What is this that stands before me? A genealogy of dissonance, 1322-2015

Adapted from a talk given at Nottingham Contemporary in December 2011, as part of an exhibition of Klaus Weber’s work. 

Nottingham: 2011

Hanging from the ceiling of Nottingham Contemporary art gallery is a giant windchime. With two fans angled towards it, it is tuned to emit only dissonant intervals and spreads a palpable unease throughout the gallery.

‘Long Dark Windchime (Arab Tritone)’ is a work by the German artist Klaus Weber, and forms part of his solo exhibition ‘If you leave me I’m not coming’. It’s a powerful piece: the carefully tuned steel tubes producing a rich sound which oscillates gently as it spreads throughout the gallery. Among the dissonant intervals it emits is the tritone. An interval spanning six semitones, it is also known as the ‘diabolus in musica’ and has long been associated with Satan: rumours persist that it was banned by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages.

Weber, though, is keen to dispel a straightforward reading of his work as being about evil: speaking at the launch of the exhibition, he stated that he saw the windchime as a hopeful work that might disrupt the usual operation of our society.

But how is it that something so ominous can be seen as hopeful? Can we really hear dissonance as something related to positive social change? 

Birmingham, Friday 13th January, 1970

Four young men release their debut album. There’s pouring rain, thunder, and an ominously tolling bell. Then – from nowhere – an enormous, crushing riff, and an immortal opening line. “What is this that stands before me?”

Appropriately enough (though unbeknown to guitarist Tony Iommi), the first two notes of the riff (G and C#) form a tritone, an interval that will go on to become a well-worn trope in heavy metal. (Slayer will even go so far as to name their seventh album Diabolus in Musica.) It’s loved by metallers because it sounds dark and because of the pantomime-ish shock value its Satanic connotations bring to a record. But they aren’t the first to associate it with evil.

Rome, 1322

A papal decree is issued expressing outrage at the increasing prevalence of polyphony in sacred choral music. Of particular concern is the tendency for singers to ‘deprave’ melodies by injecting ‘dissonant’, rather than ‘consonant’ polyphonies. The purpose of the decree is to ‘banish those methods, nay rather to cast them entirely away, and to put them to flight…far from the house of God’. Only on feast days or in the ‘solemn celebrations of the Mass’ will the use of ‘some consonances’ be permitted. It is polyphonic dissonance that is banned, then, and not the tritone per se.

This decree reflects a long running suspicion of dissonance in Catholic thought. As far back as the second century the Roman philosopher Gaudentius warned against dissonant intervals because ‘when they are produced simultaneously…[they] never seem to be the same in any part of the musical sound [and] do not show any evidence of blending with each other’.   Dissonant intervals not sounded simultaneously (including the tritone) were also frowned upon by the church, though I can find no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that they were ever subject to an outright ban: indeed they featured in choral and instrumental sacred music throughout the Middle Ages, with the tritone often used to signify Satan or the crucifixion of Christ. They remain subject to strict rules, however –  typified by Prosdocimus de Beldemandis’ Tractatus de Contrapuncto of 1412 – which orders that ‘if the listener has been disturbed by the harmonies in the course of the counterpoint, at the end he must be inspired with harmonies more dulcet and amicable by nature’.

This distrust of dissonance was not exclusive to the Catholic Church. In Ancient Greece it was seen as a threat to ‘harmony’ – which was understood not as the pleasant organisation of musical sounds but as a principle of cosmological and social order – a view also evidenced in the writings of the Chinese historian Sima Qian who – around the 2nd Century BC – claimed that ‘music honours harmony; it spreads spiritual influence and is in conformity with heaven: when the rites and music are clear and complete, heaven and earth fulfil their normal functions’.

This ‘pleasant organisation’ has traditionally been understood as ‘consonance’ and has close ties with the concept of ‘unity’: in the 13th Century John of Garland argued that polyphonic consonance referred to a group of notes heard as a single sound, whilst in dissonant combinations the tones could not be aggregated into a coherent whole.

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The fear of dissonance, then, stems not so much from the fact that it sounds in some sense evil or ugly, but from the fact that when sounded consecutively, dissonant tones appear unresolved; and when sounded consecutively they appear riddled by disunity. In the words of the musicologist Dane Rudhyar, ‘consonances are static, dissonances dynamic…as long as a dissonance is not resolved into a consonance suspense reigns. Fulfilment [and] satisfaction come as the consonance is sounded’. Consonance, then, is settled and content; and whether peaceful or triumphant it upholds the status quo. Dissonance is emphatically not; it sticks out, refuses to ‘blend in’. It unsettles the status quo.

Music, then, takes on a moral dimension: it is Good when it conforms to the natural laws of harmony and Evil when it does not. But there is nothing ‘natural’ about this moral order: it is promoted by those with an interest in preserving the status quo. Dissonance in music is feared because it might foster social dissonance, and so it needs to regulated by ‘morality’.

New Lanark, 1790-1800

In the late eighteenth century, Robert Owen founds a utopian community in the Scottish mill town of New Lanark. Keen for it develop a sense of unity, he promotes a programme of music and dancing for residents, believing this will provide ‘health, unaffected grace to the body, teach obedience and order in the most imperceptible and pleasant manner and create peace and happiness in the mind’.

In an article on the political and social function of music in New Lanark, Lorna Davison noted that it ‘was almost universally perceived’ by visitors to the community to ‘transform the members of this otherwise very ordinary Scottish factory community in a way so unexepected, remarkable, and noteworthy, into graceful, elegant, happy, and healthy citizens, living together in harmony’ (interestingly, Owen would go on to attempt a similar experiment in Indiana. Its name? – New Harmony).

With consonant music playing an important tole, Owen’s utopia can be seen as one of consonance. His is a dream of finality, of resolution, of the end of struggle: the tierce da Picardie as the End of History.

This seems to forget a key aspect of utopia, however. The term – coined by Thomas More – comes from the Greek for good (eu), no (ou) and place (topos): the good place that is no place. But with Owen, the ‘ou’ is forgotten: utopia becomes the morally good place in which life conforms to universal principles and from which no further improvement can be imagined. Dissonance has been expunged.

Though I have a lot of time for Owen and his experiment at New Lanark, there is something incredibly troubling about his consonant utopianism. Problems of political organisation cannot be resolved once and for all, and attempts to do so require unacceptable levels of hierarchical control (why, we must ask, can the inhabitants of New Lanark not transform their own community?). The consonant utopia becomes a totalitarian dystopia; the happy harmonies of cherubic youths morph into muzak, a sound both mind-numbingly boring and disturbingly authoritarian (‘the security system of the 1970s’, as the Muzak Corporation claimed in their adverts). What place is there for dissonance in this harmonic order?

We need, then, to theorise a utopianism which does not seek an ultimate resolution in harmony; which utilises dissonance rather than consonance as an ordering principle. Perhaps this ‘dissonant utopianism’ might be the ‘peculiar’ kind of hope that Weber ascribed to his dissonant windchime. But where might we find it…?

Vienna, 1924

In an essay entitled ‘Opinion or Insight’, the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg speaks of ‘emancipation of the dissonance’. Surveying the history of western music, he constructs a grand narrative in which musical intervals have gradually shifted in time from being perceived as dissonant to consonant. This, he argues, has reached its logical conclusion in the twelve-tone technique he is pioneering, in which the terms dissonance and consonance – dependent upon each other for their meaning – cease to have any relevance at all. He believes that this new form of music will come to dominate in the future.

Like consonant utopians, Schoenberg believes in an End of History (he is, a Derrida would say, an ‘endist’). But his utopia is not governed by moral principles of consonant harmony. Dissonance is not seen as threatening and is not banished. For him, the twelve-tone technique realises the ultimate triumph of progress over reaction: it is the logical conclusion of the Enlightenment dream. No tones need be excluded from his brave new harmonic order.

Dane Rudhyar – composer, musicologist, spiritualist and friend of Schoenberg’s – recognised the political implications of this, arguing that Schoenberg’s ‘vast and radical attempt at world-regeneration’ creates a ‘dissonant Harmony’ in which dissonance – that which is unstable, that which was previously thought not to belong – is now considered beautiful in its own right. From this he argued that ‘dissonant music is thus the music of true and spiritual Democracy; the music of universal brotherhoods…All democratic units are free and independent; self-sufficient; yet all recognize the Law of the Group, which is in a sense their collective Higher Self’.

There is much to admire in Rudhyar’s claim, but Schoenberg’s ’emancipation of dissonance’ is problematic, and I’ll focus on four reasons why here. Firstly, his grand, emancipatory narrative ignores non-western musics, many of which are centred around what western ears would consider dissonant intervals (a charge which I readily acknowledge could also be levelled at this article). Secondly, the twelve-tone technique (and serialism, which was closely related) threatened to become a hardened law of its own, restricting the ability of composers to experiment with forms, and reducing dissenters to a new position of dissonance. Thirdly, the power to ‘emancipate dissonance’ lay in the hands of a single architect: the composer. Just as Robert Owen saw himself arranging the affairs of the inhabitants of New Lanark, Schoenberg envisaged the composer as a heroic figure creating spaces of freedom: the task of everyone else (the musicians, in this case) was merely to reproduce this order. Fourthly, applying Schoenberg’s musical vision to society would be utopian in the colloquial sense of the word: it would be astonishingly naïve. Socially, at least, dissonance was nowhere near being emancipated in the 1920s. People were – and still are – seen as ‘other’ to the social order, disrupting its harmony due to their skin colour, their religion, their gender, their sexual preferences or their political beliefs. And finally, why does dissonance need to be ’emancipated’? Is it not an integral part of history and struggle? The task should surely be to emancipate it from its associations with Evil, not eradicate the concept altogether. My next historical jumping-off point illustrates this, and perhaps points towards a more satisfactory conception of dissonant utopianism…

Los Angeles: 1941

Duke Ellington is being interviewed about his music. A record of his is playing on a turntable, and suddenly he asks that the needle be reset so a dissonant chord can be heard again. “That’s the negro’s life”, he says.  “Hear that chord. That’s us. Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part”.

With this short statement Duke Ellington shatters any pretence that societal dissonance has been emancipated. Like the note that makes Gaudentius’ chord dissonant, Ellington – as a black man in a deeply racist society – does not fit.

Yet it’s in playing dissonantly that Ellington’s power really comes to express itself. In his music, dissonance is celebrated. It stands not as something to be resolved into harmony; nor as something to be thrown off in the course of a linear history. Rather, it is an expression of utopanism. This is who we are, it says, and we will create joyous sounds from our marginalisation. And through this celebration, the stigma of dissonance – its association with ‘Evil’ – is made ridiculous, preposterous.

Here, then, dissonance becomes overtly political. But how might we convert the utopianism of Ellington’s chord into a utopia? That is, how might the force Ellington creates into a space of social arrangements? What would a dissonant utopia look like?

Utopia: 2015

An occupied warehouse. One of many such occupied spaces that have sprung up across the globe. Hundreds of people live here, organising themselves through consensus decision making and holding property in common. They draw inspiration from utopian communities of the past, but are determined to forge a new way of living without leadership. Cultural activities are important: there’s a gallery, where Weber’s Long Dark Windchime (Arab Tritone) hangs alongside works by community members. And like Owen, these utopians recognise that the performance of music is an important way of ordering their community. Walking round, the visitor is struck by the sheer number of groups making music together: not for an audience, but for themselves.

What kind of music might the visitor to this utopia hear?  All sorts, of course – otherwise it would be a dystopia. But free improvisation might be among the sounds heard. When considered as a practice (rather than as a genre), it suggests an altogether more satisfactory liberation of dissonance: freeing it from moral laws and Eurocentrism, but doing so without the need for a composer to liberate from above. It allows musicians (regardless of ability, training or background) to come together to create music without moral orders determining what can or cannot be played. The music is made with an acknowledgement that no final resolution can – or should – be achieved. The joy is in the process, not the resolution; it exists in a permanent state of flux to which all can contribute.

In this the space of musical improvisation resembles the forms of political organisation which have driven so many global movements in the last fifty years. Without aiming for a predetermined goal, this is a form of organisation which retains a fidelity to the etymology of ‘utopia’, but it’s in a radically different way to consonant utopianism. Following Nietzsche, but this does not mean that it abandons the pursuit of ‘the good’. Rather, it seeks is what might be called an ethical good, which creates new spaces for life and exploration. Dissonance is to be encouraged, for it is from dissonance that we create the new.

Dissonant utopianism does not forget the ‘no’ in utopia’s etymology, however. It acknowledges that utopia cannot be a settled, harmonic state. Rather, it is always constituted by instability – caught like the space between two dissonant notes, it is unresolved, expectant, open to the future.

For Ernst Bloch, the utopian is that which knows the ‘melancholy of fulfillment’ and embodies an ‘ecstatic openness’ to the unknowable future.  Such a claim bares truth to the music theorist Leo Kraft’s statement that ‘the most beautiful sounds…are usually the most dissonant ones’.

So what is this that stands before us? It’s the future, and we must embrace it in all its uncertainty.