On Exposition, Harmony & Schoenberg

While working on my play this morning, I’m overhearing the rhythm in the voice of a neighbor, independent of the meaning of his words as he describes (as if communicating valuable information to a genie inside the red cell phone he holds against his ear as he parades back and forth across the driveway outside my window). I recognize him by this voice I often hear in late morning after the noise of commuters dissipates, leaving our suburban street in restful peace, interrupted only by the efforts of the odd landscaper or two, home repairers, song birds and a migrating flock of parrots that troops regularly between Balboa Park and Del Mar.  My neighbor’s stories are steeped in syntax of an era that I feel hasn’t had the luxury of retrospect to define itself, a work in progress, like my play.

Unfortunately, this morning his tale reminds me that the fate of people I love is forecast by current events (notwithstanding that an obsession with knowing how things began could obscure an interest in how they may end). If by understanding how events today are consequences of previous events, I might be able to alter the course of history for the next step of time, this knowledge could be important, albeit action is essential and for me this is in the domain of defining in media the era for itself and in that respect, at least, I am self-defined as an artist, regardless of the medium I employ.

An artist isn’t defined by the medium. I found the following paragraphs in Arnold Schoenberg’s book, Structural Functions of Harmony: 

“The composers of the Romantic period believed that music should “express” something. As so often in preceding periods, extra musical tendencies, such as poetic and dramatic subjects, emotions, actions and even philosophical problems of Weltanschauung (philosophy of life) had become influential. These tendencies caused changes in every feature of the musical substance. Alterations in the constitutions of chords decisively changed the intervals of the melodies and also resulted in richer modulations; the rhythms and dynamics of the accompaniment, and even of the melody, symbolized their extramusical objects instead of deriving from purely musical stimuli. The origin of these new features may be debatable aesthetically, if not psychologically; however, whatever the source of the musical inspiration may have been, it resulted in great developments.”

(He’s looking at the forms of musical innovation as a logical expression of philosophic intention.)

“In descriptive music, the background, the action, the mood, and the other features of the drama, poem or story become incorporated as constituent and formative factors in the musical structure. The union thereafter is inseparable. Neither the text nor the music conveys its full significance if detached from its companion. Their union is an amalgamation comparable to an alloy whose components can be separated only by complicated processes.”

(He means, you may tease out the way parts interact for analysis but the piece is more than the sum of the parts and there are features that make no sense at all out of context, yet they are the essential content in the communication. (A nose evokes a face.)

“Drama and poetry are greatly inspiring to a composer. But much of what they evoke on the one hand, they revoke on the other. A melody, if it followed the dictates of its musical structure alone, might develop in a direction different from that in which a text forces it. It might become shorter or longer, produce its climax earlier or later—or dispense with it entirely—require less striking contrasts, much less emphasis or much less accentuation. Besides, the text is frequently so overwhelming in itself as to conceal the absence of value in a melody.”

(The composer cleaves to the direction of the story in much the same way as lovers respond to each other.)

“These extramusical influences produced the concept of extended tonality. Remote transformations and successions of harmonies were understood as remaining within the tonality. Such progressions might not bring about modulations or the establishment of [tonal] regions. They function chiefly as enrichments of the harmony and, accordingly, often appear in a very small space, even in a single measure. Though, referring them to [tonal] regions may sometimes facilitate analysis, their functional effect is, in many cases, only passing, and temporary.”

(“Tonality” in this sense is analogous to the listener’s musical expectation. Extended tonality is a relationship with this expectation; extending it depends on it by using it in a way that doesn’t limit it.  “Region” is a term of art in Schoenberg’s lexicon; it refers to the dominion of a central tone around which all other tones relate according to their harmonic interaction with the central tone.)

Schoenberg continues this discussion by providing illustrations of his proposition from Wagner’s Tristan, Brahms’ C-Minor String Quartet and Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy (D Minor). Three years ago, I wouldn’t have understood what Schoenberg wrote, nor why his classes at UCLA, like those of Lubitsch were crowded with visitors. He’s explained in this way the evolution of music in our culture over the last two centuries and it applies not only to the realm of Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky, Cage and Ives but also, oddly enough, Kanye West, Madonna and Metallica and more understandably, Miles, Monk, Mingus and less relevantly, Springsteen, Cash and Burl Ives.

In describing this relationship between musical expression and the uses to which music is put, a subtext of Schoenberg’s discussion relates to the genetic memory of all survivors of the holocaust and their descendants (a circumstance I share with Schoenberg). We are sensitive to bigotry, we know intuitively that the holocaust was the symptom of an economic problem. We know the governmental changes adopted here in my country to protect the rights of individuals in the 1930s were economic strategies and we know that expansions of the voting franchise and civil liberties are meaningless if these economic measures are subverted or abandoned and that the expansion of populations globally compound this problem and we know that bigotry and xenophobia motivate and channel economic inequity through mob behavior and this is why it is scary to me that yesterday, the Director of the World Bank publicly acknowledge the obvious: that global warming leads to battles over food. That frankly states the stark reality behind changing the name of the defense department to “homeland security”.

Schoenberg was writing about autonomous music, not commercial music, however, commercial music in media, like that of John Williams, for instance uses forms, phrases and musical expressions “borrowed” from descriptive music of earlier autonomous music. Autonomous means literally that it is not intended to sell cars or induce hypnotic suggestions in dark theaters. That it can be used for this purpose is amply illustrated by Lily Reifenstahl’s use of Richard Wagner’s music in Triumph of The Will and that it is used for this purpose is easily gleaned from a text book on conventional harmony.

Schoenberg, who I feel is the most highly respected genius of music of all those who emigrated to my country to escape Nazism in central Europe, refused all invitations to write music for movies and there is no doubt in my mind that this was a composer with the talent to move the mountain to Mohammed, musically, equivalent in some ways to Debussy, although he might blush at this comparison. That he refused to do movie music is important and relevant.

What is the responsibility of the media that shapes the core values of our civilization, if not to re-invigorate the population with a will to demand that democratic government take responsibility for protecting the needs of those with least power? Was this not what Reifenstahl imagined was her purpose in creating the dramatic myth of the 3rd Reich? She was effective, too; the problem was that she promoted values that were exploited by men and institutions like Goebbels and Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan. And why should Schoenberg trust the government of my country? Had we not allowed Henry Ford to operate factories that built tanks for Hitler? Had we not put our Japanese citizens into concentration camps? Had we not dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima? Should he trust democracy with a gullible electorate of cupidic people vulnerable to propaganda? Under the circumstances, it would have been foolish and after witnessing the assassination of John Kennedy and the war in Viet Nam myself, I feel Schoenberg should be respected as much for his political foresight as for his comprehension of music.

And now? Otherwise respectable people speak about democracy as if its a choice over other forms of government. It’s not. Human beings are by definition responsible for their own fates and the only kind of government that recognizes the possibility of this is one in which the individual’s voice is relevant. Extrapolating from this, regardless of the size of the global population, a governmental structure in which each individual has a relevant voice is one in which the governing institution is democratic, local and relatively small. Large central governments of great power are enabled by information technology but this doesn’t make them effective in terms of economic equity and in fact, they are not only more prone to abuse but also, size means abuses are on a horrendous scale. A large centrally governed democracy is an oxymoron.

But there’s another issue because large populations are dependent on media and the virtual relationships that media empowers and when media is owned and operated by commercial enterprise, those relationships are shaped by priorities of the commercial sponsor.

It’s obvious that, for media to be true to its purpose of invigorating political will for governmental responsibility, the core values promulgated in media can’t be those defined by the needs of advertisers nor by public sector agencies, especially of national governments with no real connection with people and especially not governments that are themselves owned by commercial interests and industries that have priorities in conflict with the will for both individual welfare and governmental responsibility. Moreover, the values promulgated in responsible media must be somehow coherent with local accountability. And this is notwithstanding that, as Schoenberg points out, the content and the delivery must be aesthetically consistent, interesting and appealing to the audience.

If this is what we will require of media going forward, that is, if promulgating core values that help ensure human life is to survive on this planet and my grandchildren are to have grandchildren, then my role as a student and a teacher includes this concern.

It appears that the future of life on this planet would improve, could we remove commercial media, were such a thing possible. We must acknowledge this, if it is true. Because thought precedes invention,  we must think it. Prescience is simply weighing possibilities given what is known and what is suspected. For instance, we know that commercial media has effectively harnessed the power of mob psychology to promote the consumption of goods and activities that results in the world as we have it. There’s no way to change this focus of media that is consistent with commercial priorities, however, as battles for food occur everyday in communities in my country, it’s easy to see that the symptoms of economic deprivation are exasperated by media that is focused on conditioning viewers to equate their self esteem with ownership of consumable status symbols and coincidentally, also fosters dissatisfaction with life in many and hostility toward those who appear to be doing better and have reason to fear those who are less fortunate.

Because the task of responsible media requires the consideration of who is adversely affected, there is the question: whom among my country’s population are economically deprived? Who are the individuals that are defeated in their attempt to be responsible for their lives and those of their loved ones and/or who are resigned to the idea that they can’t be so responsible because they can’t afford to? It’s a growing number that includes members of a previous working class that are now unemployed due to labor market globalization, age disqualification and the extinction of industries that depended on finite natural resources, such as, fish, coal, steel, and lumber and the mechanization of agricultural and other processes. Increasingly enlarging this group are the aging population, who are now out of synch with archaic policies of employment and “retirement” and whose circumstances are often further debilitated by the encouragement of mobility that weakens the anchoring of relationships in communities and all of this together creates a permanent and growing marginalized under-class of unemployed and largely unemployable people over 50 that are costly to support. They are most of us. They are the audience.

You can thus understand why I can watch an interview with David Simon, who knows all this and quite frankly confesses, “hey, look, I’m ok, I sold a show to HBO, my checks come in the mail regularly” with some amusement, as well the conversations of other beneficiaries of a successful career performing and producing media that of course, haven’t crossed the line in any meaningful way and I struggle to deter myself from thinking, “so f—g what?” I was shocked when I first heard Groucho Marx sing, Show Me A Rose, now I sing it myself now as my neighbor has retired to his stucco semi-fortress and I can work again.