a conversation with Stuart Isacoff      


Has the aura of alchemy departed the musical shores of our day?

Musical alchemy is still with us in any number of ways. There is, of course, the widely shared, supremely uplifting experience of being transported to another realm by means of great music. Most concertgoers hope against hope that they'll encounter one of those magical, alchemical performances at least once or twice a season.

There are several specialists who continue to turn out papers and books on the esoteric arts and their connection music, including Joscelyn Godwin (Harmonies of Heaven and Earth) and Gary Tomlinson (Music in Renaissance Magic). And some composers and performers are actively involved in music as a tool for spiritual awakening and healing. (Of course, in Asia this traditional role for music actually never disappeared.) La Monte Young, W.A. Mathieu and Michael Harrison (all followers of the Indian music master Pandit Pran Nath) are part of what might be described as a contemporary network of musicians with a deep interest in ancient tuning systems and their mystical implications. All have recordings and continue to perform to this day.

As sound and harmony were thought to relate supremely to the natural world and to the heavenly spheres in western thought, in China they also had corollaries in the calendar. Has there ever been an attribution of a natural affinity of a harmony to a season in western tradition?

There are western musicians who have forged connections between music and the zodiac. Another parallel might be seen in the work of composers, such as J.S. Bach, who were in the employ of the Church and who therefore had to turn out musical pieces for particular days throughout the Church calendar.

Can we ever hear the compositions of Guillaume Dufay as they were heard and experienced in his day?

I doubt it. We have been trained to accept harmonies, rhythms and textures that would have been inexplicable to Dufay. As a result, sounds considered radical in Dufay's time seem merely charming to most contemporary ears. Dufay's sensibilities were rooted in another world -- his mind was shaped by the limits of his own era. The same holds true for us.

Does the electricity of our contemporary aural environment effect our ability to hear pure tones from natural sources?

We can still hear pure tones. Listen to a concert choir or a barbershop quartet in perfect harmony; the experience, besides being emotionally thrilling, conveys to us a feeling of "rightness" induced by natural or "pure" musical proportions. Our brains still respond to this phenomenon. However, in our own time we embrace an aural palette of many different sounds and harmonies. And we don't feel the need to reject those that deviate from those pure relations.

But there is another aspect to your questions that needs to be addressed. That is, have we been so corrupted by noise and artificial sounds that we no longer care enough about the beauty of pure harmonies? I think that in some ways we have. This is an issue that set Galileo's father, Vincenzo, and the great music theorist Gioseffo Zarlino at each other's throats at the end of the sixteenth century.

In every epoch you have described in Temperament, the exploration of musical questions went hand in hand with advancements in painterly technique, philosophy and scientific exploration. Is there such a dialogue today?

I believe that visual artists, musical artists and scientists continue to influence each other. Certainly, the marriage of technology and music has never been stronger. On the philosophical front all these years after Kepler decided that the motion of the planets was based on a musical scale, the latest trend in physics, known as string theory, posits a universe built entirely out of musical vibrations just as Newton's rival, Robert Hooke, had claimed way back in the seventeenth century. However, the great and prolonged argument covered by Temperament -- over whether God (and nature) decreed a "correct" approach to musical performance and composition -- is mostly finished. Advancements in art are still geared toward finding new means of expression, but most artists no longer address that particular question, which in earlier times had been deeply vexing and passionately fought over.

There are no arguments regarding the "real root of musical expression" being conducted in this day with the passion of that of Rousseau and Rameau in the 18th century?

In a way, yes, despite what I just said. It is between those who write and appreciate 12-tone music and those who don't. Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone approach to composition, which he solidified in 1923, has the aim of eliminating the distinction between consonance and dissonance in music. The idea of consonance, and the musical expressiveness that results from its contrast with dissonance, underlies Baroque, Classical and much Romantic music. To say, as Schoenberg did, that we can ignore the so-called natural concordances found in music -- that we can make up our own rules, substituting our will for nature's -- is to throw down the gauntlet on that question of the "real root of musical expression" in the most provocative way possible. The tide has swung against the 12-tone school in recent years, but the battle is by no means over.

--Interview by Catherine McWeeney

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