Non-tonal Centricity

September 18, 1997

"Letter to the Editor". After receiving the following email message:

Prof. Tipei,

I don't mean to be offensive by my comments, but I wish you would consider
them.  Today you called the brief opera excerpt beautiful music.

Well, it sounded pretty ugly to me.  I don't know that that is bad, I was
pleased that I could tell it was expressing something.  But an art should
also be able to express love and joy.  Early in the class, you said it was
up to us future teachers to make this music more widely understood, if it
is to be understood at all.  However, if we can not see what is beautiful
in it, what impetus is there to extol its virtues to less educated and less
interested audiences?

You know the part you said sounded like birds?  Sounded like pretty mean
ugly birds to me.  Were they supposed to be mean and ugly?  If the were
supposed to be little twittery sweet birds, what happened in the steps from
idea to composotion to performance to listener that changed their

I also wonder about things we have learned so far.  I think it is great
that someone can put the Fibonacci sequence into music, or the golden mean
or whatnot else.  But what good is it if you have to dig into the score to
get it?  What good does that do the listener?  If we are just trying to
bury neat things withing the context of a score, what are we doing other
than making new kinds of crossword puzzles?

For instance, I once heard of a string quartet Brahms wrote shortly after
breaking up with a woman he loved.  After writing the quartet he was
finally able to "let go."  The most impassioned climax of the composition,
also spells out the woman's name in german lettering.  To me, that is great
art. The aesthetic matches PERFECTLY the sentiment revealed in deaper
levels.  I can list other examples for you too.

But when I listened to the examples in Bartok, there was nothing that
SOUNDED fibanacci-like.  ANd so Messiean discovered a new technique for
making modes.  What can he say with the new modes?  You said yourself, the
output of this technique is so pre-determined, that you can't help but
sound like Messiean when writing like that.  SO we discovered a new toy.
But what good is it as art if it does not allow us to more perfectly
express ourselves?

And one more point.  I've heard it said that the point of atonal music is
to abolish the heirarchy of pitch (intervals).  Well fine, but such an act
can not be undertaken arbitrarily.  There are acoustical principles which
govern the consonance and disonance of intervals, it was not a notion
arbitrarily assigned by the creators of tonality.  The invervals within
music already have an heirarchy, like it or not.  One can not simply
declare them to be equal.

What strikes me when I have listened to the Bartok and the Stravinsky, (and
Benjamin Britten for that matter) is not that the piece is unexpressive,
but that which the music expresses (to me) is different from what the text
is about.

These are some of my basic gripes about 20th century music (considering
what little I know).  And I am not even opposed to the music in general, I
simply want to know what is going on.  For my sake, I would appreciate it
if you could respond to some of these comments either over email or in

For the class' sake, I wouldd like request that you teach us also what is
beautiful about the music, not simply what is novel and different.  How
else will we find meaning to teach to others?

Thanks for your patience with my inquires.

we discussed these issues in class. We concentrated on:

and how their meaning has changed in the Western culture during the last centuriesduring the last centuries. We also talked about: with the promise to continue this discussion, and especially the one about the last two points, during the semester.

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