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  • Trying to rescue music composition from modernism

    Oh good grief! I've just found a YouTube channel in which a 'music educator' tries to link music composition with objects in Paul Klee paintings! Or some such weirdness. Has music composition not been harmed enough already by the grotesque and noxious absurdities of modernistic theories and 'systems'?

    This particular YouTuber's channel had a seemingly promising list-title:– "Pythagoras and the music of the future." Well, apart from going down the hackneyed and deeply rutted old path of expounding on the relevance of harmonics or "partials" to music, he has yet to post the concluding video in his list. I won't be holding my breath.

    Scholars disagree about where and when in history a series of pure perfect fifths was first used as a basis for musical pitches. Was it in Greece, China, Africa? And I'm still fascinated by an account I read somewhere about Chinese music theorists having determined that people can't readily enough remember and recognise tonal relationships beyond 5 notes in the series – hence the pentatonic scale, which could perhaps be called the most democratic of all scales.

    In 2001, soon after I first began exploring and experimenting with musical pitch systems, I tuned my string synthesiser precisely to Just Intonation. The thing I came to notice about that "scale" was that it gave rise to horrible feelings of musical 'claustrophobia' - I wanted desperately to modulate out of its vice-like grip but felt trapped. Great for double-stopping, and perhaps for some purely modal plainchant or folk songs; but as a scale for a symphony orchestra, forget it. That's when I started realising Dr Helmholtz was seriously wrong about the tunings of scales used by orchestras.

    I also spent many hours seeking prominent relationships between 2 notes, by sweeping the pitch of one of them very slowly without referring to their objective pitch measurements, just listening. In this way I discovered purely empirically that the Pythagorean major 3rd has a very clearly 'cheerful, positive and bouyant' feel to it; yet this was objectively measurable at a ratio (81/64) distinctly different (by a syntonic comma, about 21.5 cents) to that of the JI major 3rd (5/4) which by comparison felt somewhat more sedate, dignified and stern.

    Long story short, I became extremely curious about the preference that humans all over the world have had for at least the past 25 centuries, for the numerically and harmonically awkward ratios of some Pythagorean intervals, over the numerically simpler and harmonically cleaner ratios of Just Intonation. After much contemplation, a theory came to me:– we need convenient 'escape routes' in music, just as we need, now and then, to interact with people outside our home and most immediate family circle. For centuries, musical "modulation" has offered us those excursions and escapes.

    But what have the various modernistic theories and systems of composition brought to music? Largely, these involve taking the idea of escape to absurd extremes. It seems these modernistic compositions expect us to have no intimate or familiar relationships whatsoever; everyone, every place and every situation we encounter must be strange to us; we cannot ever love, become comfortable or familiar with anyone, any place or any situation. It seems the ideal to which we must aspire is to be homeless, hopeless and helpless. And what's even worse, we are continually told we should embrace these bright, shiny, modern ideas; leave behind the outdated, irrelevant and worn-out music of the past; and afford the maximum possible opportunities and support for the selfless and heroic avant-garde who are moving our music onwards and upwards into a future that nobody should shy away from or fear. Suuure.

    Modernity, as a five century epoch in the west, was supposed to have started slipping into history some time around the mid 1970s. And for many architects, that change really started to happen. Modernism - the intellectual and ideological 'modelling' of modernity - had become a liability - even a disease - in western cultures. And unfortunately there was a strong ideological counter-movement against the natural passing away of modernity. What is now called "postmodernism" has certainly not helped to free us from the ills of modernity; it has merely extended modernism in a new and elaborate disguise, and brought ever more virulent and culturally harmful ills with it.

    So it's hardly surprising to find that the various modernistic theories and systems for music composition are still holding sway to this day. And it's not hard to surmise that they're being kept alive and 'relevant' by a covert modernist rump - probably calling themselves 'postmodernists' – who are experts at disguise, deception, manipulation and gaslighting, and also of course bereft of the human qualities necessary for the design of narratives that speak the language of human affects and emotions. Their day is done. We now must move ahead or we risk even worse and possibly irreparable damage to more than our music culture. Identify the culprits, ignore their cunning snake-oil sales pitches and, by hook or by crook, nudge them out of the way.

    Many architects have managed to change their art and craft since the 1970s. I suggest any student of composition today would benefit from seeking out and studying the difference in truly postmodern architecture.

    Another suggestion is to lobby DAW and especially notation-based DAW developers hard about putting Pythagorean intonation into their DAWs.

    Revive Pythagorean intonation! Equal temperament has become, for far too many people now, like an ultra processed food. It's high time we got back to the real, whole 'food' ingredients of music.