Forrest Covington has the latest in a series of posts from throughout the musical blogosphere on "atonality" and "nihilism". The current spate of posts began with one by a blogger who calls him- or herself Promethean Antagonist.
Mr. Covington seems to believe that "atonality" (hereafter the more accurate "pantonal") is an ultra-rational "system" that attempts to negate the "natural" tendency of humans to hear "tonally". The argument that tonality is "natural" is a familiar one, and has some basis in science. On the other hand "art" is the root of "artificial", not "natural".
I'm open to correction here, but it sounds like Mr. Covington is equating pantonality with 12-note technique. Arnold Schoenberg developed the 12-note technique because he didn't believe he could create full-scale musical works without the kind of rational system tonal composers had at their disposal. He had created large-scale pantonal works with a text, such as the monodrama Erwartung, but he believed that pantonality was too free to be able to sustain a musical arguement without a text. Since his time, countless works have been created using the tonal system, free pantonality, serialism, chance, and countless combinations of some or all of the above.
I've been struggling with the idea that pantonality and nihilsm are close cousins. It is so foreign to me that I almost put the word "idea" in quotation marks in the previous sentence. Are there nihilists who write, play, and like pantonal music? Undoubtedly, but we can name world-class nihilists who adore(d) tonal music.
Almost everybody knows a pantonal work they enjoy or even, God forbid, love. Listen to any of the pieces in Morton Feldman's viola in my life series and come back with the nihilist line. Or Stravinsky's In memoriam Dylan Thomas. Or the Berio Sequenza V for solo trombone. Or Lee Hyla's Pre-Pulse Suspended. Listen.