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#12 in Laney’s List

I spent most of my musical life unconvinced by atonal music (music without a key). I dutifully listened to all the landmarks of Schoenberg and Berg. I understood it and could analyze it and even compose atonally, but it just failed to reach me as a listener. Here’s a taste (16 sec):

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It took me years to admit that I simply didn’t like (most) Schoenberg, that I didn’t find it effective as music. I’ve spent a lot of time among people for whom such a statement is evidence of a lack of sophistication, the confession of a triad-hugging simpleton. Whatever.

Schoenberg’s goal was the liberation of music from what he called “the tyranny of tonality,” setting it free from the tired clichés of key and chord and progression. I’m with him in spirit — by the end of the 19th century, Western music was running in some deep, exhausted ruts. But to my ear, Schoenberg took away too damn much. I couldn’t find the motives and shapes and repetitions that are also part of the narrative your ear follows. It’s not that they aren’t there in Schoenberg — do the analysis and you’ll find them. But I can’t perceive them as a listener in the ruins of tonality he keeps burning and re-burning.

Then…I discovered atonal music that WORKS, that friggin’ DELIGHTS me, throwing the tonal center out the window but keeping those other elements of motive and shape and repetition. Now two of my favorite pieces of music in the world — two of the pieces on Laney’s List — are atonal. You’re about to hear one of them.

The first time I heard “Danza del gaucho matrero” (Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy) from Danzas Argentinas by Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) I was a music professor sitting in a student jury exam, the end-of-semester mini-recital required of all music performance majors. The performer was one of our top pianists. I was supposed to write something intelligent about her progress since the previous semester. Instead, I remember being so gobsmacked by the sounds coming out of the piano that I wrote nothing at all.

The movement starts with a dark, grumbling tangle of sound, low on the keyboard, forming no recognizable chords or key. But there is shape and repetition, flying by so fast you have to listen hard to catch it. Here are the first four measures, which are gone in 2.5 seconds:

Listen to just those 2.5 seconds:

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Hear how he groups the notes in sixes, then extends to 12 the third time (blue arrow)?

DOOdle deedle deedle DOOdle deedle deedle 

DOOdle deedle deedle deedle deedle deedle

Then it repeats, with a change:

DOOdle deedle deedle DOOdle deedle deedle 

DOOdle deedle deedle doo POP!  — POP! 

(How’s that for sophistication?)

Then both repeat again, at which point we’re only 10 seconds in. At 0:12, a new figure repeats twice. At :15, another one, and at 0:19, another one. So you are on a runaway horse, and the atonality says there’s no home at the end of the trail, but the composer had the basic human decency to give you a saddle horn to hold on to — these fascinating, repeated rhythmic structures.

At 0:42 it becomes tonal! Kind of. Can a piece be both atonal and tonal? No, it cannot. Wait, there’s THIS one!

It continues galloping (because once you see “Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy,” there’s no other way to think of it) between tonal and atonal sections, but we never get thrown because Ginastera, you mad genius, you gay Argentine caballero, you gave us a saddle horn of repetition!


12. GINASTERA “Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy” from Danzas Argentinas (2:57)

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EXTRA CREDIT  Just to show how repetition of elements can make even a wild atonal piece coherent, see if you can hear the mistake between 0:42 and 0:47. She misfires the first time, then nails the repetition. If atonal music was pure chaos, you wouldn’t be able to spot that.

1 Chopin | 2 Scarlatti | 3 Hildegard | 4 Bach | 5 Chopin | 6 Reich | 7 Delibes | 8 Ravel | 9 Ravel | 10 Boulanger | 11 DebussyFull list YouTube playlist

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.