April 4th 2020

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COVER STORY The world has changed: Now for the new order

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Move to curtail underage online porn epidemic

CANBERRA OBSERVED ScoMo's delicate balancing act in extraordinary times

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Time and timing are crucial to Cardinal Pell's appeal by Peter Westmore

NEW ZEALAND Political divisions polarise across the Ditch

NEW ZEALAND Victorian Road Map smooths way of NZ anti-life clique to abortion 'reform'

FREE SPEECH Intolerance brigade at UQ attacks professor of Law

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Victoria lifts moratorium of gas exploration

CHINESE HISTORY The Soong Dynasty: Three sisters who rules China

LAW AND SOCIETY Guilt by accusation: The kangaroos are roaming freely through Australia's legal system

GENDER POLITICS Dr Quentin Van Meter's Australian talk is opening eyes in the U.S.

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Australia is not safe in the borderless globalised world

SHOPPING AND SOCIETY The Ubermensch in the aisles

MUSIC We seem to have lost the point of counterpoint

CINEMA The Current War: Industrial miracle workers

BOOK REVIEW A dark trade that continues unabated worldwide

EBOOK READ THIS Both sides to this old story



NATIONAL AFFAIRS Use detention centres to help deal with covid19 epidemic

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Justice at last: Cardinal Pell set free

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We seem to have lost the point of counterpoint

by David James

News Weekly, April 4, 2020

The greatest achievement of Western music, and something that distinguishes it from all other traditions of music, is counterpoint: the simultaneous use of multiple melodies. It was made possible by a 17th-century invention called the well-tempered scale, whereby pianos or harpsichords were tuned in such a way that it became possible to play music in all the major and minor keys without it sounding out of tune. This was done by tempering, or averaging out, the tuning of all 12 notes so that they were not perceptibly “out of tune”.

Musicologist John Ahern, writing in First Things, defines counterpoint as the accumulation of multiple melodies, which once meant the same thing as ‘harmony’. “In true counterpoint, all the sound created is produced by people singing or playing melodies. If we lived several hundred years ago, we would say that ‘harmony’ is what joins and holds together those melodies, their counterpoint, in a pleasing fashion.”

Sadly, that achievement has been largely lost – much like many other precious things in the Western tradition. Songwriters in popular music typically pen a melody, and then add harmony in the form of chords rather than further melodic accompaniment. The loss of true counterpoint has two aspects: it means that the music is less melodious, and there are fewer layers. There is just the melody and the chords plunking away in the background.

There is some justification for such an approach in non-classical styles. Much of the singing in rock, pop, jazz and blues involves playing with the pitch to create emotional effect. Listen, for example, to country singer Johnny Cash’s toying with tuning to create his sorrowful sound. That kind of tuning variation cannot co-exist with other voices also doing the same; the result would be chaos. To work, there has to be straightforward backing, such as a strummed guitar.

On the rare occasions when pop music has used contrapuntal effects, the result has been compelling, even with performers who are otherwise trivial. The Beach Boys’ song, Good Vibrations, has suggestions of contrapuntal layers in the chorus; and the end of their classic God Only Knows is a canon.

More recently, Cold Play’s song, When I Ruled the World, uses some contrapuntal string work that is effective. Even the entirely forgettable Australian duo The Veronicas (or rather their arrangers) used some limited but effective contrapuntal string work in their song Untouched.

In classical music, counterpoint has sputtered along. It largely died in 19th-century Romanticism – most composers from this era were keen to emulate the expressive power of Beethoven yet they largely ignored his contrapuntal genius and so largely failed in that endeavour.

Without Beethoven’s balance and ability to create multilayered melodic shape, they were left with force devoid of profundity. Instead, at their best they tended to produce chordal textures, which has hints of a well-orchestrated version of guitar backing (there are exceptions, however, especially Wagner’s exceptional internal voice leading).

Twentieth-century composers have tended to use counterpoint as a technical effect, rather than the foundational principle that it was to Bach and the Viennese classical composers.

Ahern argues there is a broader social meaning of “harmony”. “The contrapuntal idea of harmony implies a different vision of social concord, one in which the various parts retain autonomy but find their fullness in relation to each other and to a certain order that arises from their life in common. ‘Implicit in the term contrapuntal,’ says (American composer and musicologist) Walter Piston, ‘is the idea of disagreement. The interplay of agreement and disagreement between the various factors of the musical texture constitutes the contrapuntal element in music.’ ”

With a few exceptions, such as Samuel Barber’s gorgeous Adagio for Strings, such balance, between concord and discord, has rarely been revived. Serge Prokofiev’s insult to fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky – that his music was “Bach with wrong notes” – was incorrect. Stravinsky’s writing was, if anything, more Mozart with the wrong notes.

Such an accusation is partially true of the 20th-century composer who most skilfully and strongly applied counterpoint: Dimitri Shostakovich. But he only emphasised discord. The result was powerful linear momentum, never repose. Perhaps repose was not possible in his Stalin-dominated world. But it did limit his aesthetic.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm