Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Dissonant Harmony and "Seed-Tones": Organicism in the Piano Music of Dane Rudhyar

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Dissonant Harmony and "Seed-Tones": Organicism in the Piano Music of Dane Rudhyar

Article excerpt

[1.1] The music of French-American composer Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985) has remained virtually untouched by analysis for almost a century. Even though Rudhyar's importance in the development of American music has been increasingly acknowledged by historians in the past two decades, his compositions have still received only the most superficial attention. Some of this neglect may result from Rudhyar's musical language itself, which-because of its highly idiosyncratic, personal nature-does not readily invite analysis.(1) Indeed, Garland 1982 describes Rudhyar's piano music as "aurally difficult" because of the "absence of tonal, harmonic relationships in the classical sense . . . combined with the strongly through-composed qualities of the pieces (37-38). Rudhyar's music lacks not only common-practice-period tonality but also formal systems such as the twelve-tone method (which Schoenberg developed during Rudhyar's most active compositional period: the 1920s). Thus Rudhyar's music presents many of the same analytical challenges posed by the free-atonal music of the Second Viennese School. However, as this essay will demonstrate, a close analysis of Rudhyar's music reveals a structural integrity all the more striking because it is belied by a highly improvisatory surface.

[1.2] Rudhyar's own anti-formalist rhetoric further discourages analysis of his music and also had a lasting effect on the views of his fellow American "ultra-modernists," for whom he served as a spiritual leader in the 1920s and '30s after his immigration from France to America in 1916. Rudhyar's "passionate espousal of utopian modernism" deeply affected the young Ruth Crawford, according to Judith Tick, who describes him as a "messianic figure" (1997, 49). The charismatic Frenchman's "rejection of reason" had a liberating effect on Crawford's compositional development, causing her to disdain counterpoint and to experiment with the symbolic, mystical power of the single tone (Tick 1997, 50, 72, and 83). Similarly, Carol Oja paints Rudhyar as "a high priest . . . exploring the connection of dissonance to the spirit" (1999, 129) and a foil to the other acknowledged leader of the ultra-moderns, Charles Seeger. While the latter developed a "systematic theory of 'dissonant counterpoint,'" Rudhyar "expressed little interest in systems of any kind, preferring poetic odysseys" (Oja 1999, 130). Moreover, Oja claims, "In explaining his concept of sound, Rudhyar never resorted to technical descriptions. Doing so would have violated his campaign against formalism" (1999, 135). After observing that "the most fundamental of Rudhyar's theories had to do with 'tone,' an elusive concept grounded in his utopian hopes," Oja concludes that "'tone,' as manifested in Rudhyar's own music, was achieved mainly through a buildup of sound" (1999, 141).

[1.3] Indeed, Rudhyar was fond of quoting Varese's maxim that "Music must sound!" (1984). However, a close reading of Rudhyar's own writings on music reveals that he is much more careful in his harmonic constructions than his anti-formalist rhetoric might suggest. In his 1928 treatise, The Rebirth of Hindu Music, Rudhyar declares:

Resonance is not born of the Harmonic Series, as usually said by Western musicians. The basis for harmony (or the science of chord formation) is not the Harmonic Series, as usually believed, but the cycles of fifths and fourths. True melodies are founded on modes . . . which are segments of the Harmonic Series; but true chords or true polyphony (two methods of creating resonance) ought to be constructed on principles resulting from various cyclic aspects of the zodiacs of sound. (1928c, 88-89, emphasis original)

Thus, Rudhyar clearly does offer some technical descriptions of his musical vision. To be sure, they are buried among poetic effusions, numerological justifications, and occult metaphors. Yet the substance of his music theory remained remarkably consistent throughout his long life. …

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