Friday, 25 March 2016

Bitonality and Polytonality

Polytonality and bitonality

This link takes you to the full article on the subject, please let us know if you have any feedback or any questions arising from the topic.


This post introduces Nurtan's thoughts on polytonality in the form of a series of articles forming a guide to the topic.  I found it an informative read and felt like I was being invited to travel across the world with him in his exploration of the topic.



The series of discussion papers on polytonality, bitonality and polymodality featured in this blog are not scholarly papers or extensive instructions on how to compose in a particular style. There will only be a few bookish references and technical detail will be kept to the minimum. The musical examples cited range from well know pieces to fragments of our own compositions.

This raises the question of the utility of this effort. That is easy to answer. Polytonality had a long history in different cultures and probably used extensively prior to music of early renaissance. We hear the traces of this in the folk music of Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Ukrainian and Russian steppes, Northern Persia and India. These folk songs have been transmitted by oral tradition and reflect to a large extent the ease of achieving expressive, emotional content by their use.

By definition, polytonality uses more than one key simultaneously. This is fairly easy to achieve through writing each voice in a different key. However, the selection of the melodies and the choice of keys can get complicated. In addition if the polytonal passages are too complicated, the ear will pick a key and unintentionally hear only that, the music may sound highly ornamented or off key. The polytonal music with three or more tonal centres will be discussed towards the end of this series.

If an entire composition of a section or a passage uses two tonal centres it is called bitonal. depending upon the mode of each key bitonal scales provide a very wide variety of musical language. In general, bitonal sections might be unimodal (for example, each is major, or minor etc.) but there is no restriction on this aspect. Also, the tempered scale of the Western music is not a requirement for the bitonal-bimodal arrangements.

I think the music of the Roman liturgy; Gregorian chant and medieval music are probably the exception rather than the universal in Western musical practice – especially in secular music. The huge influence of the Byzantine Empire on the culture of Eastern Mediterranean regions is undeniable. The examples of the use of polytonality in generating simple polyphony still survive in Armenian, Greek, Kurdish and Turkish multi-instrument folk music. This seems to be continuous from the antiquity through the Greek, Byzantine, Armenian, Ottoman and Islamic heritages.

From the early Baroque through common practice until late in 19th century bitonality was more or less dormant, Composers seeking more a colourful palette started to weaken the rules of common practise tonality; which in turn led to several schools of thought in the harmonic language of the Western music. French Romantic Music of Debussy, Saint-Saȅns, et al. introduced ambiguous excursion (Debussy's Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un Faune starts and ends in E major, but it is all-over the place in between). Arnold Schoenberg introduced serial composition in which the tonality is deliberately destroyed.

One result of this activity is that composers start using bitonality as a means to write expressive and emotionally charged music, Charles Ives: Psalm 67 (1902), Frank Bridge: The Sea Idyll*, Capriccio No1, & No 2 (1908), Béla Bartok: 14 Bagatelles (1908), Igor Stravinski: Petrushka (1911) firmly established the use of bitonality. Later on Darius Milhaud: Saudades do Brasil (1920), Benjamin Britten in his  operas  Billy Budd and Peter Grimes among other composers completely integrated the technique into the  musical vocabulary.

Several scholars and theorists object to the concept of polytonality and present cogent arguments to give the technique other names and attributes. Since the technique survived over 100 years under this name, we present the rose is a rose argument for keeping the name as it is for practical purposes.

* The Sea Idyll was the first piece analysed by us when we started these cross-Atlantic discussions and will be included as this blog progresses. Ken

Before we post another part of the bitonality/polytonality discussion, I would like to share one of the many e-mails sent between us as we explore different possibilities and aspects of extending our composing techniques and understanding of new music (shall we say anything from Debussy to the present day).  I was encouraged to do this by Nurtan as it touches on, and perhaps extends on an aspect of his thoughts and arguments that were covered by Bernstein in his famous lectures.
For those who have heard and want to be reminded of the content of these lectures they are of course available on the net:

to Nurtan
subject: some thoughts after a hospital visit

Yesterday I visited my mother in a hospital in North Wales, the location is a stronghold of the Welsh language and the majority of staff are fluent Welsh speakers, and for many it is their first language.
During my visit some of the medical staff were moving about the ward and I picked up on the term osteoporosis, a condition that affects my mother, and probably the reason why I tuned in to another person's speech.
I gave it little thought until I was driving back to my home and then I realised that I was working with words from three different languages.  There was no effort in exchanging between Welsh and English and knowing the Greek term and its roots made all three languages blend.  I recall Arthur Koestler making the same sorts of observations about the ease with which he could follow conversations in different tongues, so I assume it is a common enough feature.
I took to considering your experiment with major and minor tonalities and the way we hear sounds in combination.  Anthony Burgess wrote in one of his early novels about a character who could hear all 4 parts of a fugue in his head. 
Now I can recreate the sound of a Bach fugue in my head after playing it, sometimes only part of the fugue, and then it does a strange looping back to the beginning, which is rather frustrating!  The question is am I really hearing all the parts?  I don't know for certain as it isn't exactly like listening to a CD, though there are times when the music is particularly vivid.
Similarly, am I hearing two or more distinct languages at once, or is it a rapid alternation between words and their meaning?  When I think about it it isn't just a matter of vocabulary, Welsh has a cadence and stress to the speech quite unlike English.
If our brains can cope with this degree of information, coping with two or more keys in a bitonal piece shouldn't be beyond our listening skills, nor discriminating between various combinations of bitonal chords.  However, I have a certain sense of unease about hearing two tonic chords at once, why is this?  When I am hearing two languages does one take precedence over the other, if (let us say) Welsh was spoken first or more regularly than English would I gravitate to that language?  I am not suggesting that because we might start playing the piano with pieces in C that we would gravitate to that key over all others (don't even start thinking about writing pieces in C and C sharp for lesson one, we might never extract ourselves from that pathway)!  Has equal tuning ensured that we have no particular "home" key in our minds?
How much saturation could we cope with before we decide that there is no sense to the music presented? Does a massive amount of information become a global event that can be contrasted with another? In musical terms we could be talking about Ligeti's "Atmospheres" or Nielsen's "Commotio" or Nancarrow's player piano studies.
If we were discussing rhythm the same issues apply, a change from a crotchet pulse to a triplet crotchet to quaver can be heard as three events or as an acceleration.  We could grade each note in a sequence with a minutely different duration and get a similar effect, but would our ears mark the difference?  Of course one could compose with a legion of different tempi and have three orchestras to perform them, but would we manage to discriminate the material or combine it into a gesture?
Perhaps the question seems trivial, but if the composer has a responsibility to present his audience with coherence rather than chaos these fine lines need some consideration, and I know of no rule book which says where the boundary lies.

Have I taken the analogy too far?
As always I look forward to your opinions,