Chords, harmonies, and other types of music

I’m currently working on a fragment of one of Robert Carver’s 16th century masses, for a music and poetry event in Edinburgh on 24th November. This lush polyphony has led me to think about and read up on counterpoint, harmony, and chords. I have long considered the dominance that chordal harmony has held over peoples understanding of music; for example, Amy Murray’s account of her discussion with an eminent composer on her proposed presentation of the Gaelic songs she had collected out West from unaccompanied singers. In response to his enquiry as to what accompaniment she would use for the songs, she replied:
“none, I think”
“That’s a mistake” said he. “My ear, as I listen, supplies the harmony. But you won’t find them making much of an effect generally unless you give them some sort of a background”. (Father Allan’s Island, p.128)

Of course, he was the one who was out of line, because the old Gaelic singers on Eriskay would not have ever used harmony with these songs, and none of their forebearers in the tradition either. But he, I imagine, was unable to imagine music without “common practice” functional harmony – his ear, he tells us, supplies it, regardless of its appropriateness.

I think that there is a case to be made – perhaps a manifesto to be composed – for a music theory and a music aesthetic of non-chordal, non-harmonic music. It could be a modern equivalent of the work of the Florentine Camerata; Galilei’s Dialogue gives us a useful model of the application of historical research into lost musical traditions informing new developments in performance and composition.

I imagine the first challenge might be nomenclature. The early baroque innovators developed the style that came to be called monody. Perhaps we are more fussy nowadays about terminological exactitude. But this can help define the bounds of what is and is not under consideration.

I would think that the main concern of such a manifesto would be to organise and promote the appreciation of unaccompanied monophony, heterophony, and drone music. It would especially be interested in unaccompanied music – the art of a single performer, which has become somewhat transgressive nowadays, with the ever increasing pressure for collaborations. But not exclusively; heterophony is intrinsically communal music, such as Gaelic psalm singing, or the kind of instrumental performance you might hear at a pub session. And the inclusion of drone music allows us to consider consonant and dissonant intervals.

As a manifesto, our text would of course have to include a critique of the old order – of common practice, chordal harmony, and of counterpoint. It would advance moral and ethical issues and arguments in favour of change.

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