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Thread: How would you define the characteristics/motivations of modern harmonic practice?

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    Junior Member Oscar South's Avatar
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    Lightbulb How would you define the characteristics/motivations of modern harmonic practice?

    Over the last 6 months as I move from a career performance focus towards composing I've taken time to update my harmony knowledge with respect to modern compositional trends as well as filled in any historical blanks that still remained. It's motivated me to think philosophically about what defines the harmonic practices of our times. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Here is a collection of my own thoughts on how modern harmony 'feels to me':

    #1. The 'character' of an era is sometimes most clear in retrospect and present day characteristics will become better defined with time. I don't feel that there is any specific dominant/competing ideology (eg. ultra-serialism and the likes of) which thus allows composers today to experiment more freely on a personal level without having to 'pick a side'.

    #2. A general feeling of 'harmonic apathy' (do whatever you want!) towards harmonic approach suggests to me that the motivating focus of today is not on harmonic development and progressive motivation is potentially addressing other areas of musical construction.

    #3. The feeling of 'looseness' of todays harmonic approach potentially *is* the defining characteristic -- a variety of loosely related 'modern' historical methods are becoming more formally codified though increasingly accessible educational sources and this is causing contemporary ideas to slowly form into a 'modern standard practice' that synthesises many styles into an updated coherent whole.

    #4. Thought #3 links back to thought #1 in that it suggests a saturation point will be hit in the future where composers will actively attempt to make a break away from current norms.

    I'd absolutely love to hear your own thoughts on the topic!

    As a side note for context, my own personal approach is somewhat detached from 'contemporary harmony' and my real interest in it is as an attentive listener and to avoid spending time re-discovering other creators developments un-necessarily. In my own work, I'm primarily interested in defining my own personal 'languages' for musical organisation and then exploring/auralising the possibilities and characteristics within those languages through my musical work. Might not be too meaningful to most readers in it's currently messy state but if anyone's interested, I build my own personal musical analysis/composing tools based on my own musical approach and this is the repository that I work on my most actively developed/developing practice from (all original code here):
    https://github.com/OscarSouth/theHar.../tree/liveCode
    Last edited by Oscar South; Oct-04-2020 at 11:11.

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    Senior Member Kjetil Heggelund's Avatar
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    I like your thoughts and it seems like you have spent some time defining what's possible. My thoughts on contemporary music are that it is a nice alternative to tradition, one that can take you by surprise. I sometimes get tired of the ordinary look on what music is, that it has melody, rhythm and harmony ++. Also every piece of music can have a different starting point and take unexpected turns because of it. I guess I didn't give an answer to your question...

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    Junior Member Oscar South's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kjetil Heggelund View Post
    I like your thoughts and it seems like you have spent some time defining what's possible. My thoughts on contemporary music are that it is a nice alternative to tradition, one that can take you by surprise. I sometimes get tired of the ordinary look on what music is, that it has melody, rhythm and harmony ++. Also every piece of music can have a different starting point and take unexpected turns because of it. I guess I didn't give an answer to your question...
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It's interesting to hear your point of view. The only semantic point that I disagree on is that I don't see contemporary harmony (or music in a greater sense) as an alternative to tradition, but as a continuation of it.

    I definitely agree that it's nice to be taken by surprise and those surprises can come from unexpected places. Often not just the vocabulary/language/inspirations of the composer, but often from explorations in methodology or experimentation that you wouldn't (or couldn't) expect/anticipate. I also feel that how composers approach harmony is as intrinsic to any attempt to define it as the nature of the vocabulary itself.

    Again I can share from my own exploration into harmony and methodology, where working with my own custom made algorithmic tools allows me to both think about as well as how I actualise harmony (and orchestration) with a very different perspectives than as if I were approaching with a more traditional methodology. To provide examples:

    Here is a short algorithmic example orchestrated with sine waves (allowing the composition to be heard very clearly):


    High quality audio version:
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/3zsy9nbwwv...immed.m4a?dl=0

    The nature of the composition itself is the result of a huge amount of exploratory 'algorithmic analysis' work I've been working through (again using/developing my algorithmic toolset in the process). The example is essentially an auralisation of a concept and shouldn't be considered a complete piece with form. The 'algorithmic performance' playback is peripherally connected to the analysis element and uses a library called 'tidalcycles' to bridge via MIDI into realisation of the sound.

    Here is the same composition fully orchestrated (strings/brass/perc):


    High quality audio version:
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/29jhw0mbjs...immed.m4a?dl=0

    By working with tools/methodologies like these, I can explore the harmony/form/orchestration in interesting ways by working with the nature of the tools (or by contradicting their nature and forcing them to do counter-intuitive things).

    I'm writing to the physical limitations of the orchestral instruments, so in the end when a finished piece is transcribed to score, it is exactly the same end result as any other piece of orchestral music -- but I've been on a very unique journey to get there which has in turn coloured the sound in the process!

    I could use any harmonic system from any time period of my choosing to create music in this manner and whichever I used would be coloured and influenced by both my own personal taste/style/influences as well as the nature of the methodology. In the end it all comes down to the same thing -- structural elements surrounding the organisation of musical notes.

    Anyway that's just more thoughts about the nature of modern harmony from the perspective of my own personal approach to composing. I'm eager to hear other peoples points of view!
    Last edited by Oscar South; Oct-04-2020 at 17:55.

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    Senior Member mikeh375's Avatar
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    oh how we differ Oscar. I'm old school but not so old as to glimpse the advantages and possibilities of yours and others approach, it's just not for me.

    I do worry that utilities such as yours make composing too easy (much like a DAW does for so called midistrators) and could potentially become an adverse surrogate for personal musical introspection and growth over time. It's fair to say though that the user of your algorithm/software has the potential to use it wisely, not only as a live manipulator, but also as a search tool and a way to develop musically. The converse is to use it cynically of course, or be seduced into a tendency to be excited by the immediacy of any results. This keys in to how one feels about modernity and to what extent self -expression is deemed necessary or even worth pursuing.

    With that in mind perhaps I understand your reasons for investigations into harmony and do tend to agree with your appraisal. I do however believe that the effort to master technique unaided by anything other than wits and effort brings many advantages, whilst simultaneously accepting that those very advantages may be irrelevant today. Does the imagination need an aid, a calculator, I wonder - that'll depend on the medium and the aim.

    Regarding exploring orchestration and ignoring electronics/synths for now. I don't see an algorithm being very beneficial to serious orchestral art music if one is using and restricts themselves to, the technical/idiomatic limitations inherent in sample sets at present ( I'm also assuming realism is the goal). Perhaps you could expand on that a little. Am I missing something? Because at present, I just don't see how you can explore the acoustic, timbral complexity of say Unsuk Chin's orchestral scoring within a DAW.

    As you will know, one needs detailed orchestration knowledge and in- depth idiomatic know-how in order to push instruments to their limits. Of course there is much more you can do and even for this old Fecker (who has a DAW and virtually all sample sets) the sonic possibilities are mind-numbing and exciting and have been for a few decades now.
    Last edited by mikeh375; Oct-05-2020 at 12:57.

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    Junior Member Oscar South's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    oh how we differ Oscar. I'm old school but not so old as to glimpse the advantages and possibilities of yours and others approach, it's just not for me.
    Thank for you the well thought out and articulate reply. I enjoyed digesting your thoughts!

    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    I do worry that utilities such as yours make composing too easy (much like a DAW does for so called midistrators) and could potentially become an adverse surrogate for personal musical introspection and growth over time. It's fair to say though that the user of your algorithm/software has the potential to use it wisely, not only as a live manipulator, but also as a search tool and a way to develop musically. The converse is to use it cynically of course, or be seduced into a tendency to be excited by the immediacy of any results. This keys in to how one feels about modernity and to what extent self -expression is deemed necessary or even worth pursuing.
    I very much understand the logic stated here. Think of the tools as I'm building to work with as analogous to other algorithmic composing methodologies such as serialism (as an example) -- but I have newer tools to realise them and different creative motivations! Also, you'll have to take my word for it (or go look at the code and some of the output here, here and here) but the sound sound production method (while cool!) is only a bit more than an afterthought to a DEEP, DEEP theoretical/analytic exploration of harmonic/expressive musical language that started with pen and paper (years ago and has filled many notepads!) and was the motivating factor to my adoption of technology, once it became obvious that it'd be massively impractical to try and reach my desired conclusion by hand.

    The tools I build for myself allow me to explore, express and realise my conceptual ideas more effectively and with greater scope, as well as providing an interesting topic of methodological discussion in it's own right. It is 'software' and is open source for creative reasons and posterity, but it is an extension of my own creative voice and is not intended for distribution or use by others -- unless they wanted to put some serious effort into understanding and re-purposing my code into their own personal creative approach .. which then would be excellent! (though highly difficult).

    Also, I guarantee that writing the code to achieve the creative goals that I'm imagining (discussion of creative skill aside) is at least equally difficult to 'traditional' orchestration. Traditional orchestration skills also feature heavily of course in this project, since I need to imagine then realise the large scale form and all structural aspects of harmony, melody, texture and dynamic, then consider the limitations of individual instruments and realise all these factors, eventually transcribing the algorithmically realised music onto playable sheet music.

    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    With that in mind perhaps I understand your reasons for investigations into harmony and do tend to agree with your appraisal. I do however believe that the effort to master technique unaided by anything other than wits and effort brings many advantages, whilst simultaneously accepting that those very advantages may be irrelevant today. Does the imagination need an aid, a calculator, I wonder - that'll depend on the medium and the aim.
    I agree completely and wholeheartedly. It's relevant that I add here that I worked full time as a session musician (instrumentalist, Double Bass) for a decade before I got involved with computer music at all, and studied music up to MA level before my career began. This is to give a little context into where my personal experience and motivations have grown from. The tech (which appears prominant) is quite new for me (3ish years) and a natural outgrown of pre-existing technique, to better realise my imagination. Before I'd ever touched computer code, I'd studied and practiced music for over 20 years.

    I hope that doesn't come across as a defensive 'retort' or such -- I understand and agree with your stance, which isn't quite as relevant to my personal context as I feel you may believe.

    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    Regarding exploring orchestration and ignoring electronics/synths for now. I don't see an algorithm being very beneficial to serious orchestral art music if one is using and restricts themselves to, the technical/idiomatic limitations inherent in sample sets at present ( I'm also assuming realism is the goal). Perhaps you could expand on that a little. Am I missing something? Because at present, I just don't see how you can explore the acoustic, timbral complexity of say Unsuk Chin's orchestral scoring within a DAW.
    That's where you're wrong

    .. Ok, apologies for such a blunt statement, but I can't give you the insight that you're looking for in short form here. I'm planning to publish a release towards the end of the year with 30ish minitudes along with composer notes & notation. Each will explore a very specific concept. I'll post a reminder in this thread closer to the time. This work will answer the lines of enquiry that you're exploring here.

    I can also make a few clarifications:
    1. I don't use DAWs or notation input programs in any part of the creative process.
    2. I actually transcribe the final scores by hand before digitising them -- I just find it easier (may simply be force of habit and my own loss!).
    3. You're speaking of 'the algorithm' as a literal/singular thing. The concept of 'an algorithm' and what that implies is more relevant here.

    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    As you will know, one needs detailed orchestration knowledge and in- depth idiomatic know-how in order to push instruments to their limits. Of course there is much more you can do and even for this old Fecker (who has a DAW and virtually all sample sets) the sonic possibilities are mind-numbing and exciting and have been for a few decades now.
    Agreed

    ps. Any samples I use are generated by this (and only this) box:
    http://www.vintagesynth.com/misc/nanosynth.php

    I do this purposefully -- by using an old box with limitations in terms of sound quality and SERIOUS limitations in voice polyphony, it pushes the importance of all ideology/creativity to the front (and also prevents my creative pizzazz being stolen by fancy sample sets and modern tools!). The finished music is eventually playable by a real orchestra and in addition to the ideological benefit, I also love the extra challenge in working with old equipment. I also love the fact that the entire orchestra (plus about 500 variations of 100s more instruments) is contained inside just 8MB of ROM!

    Thanks again for your thoughtful reply and for taking the time to articulate your points. I very much enjoyed reading them.
    Last edited by Oscar South; Oct-05-2020 at 14:26.

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    Junior Member Oscar South's Avatar
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    I'd also like to drop a reminder here that I actually started the thread to discuss the concept of 'contemporary harmony' abstractly and shared my own creative practice as an example of how ideas might be applied or extended. I'd love to hear more discussion about peoples thoughts on what constitutes the character or defining motivations of contemporary harmony, abstractly of the examples that are currently under discussion.
    Last edited by Oscar South; Oct-05-2020 at 14:20.

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    This just my quick opinion, but I would describe contemporary harmonic practice as: "Anything goes so long as it sounds good and makes sense to me."

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    Junior Member Oscar South's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MarkW View Post
    This just my quick opinion, but I would describe contemporary harmonic practice as: "Anything goes so long as it sounds good and makes sense to me."
    That sounds like the general impression that I get myself.

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    Junior Member Oscar South's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MarkW View Post
    This just my quick opinion, but I would describe contemporary harmonic practice as: "Anything goes so long as it sounds good and makes sense to me."
    An additional thought that has come to me this morning based on this (and building on my thoughts above) is that it feels like there's an inclination towards codifying, synthesising and extracting practical audible principles from a variety of (potentially) contrasting systems of harmonic organisation. In many cases these various systems grew from intellectualised extensions of principles which often resulted in concepts that went beyond limits of perception.

    When absorbing music featuring 'modern harmony' as well as in discussion of it, I feel a motivation to identify and consolidate the elements of these differing conceptual models as well as explorations into how to integrate them seamlessly.

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    Junior Member Oscar South's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mikeh375 View Post
    oh how we differ Oscar. I'm old school but not so old as to glimpse the advantages and possibilities of yours and others approach, it's just not for me.

    I do worry that utilities such as yours make composing too easy (much like a DAW does for so called midistrators) and could potentially become an adverse surrogate for personal musical introspection and growth over time. It's fair to say though that the user of your algorithm/software has the potential to use it wisely, not only as a live manipulator, but also as a search tool and a way to develop musically. The converse is to use it cynically of course, or be seduced into a tendency to be excited by the immediacy of any results. This keys in to how one feels about modernity and to what extent self -expression is deemed necessary or even worth pursuing.
    I absolutely had to drop back in here to share this (direct) quote by Igor Stravinsky in 1957. He couldn't have chosen truer chosen words that would stand the test of time any better.

    “My music of today is so much based on the new musical technology. We use the technology as a material for our musical art”
    Igor Stravinsky, 1957


    Here's a high quality example of 'Algorithmic Orchestration', including an algorithmic transcription of a Stravinsky piece:

    Last edited by Oscar South; Oct-24-2020 at 11:04.

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    For me, "modern" harmonic practice means post-CP harmony which uses the chromatic and has gone past the diatonic conception of music. This includes concepts such as: dividing the octave at the tritone rather than at IV/V, and approaching the material more linearly and mathematically.
    There are conceptions of time which distiguish newer music, and I don't think we should restrict ourselves to 'harmony' only.

    If you want "harmonic practice," Howard Hanson's book "Harmonic Materials Of Modern Music: Resources Of The Tempered Scale" pretty much covers what possibilities are left, after diatonic resources are exhausted, and it covers 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10, and 11-note scales.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Nov-12-2020 at 18:00.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Oscar South View Post
    Over the last 6 months as I move from a career performance focus towards composing I've taken time to update my harmony knowledge with respect to modern compositional trends as well as filled in any historical blanks that still remained. It's motivated me to think philosophically about what defines the harmonic practices of our times. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.
    Ok, you asked, so I'll respond.

    Here is a collection of my own thoughts on how modern harmony 'feels to me':

    #1. The 'character' of an era is sometimes most clear in retrospect and present day characteristics will become better defined with time. I don't feel that there is any specific dominant/competing ideology (eg. ultra-serialism and the likes of) which thus allows composers today to experiment more freely on a personal level without having to 'pick a side'.
    Nor do I, but I also feel that we need to look for the underlying principles of harmony in all music. Anything else is too vague.

    #2. A general feeling of 'harmonic apathy' (do whatever you want!) towards harmonic approach suggests to me that the motivating focus of today is not on harmonic development and progressive motivation is potentially addressing other areas of musical construction.
    Then it appears that you have gone outside the boundaries of the OP term "modern harmonic practice." Is this the paradigmic boundary in which you wish music to remain contained?

    #3. The feeling of 'looseness' of todays harmonic approach potentially *is* the defining characteristic -- a variety of loosely related 'modern' historical methods are becoming more formally codified though increasingly accessible educational sources and this is causing contemporary ideas to slowly form into a 'modern standard practice' that synthesises many styles into an updated coherent whole.
    I think this is stretching things a bit. This is trying to make everything after Common Practice become lumped-in to a gigantic, unwieldy, and ultimately indefinable "modern common practice." I think this is contrary to its nature...I think you're suffering from a "classical paradigm hangover."

    #4. Thought #3 links back to thought #1 in that it suggests a saturation point will be hit in the future where composers will actively attempt to make a break away from current norms.
    Instead of projecting trends, I'd be more concerned with what I'm doing with myself and my own music.

    I'd absolutely love to hear your own thoughts on the topic!

    As a side note for context, my own personal approach is somewhat detached from 'contemporary harmony' and my real interest in it is as an attentive listener and to avoid spending time re-discovering other creators developments un-necessarily. In my own work, I'm primarily interested in defining my own personal 'languages' for musical organisation and then exploring/auralising the possibilities and characteristics within those languages through my musical work. Might not be too meaningful to most readers in it's currently messy state but if anyone's interested, I build my own personal musical analysis/composing tools based on my own musical approach...
    That's the beauty of human existence; we can always re-invent the wheel.

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