When Revolution Conflicts with Resolution: A Contemporary Issue Based on the Revisit of a Modern Compositional Approach
Responding to a common feature in atonal music— the lack of consistent sound organization, Charles Seeger pioneered a pre-compositional method, called dissonant counterpoint (1913). In Seeger’s method, all consonances must be prepared and resolved by dissonances. To distinguish the quality of each interval, Seeger categorizes all intervals into consonances or dissonances. However, within this categorization, he intentionally leaves the tritone undefined. Problematically, if the tritone is defined neither a consonance nor a dissonance, its use in a chord will also affect the quality of the corresponding harmony, making that harmony essentially indeterminate as well.
It is puzzling that if Seeger’s dissonant counterpoint carries such an inherent problem, how would composers put this problematic pre-compositional theory into practice? Do their derived compositions project a similar image, preserving this problem and presenting a succession of chords with ambiguous harmonic qualities? Or, perhaps, in these compositions, we may find an alternative solution, which can be further adopted to solve the problem as described above? Using a dissonant contrapuntal string quartet by Ruth Crawford as a case study, my analysis shows that it is difficult to consistently describe the harmonic qualities of all the chords that are used.
Testing the limits of Seeger’s method and also seeking ways to consistently describe the chords in Crawford’s composition, I develop a harmonic measurement that further refines Seeger’s method. With this new measurement, my analysis reveals relevant harmonic progressions, ones that, I believe, solve the problem inherent in Seeger’s dissonant counterpoint, and explain Crawford’s practical application of this method.
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