A Case for Contour: A Clarification

By Nicholas D. Lewis


“This is nothing but random noise.  A baby stomping around on a piano could do this.  It’s like the Jackson Pollock of music”, so said a good friend of mine about the sixth piano sonata by Russian composer Ustvolskaya.  And indeed, many friends of mine have said similar things upon hearing the piece, and they have all been dead wrong. Many of you may remember Ustvolskaya from my previous article, “What’s Important In Music?”, and many of you may also think I went off the deep end talking about the importance of contour. I am going to hit on some key questions that have been raised about the main idea presented, and also dispel the myth that avant-garde music is “random” in the process.  Today you are getting to get an earful of thinking aloud.

Maybe the 6th sonata wasn’t the best thing to show my friend at first.  After all, it is one of her ‘messier’ late pieces where the counterpoint evolves beyond single notes to tone clusters.  To give my friend the benefit of the doubt, the piece probably does just sound like random banging to most people.  But that doesn’t mean that it is.  This piece is fascinating, well constructed, and original.

One of the most interesting things about the piece is that you can hear the ‘consonances’ peeking through those clusters and severe dissonances after a while – part of it almost sounds like F# major to me. More than in her earlier pieces, I’m strongly reminded of Webern by her thematic subjects – a minor second in one octave plus a major second in the other, and she builds from there.  Analysis of the piece reveals that a lot of the chromatic lines in the piece are derived from that thematic subject.  Immediately this reveals that the piece cannot be “random”.

Another thing that makes this piece so fascinating is that the writing is so minimal.  It is exactly as much as it needs to be, no more and no less, and completely freed of any trappings of ornamentation or phrasing that even a lot of modern music pursues.  It is blunt, hard counterpoint.  The ‘harmonies’ that result from it are secondary; we only hear any of it as harmonic because we are inundated with harmony from other music.  The tone clusters are not harmony and are not really separate notes.  I almost have to introduce the term “macro-note”, because it’s treated as one tone and moved around in a unit; it’s not separated or constructed.  It’s an atom.

Her sixth sonata – and her music in general – is basically anti-harmonic; she breaks off anything that could possibly resemble a phrase, and there are no cadences in her music.  And this realization is what brought me to my original article, but I I did not explain myself well enough.

In Ustvolskaya’s sixth sonata, one starts to see the basic structure of a phrase, including contour and cadence, as a result of the necessity to follow through with certain harmonic prerequisites, and this is carried over into most modern music distorted beyond normal recognition.  Xenakis, for instance, uses phrase/cadence structures in most of his pieces, and only a minority of them really break down beyond the level of the recognizable phrase.  Yet they still sound so alien – it’s an incredibly flexible idiom, I suppose it seems that way to us because it is so human.  We instinctively think of music as consisting of a pull between tension/resolution, even the most simple rock music has it, a ‘settling’ of one particular key, and on the level of shape or contour.  Most avant-garde music also has it: Stockhausen,Ligeti, Penderecki, Varese (of course), and even Boulez (especially the second piano sonata).

I am talking about a more basic necessity than something harmonic, as the term tension/resolution is usually applied – it goes much, much deeper than that.  And this is what I only hinted at in my past article.

Ustvolskaya approaches it from the opposite direction: she deliberately creates counterpoint and voice leadings that follow some of Dmitri Tymoczko’s ‘rules of tonality’ (move by short distances).  But that counterpoint is freed from most of the trappings it has traditionally had in Western music. It doesn’t usually create any kind of voice-leading resolution, and there’s certainly no harmony to help you out; she writes so concisely in that absolutely nothing is drawn out at all.  It is as though she decided to take one key element out of the Western classical tradition – counterpoint – and develop it in a vacuum, reducing it so much that barely anything else remains beside it, each note sounds pure and concentrated.  Free. (paradoxically, since each one is placed precisely and firmly by the counterpoint).

There are very, very few composers who have ever been able to free themselves from human music enough to look on it as something of an outsider and manipulate it with full consciousness of what they are doing.  Cage may have been one, and Ustvolskaya was one of the few others – one of the only who could really stand untethered by the music that came before her, even though she borrows from it.

The extreme avant-gardists were really much more tethered – for the most part, they were trying to create something as different as they could, to explore a completely alien soundworld.  But most of that means doing something totally different from what a ‘normal’ human composer would do.  Therefore they are still reliant on the music that came before them for a sort of anti-inspiration.

And that is a discussion for another day.