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.


  1. Hello!

    Good remarks, I didn't really establish in my post that I was thinking of the 12 tone system as a sort of antecedent of many non-tonal and other rationalist systems of the 20th century, (Milton Babbit, 'how bout that!)nor did I note that 12 tone was also used as a hyper Emotional, Expressionist type of element, think Berg's Wozzeck. I also wouldn't go so far as claiming either that non tonal or pantonal music couldn't be emotional, or that it was 'un-natural' in any absolute sense. One of my favorite pieces is Agon by Stravinsky, who uses a modified sort of dodecaphony that keeps tonal outlines. FOr that matter I have written some atonal stuff myself.It's hard to be real complete on a blog post without getiing so long it becomes a paper. Besides, I'm a bad pundit.
    I also misread the original Antagonist post, the PA, (most likely a 'he' I think) was actually talking about rather more recent cultural strains, the '60s etc. when indeed there was some intellectual nihlisim afloat. But I was prompted by that post to recall my conversations with Dick, and I still think that there is a commonality in Schoneberg's ideas to the anti-Romantic reactions of the late 19th century.
    One possible artistic excess of our own era, might be the large quantity of banal New Age stuff, "crystalsucker" music. There is certainly a 'zeitgeist' today that we can all recognise, that expresses itself in all those abysmal compilations of pan pipes with ocean wave sounds (and late night cable astrology shows). Maybe you could call it an Apoapsis of Neo-Naturalism. (Hey, I got to say Apopasis again!)

    Great blog and I'll be checking back.


  2. Thanks for the clarifications, Forrest.

    I'm reminded today, the day of the release of the film version of "The Phantom of the Opera", that the composer to whom the word "nihilistic" most meaningfully applies is Andrew Lloyd Webber.