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ZERZAN, John. "Tonality and the Totality"

Excerpt from FUTURE PRIMITIVE AND OTHER ESSAYS (Autonomedia, 1994)

Tuesday 19 July 2005, by ps

In 1908, Arnold Schoenberg’s "Second Quartet in F Sharp Minor" attained the decisive break with harmonic development: it was the first atonal composition. Fittingly, the movement in question is begun by the soprano with the words: ’Ich fuhle Luft von anderen Planeten’ (’I feel air from other planets’).

Adorno saw the radical openness of atonal music as an "expression of unmitigated suffering, bound by no convention whatsoever" and as such "often hostile to culture" and "containing elements of barbarism." The rejection of tonality indeed enabled expression of the most intense subjectivity, the loneliness of the subject under technology domination. Nonetheless, the equivalencies by which human emotion is universalized and objectified are still present, if released from the centralized control of the "laws of harmony." Schoenberg’s "emancipation of dissonance" allowed for the presentation of human passions with unprecedented immediacy via dissonant harmonies that have little or no tendency to resolve. The avoidance of tonal suggestion and resolution provides the listener with precious little support or security; Schoenberg’s atonal work often seems almost hysterically emotional due to the absence of points of real repose. "It is driven frantically toward the unattainable," noted Leonard Meyer.


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