Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Applying Schenkerian Theory to Mainstream Jazz: A Justification for an Orthodox Approach

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Applying Schenkerian Theory to Mainstream Jazz: A Justification for an Orthodox Approach

Article excerpt

The fundamental structure represents the totality. It is the mark of unity and, since it is the only vantage point from which to view that unity, prevents all false and distorted conceptions. In it resides the comprehensive perception, the resolution of all diversity into ultimate wholeness.

-Heinrich Schenker ([1935] (1979, 5) my emphasis)

[1.1] Skepticism has always surrounded, and likely always will surround, the theories of Heinrich Schenker. Central to what became his best-known theory is the idea that all musical surfaces result from the composing-out of a fundamental structure, or Ursatz.

[1.2] An Ursatz, as defined by Schenker, includes one of only three possible fundamental lines, or Urlinien: --, ----, and -------. To account for other deeper-level structures, several theorists have advocated modifications to this aspect of Schenker's theory. This has caused a rift among music theorists. Those who maintain that such modifications are essential, particularly when applied to more modern styles, argue that an analytical method must evolve along with the music to which it is being applied.(1) Other theorists contend that such modifications are unnecessary if the work in question is tonal.

[1.3] While a thorough account of these viewpoints is beyond the scope of this paper, one particular discourse relating to modified Schenkerian Urlinien seems particularly relevant. In his article "The 3-part Ursatz," David Neumeyer (1987a) advocates a new kind of background structure (one with three voices).(2) In his published response to this essay, Steve Larson (1987a) is not convinced that Neumeyer's new category of Ursätze is necessary, and instead advocates an orthodox two-voice reading of each of the pieces that Neumeyer analyzes. Neumeyer's subsequent response criticizes Larson for taking what he calls a "conservative" Schenkerian stance. He writes,

The conservative Schenkerian is a fundamentalist: He or she takes Schenker's work as a given and contributes mainly commentary or exegesis. . .The "liberal" Schenkerian, on the other hand, is more like a typical university scholar in the humanities: He or she refuses to believe that any theory is complete, any methodology perfect. The conservative Schenkerian considers "extensions" to mean filling in the details in the master's grand design; the liberal finds the design itself a historical idea, to be given no more reverence than its due. To the conservative Schenkerian, any real change is radical, to be resisted with whatever means are at hand; to the liberal, change is a part of the natural-and necessary-growth of a discipline (Neumeyer 1987b, 36).

[1.4] Neumeyer's response implies that the theorists whom he calls "conservative" Schenkerians are unwilling to accept any modifications to Schenkerian theory even if such modifications are necessary and convincing, a characterization that hardly seems fair. Why should "conservative" Schenkerians not approach modified analyses with the same level of skepticism that "liberal" Schenkerians apply to the theory itself? After all, some of these modifications result in eliminating Schenker's central claim-the fascinating theory that all tonal works share one of only three possible backgrounds.

[1.5] Perhaps it is not surprising that this debate is relevant to the applicability of orthodox Schenkerian theory to mainstream jazz, which contains harmonic features never addressed by Schenker. When chordal extensions appear in the melody in either the penultimate or final measure of a tune, they can have important implications for the Urlinie. Some scholars (most notably Henry Martin) have concluded that such chord tones resist a reductive explanation and should therefore be considered members of modified Urlinien. In his dissertation and subsequent book Analyzing Jazz-A Schenkerian Approach (2009), Steve Larson takes the opposing view. He writes,

So-called ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths occur in both repertories. …

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