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Harmony Studies, 2008

Harmony Studies, 2008 (Introduction to “Harmony Studies”, a seminar held by the artist at the Accademia dello Scompiglio, Tenuta dello Scompiglio, Capannori, Lucca, 2008)

Harmony Studies

Notes by Alfredo Pirri

From Wikipedia:

The term ‘harmony’ refers to the branch of musical theory which studies the “vertical” (simultaneous) aspect of sounds, their construction into chords, and their tonal function. Harmonies are frequencies which affect the harmonic content of sound and give them their ‘colour’ (timbre).

In the 20th Century

Theories of harmony at the start of the 1900s are concerned with, on the one hand, finding a rational foundation to the expansion of musical language, which was at this point in full development; on the other hand, an awareness begins to arise regarding the widening gap between traditional theories of harmony and the praxis of classical composers. These two opposed movements are illustrated in two notable treaties: Arnold Schönberg’s Harmonielehre (1911) and Heinrich Schenker’s Harmonielehre (1906). The former can be considered as the last great treaty of prescriptive harmony, the latter as the first modern text on analytic harmony. Over the course of the 20th Century, literature on harmony will continue in this binary: prescriptive treaties (which constitute the majority of these texts, at least until the 1950s), whose remit was to instruct the composer while at the same time adding to his/her sonic templates by adding unusual and complex chord structures; and analytical works (more numerous towards the end of the century) which aimed to equip the musician with instruments for the study of previous works, in the awareness that harmonic language had by this time become an historical phenomenon.

Consonance and Dissonance

In ordinary language, the term ‘consonance’ (from the Latin consonare, ‘to sound together’) tends to denote a set of sounds played together, the resulting sound of which tends to be a soft, pleasant one; ‘dissonance’, on the contrary, tends to point to a strident, sharp result. The two terms do not necessarily denote the whole of these sounds played together, for they can also refer to the effect of the sound itself: we speak, for example, of the dissonance produced by a certain chord. In strictly technical language used in music theory and in particular in harmony, however, the two words have very precise meaning, and the contraposition of consonance and dissonance, together with the principles of tonality, represent the very foundations of Western harmonic theory.
The act of keeping Consonance (the fact of being together, as a community) and Dissonance (the fact of being alone, solitary) together in the same artistic gesture is, for me, the principal concern of harmony as well as its most urgent necessity. The (sometimes violent) impact generated by these two forces gives way to every form of ecological thinking: both thought which is concerned with the analysis of environmental consequences and thought preoccupied with the perfection of artistic form as locus and gymnasium of a battle, together with its visible effects. In both cases we recognise the ideal of beauty at the service of an encounter between the forces combined in an harmonic and dynamic movement, that is on a movement not given by the mere juxtaposition of contrasting factors but, rather, on a perfect (and painful) fusion of contrasting elements.
Yet in this ideal battle, in this aesthetic of a ‘society of glass spheres’, an idea of concordance can also be the product of an authoritarian pact, something fabricated on the outside, humiliated by reciprocal control. The explosive strength of the work of art, with its baggage of solitude and communance, of separation and belonging, takes its shape from the radicality of this risk. The spheres are dispersed, and each sphere rolls into its own direction, but an order is still possible: on condition that a trusting acceptance takes place, of the fragmentary works that each one may be able to propose. In the vision of art (and of the world) as process toward the achievement of a supreme finality, in the vision which sees aesthetics at the service of life, the beautiful and the righteous as fullness of spirit and of body, that is, in any form of ‘utopian beauty’ we find a cohabitation of fascination and horror.
I recall having travelled, years ago, to the Monte Verità: Julian Beck was reading the manifesto of anarchy in what used to be Michael Bakunin’s home, for Nam June Paik who was filming him on video. During the reading, I could ‘see’ ghosts of men and women dancing in the forest. Naked bodies whose desire was to be at one with nature; nature which, at the time, was wild: these were the bodies of the first nudists, who were contributing to the birth of Nazism and to its ‘utopian’ purity founded on the identity of blood and earth.
Art should be able to conjugate solitude and sociality, to provoke a friction which, in turn, can produce energy: what to do with this created energy, if and how should we apply it to something, should we or shouldn’t we set it into motion? A solitude in which art may be able to accomplish itself without a feeling of guilt, an art able to speak of a harmony which no longer derives from the general, but from the specific, from the person, from the artist. Here, I don’t refer (or not solely) to the personal, physiological solitude of every human being, but to disciplinary solitude, which leads us to, yes, dialogue between genres and practices, but which also keeps intact out character, our environment, our specific universe of representation. A total openness, yes; but one which washes up again upon the shores of discipline, rather than losing itself in the indistinct realm of a diffused aesthetics.
The challenge of ‘formation’ resides precisely in the challenge of transmitting the energy that has been produced; because it refers to giving form to suggestions, and to making evident all of those actions which make plausible a form and give a form its right to exist. In a sense, the act of ‘forming a form’ is an act of (almost) civic responsibility: ‘almost’ because, even if a form takes its place within the civic, it isn’t within the civic that its destiny will live out and be exhausted. Quite the opposite: because of dispersion, because of waste, because of the excess of language and sense, art projects itself (both in time and in space) away from the preordained destiny which each and every era attempts to assign to it. It reveals itself to us in a synthetic gesture, in the result of the exchange between disciplines, and, at the same time, displays the sudden breakage of all relationality. A gesture which is, at once, an adventurous one (a libertine, donjuanesque gesture) and a monogamous one.
We must be given (and we must give) the freedom to keep experimenting while at the same time speaking to a vast, popular audience; and this freedom is the freedom to never interrupt, not even for a second, the breakage of language which is at one with its being for everyone.

Rome, November 1st 2008

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