsichtlichkeit" is what this age is all about, New Age complaisance.
Carter has received numerous prizes but for his body of work the prizes seem to be arbitrary and marginal, we forget them because he has so many of them,like Oscars,who ever has more than one we forget about. We go(should go) directly toward the creative vigours structural or otherwise to the music, its incessant shapes, and convoluted designs,its virtuosic displays and its long range topologies of poly rhythms and other global durational frames.
The Harmony Book here, (actually Two Volumes sewed into one here)began as a fairly modest endeavor, a practical accounting means, a way to remember certain configurations of tones, or intervallic transformations. No one can remember everything, so Carter began making these large 14 inch long sheets of these tones. All of this creative odyssey is retold within the interview with scholar John F. Link, who has devoted his analytic work to Carter's polyrhythms,and also this Harmony Book.A wonderful interview here with Carter. Volume One is a Catalogue/Synthesis of three note, four note, five note etc chords, and their tranpostions. It seems easier to contemplate these chords here as 1+2=3, or 3+2=5, for one isolated tone then followed by 2 more tones can powerfully direct the best,evocative,crisis moments in music, anyones.. This becomes especially relevant when one needs to account for 55 six note chords distribute graciously over the durations of a work,or controlling the succession of 80 or 90 tones followed, staggered, accelerated as the work's discourse unfolds. Volume 2 then is Analysis, a means of looking more deeply into the relationships of all this stuff, the tones, the intervals, the chords. There are moments of pure illumination as in the discussion on Carter's provocative/evocative Night Fantasies or when for instance one learns as in Carter's Third String Quartet, a work shaped by the Duets,One Violin with Viola, One Violin then with Cello, One group more stationary reduced to Five tones, the other Duet ensemble is free to explore all interval rows. I can't help thinking this is how international capital functions,in Argentina, in South Korea in today's neo-liberal mileau.
There are also elaborate yet functional means of simple symbols, as a four note chord represented with a box, four point, then five note pentagon, and six, then what is referred to as the Sigla controlling and defining the entire array of tones,220 intervals and chords with all their additions.... There is a Glossary to help one wade through this fascinating Naming of the Father- game.
There are also nice excerpts from Carter's music that helps embellish a point,much like conceptual menus for creativity. Then there is the dimension as to who or what controls whom. Does one need this Harmony Book to decepher the structural complexity within Carter's oeuvre. Does Carter need his own Book? And the answer is sometimes! for Carter said that he did break the tyranny of these alloted configurations simply to make the music more interesting. I guess that is the last horizon, the music must be interesting, how one got there is also interesting,perhaps more so or less so, it may become part of what we may now think of musical philosophy and the creativity, the last bastion known.