During my undergraduate years I spent a lot of time playing student compositions, at the time all under the strictest twelve-tone influence.  Nothing tonal, nothing that sounded anything less than completely original was permitted on the scene.  The result was that, though I could play anything at sight, I lost my ability to respond to individual tones.
Later a discerning teacher caught me at this and made me fix it.  Thank goodness my ear is back.
But I am struck by the fact that some atonal composers do write music that the ear can relate to.  My friend Ursula Mamlok does it by playing with the edges of tone, with conflicting timbres and close intervals so that the listener is within the sounds as if poised in immobility.  "Still" is a frequent tempo indication in her works.  
A lot of atonal composers seem to be avoiding the physical element of sound as if making sound itself abstract is their goal.
 


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