Introduction by Roger Reynolds to the SEARCH Project.

The Future of Music (revisited)

James Tenney

Copyright © 2000 James Tenney andthe Composition Area, Department of Music
University of California, San Diego
Published by Permission

Online publishing and editing by Karen Reynolds
All Rights Reserved.

FOCUS Seminar, 31 October 2000, University of California, San Diego

The following TEXT was commissioned by the Composition Area, Department of Music, University of California, San Diego for its SEARCH initiative. The TEXT / TALK is copyrighted and appears in its original presentation here. While links TO this TEXT or recording from other sites are welcome, no part of this TEXT may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holders [Please contact Roger Reynolds: to facilitate this.].

In 1937, in Seattle, Washington, John Cage gave a talk entitled "The Future of Music: Credo", in which he described an increasing use of percussive and electrically produced sounds -- in fact, "any and all sounds that can be heard" -- to make music, thus actually predicting the development of electronic music some ten to fifteen years before it became a reality. In 1974, an article by Cage was published in Numus West -- a new music periodical published in Seattle -- again called "The Future of Music" (this time without the "Credo"). In this article, Cage refers to many of the issues he had been concerned with in the 37 years that separated the two essays -- including time, silence, open-mindedness, rhythmic structure, process, technology, indeterminacy, a "blurring of the distinctions between composers, performers, and listeners", the social nature of music, the "interpenetration of cultures formerly separated", and, then, Thoreau, ecology, anarchy, theater, other composersÕ work, his own recent work, and the importance of work in general (saying, for example, "People frequently ask me what my definition of music is. This is it. It is work. That is my conclusion."). It is a fascinating article, but one might ask: what does all this have to do with the future of music? What Cage was doing was essentially rehearsing aspects of current musical activity which he found especially interesting, and thus likely to continue to affect musical activities in the future. This, of course, is all anyone can do, there being neither a Delphic oracle nor a (Newtonian) "natural law" on which to base such predictions.

I'm quite sure that Roger Reynolds and the other organizers of this SEARCH series had these two Cage essays in mind when they asked me and the other participants in the series to talk about the future of music. And I'm also sure that they know as well as I do that what can only happen is that each of us will address the present state of music, as we see it, on the assumption that the future will be significantly influenced by this present. I can think of three different ways in which we might try to predict the future on the basis of our knowledge of the past and present. The first is by extrapolation of recent trends, on the assumption that the "trajectory" of recent developments will probably continue for some time into the future. For example, there is what Cage called "the interpenetration of cultures formerly separated". Whether these "cultures" are Asian vs. Western, or "popular" vs. "serious", such "interpenetration" has been increasing -- and in fact accelerating -- for at least the last hundred years (since the World Exhibition of 1889 in Paris, at which a European composer [Claude Debussy] heard a Javanese gamelan for the first time, although it has been going on at some level since the beginning of human societies). Other recent trends would include increasing stylistic diversity, eclecticism, hybridization, etc., and of course, new technological developments, all of which have been amply noted by others, and need no further comment.

A second way in which we might try to predict the future according to our view of the present is what I will call sheer self-assertion: the future will be what I (or we -- meaning you and me and others like us) make it to be, on the assumption [or belief] that what I or we are doing now is a harbinger of what will happen later. In this sense, we all have some power to determine the future.

Finally, a third basis for prediction (although I'm sure there are more that I haven't thought of), is simply generalization on the basis of past experiences. We know, for example, that the human species is extremely creative, and that this creativity inevitably leads to very surprising results. We also know that the creative process often involves a radical questioning of earlier "axioms" (defined in Euclidian geometry as "self-evident assumptions"), and that it may take a considerable amount of time for the full implications of a new idea to be assimilated, so that as-yet-unassimilated ideas may influence future developments every bit as much as current conditions or trends. Barring some unforeseen disaster, then, we may conclude that human creativity in the arts will continue, and there will be unexpected surprises; earlier assumptions will continue to be questioned; and it will always take some time for the implications of any radical innovation to be thoroughly assimilated into the culture.

In what follows I will make use of all three of these predictive strategies, focussing on two relatively recent innovations whose full implications have not yet been thoroughly assimilated by the culture at large, innovations which have had a strong influence on my own work, and which I am therefore inclined to believe (via "self-assertion") will have significant influence on the future of music in general. These innovations are to be found in the work of Harry Partch and John Cage. Partch questioned the 12-tone tempered tuning system, which had become so "axiomatic" that most musicians had long forgotten the reasons it had been adopted as a virtual standard in the first place. ...... And Cage questioned the assumption -- which had been a new idea ca. 1600, but quickly became "axiomatic" after that -- that the primary purpose and function of music was to express the emotions of the composer, and/or to provoke emotions in the listener. But I am getting ahead of myself, and making statements that may seem implausible, without the background needed to support them. So let's consider each of these composers and the issues raised by their music and their ideas.

First, Partch. What Partch did was a somewhat belated response to a situation that had begun to be evident around 1910, which was that the element of harmony, which had been steadily evolving in Western music since the beginnings of polyphony in the 12th century, had reached an impasse. While there were other elements to explore -- rhythm, timbre, texture, form -- and plenty of great music still to be written, further development of harmony per se did not seem to be possible. And the reason for that impasse is not hard to fathom: it was simply that the specifically harmonic potential of the 12-tone equal-tempered scale had been exhausted. Now, it is true that other composers had worked with other, non-12-tone tempered tuning systems before Partch, but they all involved subdivisions of the 12-tone pitch set -- Habá , Carrillo, Wyschnegradsky, even Ives. They all wrote fine music in these alternative temperaments -- whether quarter-tones, sixth-tones, or what have you -- but simply subdividing the 12-tone scale into 24 or 36 or more tones in the octave does not necessarily address the problem because it disregards the fundamental reason why 12-tone equal temperament was adopted in the first place -- which involved harmonic considerations. That is, it developed as a compromise solution to satisfy two mutually contradictory, but basically harmonic, musical desires or needs: (1) the need for unlimited modulation (to be able to transpose a musical passage without changing its character with respect to consonance and dissonance), and (2) the need to have tolerable approximations of the most important just musical intervals -- which, in a tonal context, means triadic intervals; fourths and fifths, thirds and sixths -- and 12-tone temperament does this with a maximum error of only about 15 cents.

Here I should explain exactly what I mean by the word "harmony". My definition will seem somewhat circular at first, but I have not found any simpler way to say it: harmony is that aspect of music which involves specifically harmonic relations between pitches, and special conditions which arise when two or more pitches are considered together. By "harmonic relations", I mean relations other than those of sheer magnitude and direction along the pitch-height continuum. Thus, for example, octave equivalence is a specifically harmonic relation, as is the tonic polarity of the perfect fifth, etc. And note that by my definition, pitches do not necessarily have to be sounding simultaneously for harmony to be involved.

What Partch did was to go back to fundamentals, creating "from scratch", as it were, a completely new musical world -- including a new, just tuning system, a large number of beautiful instruments capable of playing in this tuning system, and a theoretical basis for his own music. His work involves other issues, of course -- the idea of "monophony", and of an integrated multimedia music theater -- but I am personally not as interested in these aspects of his work as I am in the idea of developing new tuning systems as a means of furthering the evolution of harmony. And I should note here that I am not necessarily advocating the exclusive use of systems in just intonation, or opposed to the use of equal temperaments. What I am suggesting, however, is that just intervals are referential, harmonically, and that the specifically harmonic potential of any temperament will depend on how accurately those just intervals are approximated.

Now consider John Cage. In 1951, he composed Music of Changes, using chance operations to determine the details, and for most of the rest of his life he continued to explore various forms of indeterminacy. In writing about Music of Changes, he said:

It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and 'traditions' of the art.... Value judgments are not in the nature of this work as regards either composition, performance, or listening.

This statement shocked many people -- far more than the music itself did, or indeed could have -- because it was interpreted as a negation of many long-cherished assumptions about the creative process in art, the responsibility of the composer, etc. Elsewhere I have written that it need not have been read as a negation but rather as a renunciation, on his part, of some of the old habitual assumptions. In either case, however, it does imply that he had come to feel that those assumptions were no longer necessary -- that a new and different paradigm was at least conceivable. And what, precisely, were those old assumptions? That the primary function of music was to express the emotions of the composer and to provoke analogous emotions in the listener -- an idea that had been new and revolutionary in the early 17th century, associated particularly with the rise of opera. By the mid-19th century, however, it was not only no longer new, but taken for granted -- it had become "axiomatic", because no one any longer remembered that it had once been new and revolutionary. And this assumption was not restricted to opera; it gradually began to be applied to all kinds of music -- sonatas, symphonies, concertos, tone poems, et al. I am therefore inclined to call that whole period -- from about 1600 to about 1950 -- the "operatic era". And while 1950/51 may be seen as the beginning of the end of the operatic era, the coup de grace would have to be Cage's Europeras of the 1980s.

I have already quoted one of Cage's answers to the question "what is your definition of music?" to the effect that "it is work". Another time, in response to the same question, he answered "sounds heard". I especially like this definition, and I find it really interesting that there is no composer in this definition. What this means to me is that there has been (or is, or will be) a shift of focus in the musical enterprise from the thoughts and feelings of the composer (and often of the performer, as well) to the experience of the listener. It is thus that listening experience which is central to what music is (or was, or will be), and this should be seen as an invitation to a more active participation in the shaping of that experience by the listener, compared to the relatively passive role assumed during the "operatic era". And it must be emphasized that the listening experience implied by this definition of music is not lacking in both intellectual and emotional components. As Cage had said earlier: may give up the desire to control sound, clear his mind of music, and set about discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments. This project will seem fearsome to many, but on examination it gives no cause for alarm. Hearing sounds which are just sounds immediately sets the theorizing mind to theorizing, and the emotions of human beings are continually aroused by encounters with nature. Does not a mountain unintentionally evoke in us a sense of wonder? otters along a stream a sense of mirth? night in the woods a sense of fear? Do not rain falling and mists rising up suggest the love binding heaven and earth? Is not decaying flesh loathsome? Does not the death of someone we love bring sorrow? And is there a greater hero than the least plant that grows? What is more angry than the flash of lightning and the sound of thunder? These responses to nature are mine and will not necessarily correspond with another's. Emotion takes place in the person who has it. And sounds, when allowed to be themselves, do not require that those who hear them do so unfeelingly. The opposite is what is meant by response ability.

It may seem strange that I am considering together in this way two composers whose compositional and theoretical ideas often seemed mutually antithetical -- even (or perhaps especially) to those composers themselves. But I like to think that our time is -- among other things -- one of synthesis and integration, and that bridges can be built which will connect previously separated intellectual and aesthetic territories, proving them to have been, all along, but different regions within a single continuum.

And how can these new ideas about harmony and these new aesthetic attitudes be reconciled with the stylistic diversity I mentioned earlier as probable features of music in the future? This could be a problem if I were predicting that these would replace the earlier ideas and attitudes, but I am not. What I am suggesting is simply that those earlier "axioms" may never again be taken to be "self-evident". In that same talk just quoted, Cage made a similar point when he said:

...the present musical situation has changed from what it was before...[but this] also need not arouse alarm, for the coming into being of something new does not by that fact deprive what was of its proper place. Each thing has its own place, never takes the place of something else; and the more things there are, as is said, the merrier.

Amen!, and thank you.