Piotr Wiese talks about music

I have asked myself – What is music? Music is the sound. – This answer had come to me very quickly but right after another question arose – What determines that particular sound could be called music and Why we do not say “this is music” – when we are thinking about the sound of flowing water? Right now I can hear the sound of birds. Could we say that it is not music when compared to some of Olivier Messiaen pieces, which imitates birds singing? What could give us an answer to these questions? I believe we should go back to the very beginning of times and think about the genesis of music. Where it comes from and what was the purpose? I believe that something we could call music has appeared for the first time when nature through evolution process gave people the possibility of expressing some simple vowels. The first sound that communicates emotions and affects other people even before the development of any languages. I have made a very simple experiment. Let’s take the simplest expression like “aha” or “mhm”, which are relics of very old, prehistoric ways of human communication. Now let’s say loudly “mhm” a few times. At first low and slow. Then faster and at a higher pitch, and so on. I am quite sure that at a higher pitch, a little smile will show up. Basic sounds which evoke basic emotions. What if we just exchange vocal cords and “mhm” for violin cords and two quarter notes? If we will repeat the experiment, the overall impression will be the same. Is it not fascinating that no matter which language we speak, we could easily understand the meaning of variously spoken “mhm”? Is it not also with music? So, I have concluded that music (as a form of communication based on making a sound to evoke the simplest emotions) have appeared before languages and therefore it could be easily understood by every human being. From this perspective, we could not so easily say that singing birds or barking dogs are making just noises. This was only my subjective way of thinking about the origin of music, but what came next was for me the biggest astonishment. I have asked myself another question: “What makes that birds are sounding actually like birds and what makes that music of human being sounds actually as it sounds?” The conclusion to which I came after a long time of thinking about that forced me to shout “EUREKA”. In the case of birds, the answer could be – “natural evolution”. But how is it with human, and whole music history? Is it different?

            First of all, I have started to think- “What is the cause that prehistoric instruments were tuned up in similar ways, no matter where they were found?”, “How it is that pentatonic scale occurs in almost every single human society around the world at the very beginning of music history when the interactions between those societies were impossible?”, “What do Native Americans have in common with Polish highlanders from the Tatra Mountains?” First of all, they were both human beings (they have had the same ability to perceive music). Secondly, they were bounded by the same acoustics laws. So, If we do not believe in such a big coincidence we should admit that the pentatonic scale (which occurs simultaneously almost everywhere) was not the invention. It was just a step on the way of evolution, which entirely depends on laws of nature. What if the whole history of the development of music (especially harmony) was just an unconscious process, which has strictly followed the rules of nature? If so – the overall development was not a matter of conscious and creative choice, but the necessity of nature. If so – we could not admire a Tristan chord as a very creative human vision, but just as the last falling leaf which is some kind of testimony written by dying tree. Now, making a step backwards I would like to explain – what brings me to this conclusion. I believe that the best possible way of thinking about something big is to focus on the very little aspects of it. I think it also could be one of the main rules of philosophy.

            In the case of music, it would be a string set in motion. Is it possible that this phenomenon explains more than two thousand years of music development? Apparently – yes. What is very important and what vibrating string shows is that music (as a set of sounds) comes entirely from nature. It derives from the material world and it depends completely from laws of physics (in particular laws of acoustics). At this point, we could make a statement that everything what exists in the material world has its origins, the development phase (strive to complexity), the decomposition phase leading to complete disappearance. This is what the vibrating string shows. This is exactly the way how every single sound works. What if we take this pattern and try to look at the whole music history from this perspective? I think we could find some analogies. To do so, we could go back in time to the first, well known period of music history – Gregorian chant. Through many centuries music was just monophonic. What is more, gregorian chant times were dominated only by the human voice. (The most possible origin of music.) Then the music becomes more and more complexed. Huge step on the way of development has been made when polyphony has appeared for the first time. Next great step was made in times of Ars AntiquaAntiqua and Ars Nova (Leoninus and Perotinus; rhythmic fragmentation, the problem of notation). Then through Venetian renaissance (Gabrieli, Monteverdi: development of polyphony, a greater focus on instruments) music is making its way to the baroque period, when thanks to Bach, polyphony gets its most complex form. Harmony was still waiting for development. Then through classicism (homophony-one leading voice) music came to romantic period and at last tonal harmony became most complexed (Richard Wagner; said Tristan chord). Not only harmony but also musical forms, instruments, orchestra, were brought to its limits. I believe that to this point in history, music was in the development phase (I am using a word “development” as if I would like to describe the process of growing) and then something change. If I could indicate a border it would be somewhere between Claude Debussy (the reappearance of a “mysterious” pentatonic scale; has history come full circle?) and Arnold Schoenberg (Harmonielehre; Twelve-tone technique, serialism). If I would like to be more specific I would say that the transformation has taken place during the life of Arnold Schoenberg. (Border lays somewhere between his op. 4 Verklärte Nacht and his op. 25 Suite für Klavier.)

            What do I mean saying “border”? I think that in this unprecedented point of history, music has crossed the border of its original and natural ability to influence. Also, the limits of human mind possibilities to natural perception have been exceeded. From this point in history, music development (as a fulfilment of the laws of nature) has ended. Music embarks on an artificial intellectual creation. (Twelve-tone technique – an artificial system that is the negation of tonality.) Creating a system which is based on the rule that every single tone (audio frequency) is of the same value is like opening the gates of chaos. From this point of view, we are not so far from thinking about the sound of flowing water like it would be actual music. Something what previously was an inspiration coming from nature becomes music itself. Where this leads? Plato has said – “Music is a moral law”, “Show me the music of the nation and I will tell you the future”. Maybe this is just coincidence that Schoenberg wrote his “Harmonielehre” during the summer of 1910 and developed the twelve-tone technique in the 1920s. What I think is that now we are in the descending phase of music development – as the sound of vibrating string reaches its most intensity and slowly starts to get quiet so our music has got its most intense form in late romanticism and now is on its way into the silence. Apparently, we have already “heard” the silence by John Cage (however it was not the ultimate silence because it lasts only for 4 minutes and 33 seconds). What makes me so sure that I am speaking about some border in music history? What gives me the courage to think about the development of music until late Romanticism as if it was a fulfilment of the laws of nature? The answer is simple as this: The observation of these natural laws (acoustics laws in particular). The said vibrating string creates a harmonic series.
( Harmonic series –

            When I see harmonic series I cannot help feeling that I actually see more than two thousand years of music development. It is obvious that the sequence of sounds reflects the sequence of harmony improvements through all those years. From monophony to polyphony (at the beginning – parallel octaves, then fifths, and fourths ) It will be the first four notes of harmonic series. Then comes the major third and we have a major chord in the second inversion – It would be the Renaissance period. What comes next is a minor third and we have the first major chord in root position in harmonic series – a germ of tonality. Then comes another minor third and creates the seventh chord. The tension of the seventh chord demands further development of tonal system during baroque, and because the seventh (in the seventh chord) has the strong leading capacity it leads from baroque polyphony to classicism homophony (one voice leading). Then for the first time in the harmonic series, we have three notes one after another that are the beginning of the major scale. And through Mozart scale runs we arrived at very complicated chromaticism of late romanticism (Tristan chord). It is the harmony, but the harmonic series also affects the orchestration from the very beginning. When we will  play simultaneously the first eight harmonics would not it be the best possible pattern for voicing the seventh chord?

            So, what many generations of composers who were subconsciously following the laws of nature would say to Arnold Schoenberg and his followers? Yes, you are right, it was a coincidence and music is nothing more than just some series of aleatoric sounds that were composed to deny tonality – the very best reflection of natural laws in art. If we ever thought about art as about something filled with life element we could not deny that this element is slowly passing out nowadays. 

Piotr Wiese