Nicholls, David, American Experimental Music: 1890-1940, Published by the Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RP, Copyright Cambridge University Press 1990. excerpts Typed by Barb. Golden, Dec. 30, 1994. 1301w

3. On Dissonant Counterpoint

Ironically, by the time that Ives' improvised experimentalism was becoming better known - initially through the circulation of the Concord Sonata and 114 Songs in the early 1920s - a new, more systematic experimentalism was already coming to the fore. The key figure in its development and dissemination was Charles Louis Seeger. Seeger is nowadays remembered principally as an ethnomusicologist, but in the years before the Second World War he was known also as a composer, teacher, critic and government administrator.

Seeger was chairman of the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley from 1912 to 1919. He later lectured in New York at the Institute of Musical Art (1921-33) and the New School for Social Research (1931-35). His most prominent critical work was written for the New York Daily Worker under the pseudonym Carl Sand. From 1935 to 1938 Seeger served as Music Technical Advisor in Roosevelt's Resettlement Administration, from 1938 to 1941 as Deputy Director of the Federal Music Project of the Works Progress Administration and from 1941 to 1953 as Chief of the Music Division of the Pan American Union.

Such was the regard in which he was held in the late 1920s and early 1930s that Henry Cowell could write of him:

"Charles Seeger is the greatest musical explorer in intellectual fields which America has produced, the greatest experimental musicologist. Ever fascinated by intricacies, he has solved more problems of modern musical theory, and suggested more fruitful pathways for musical composition (some of which have proved of great general import), than any other three men."

Cowell had studied with Seeger at Berkeley between approximately the autumn of 1914 and February of 1918 and had remained a close friend during the intervening years. His estimation of Seeger's importance was thus based on a particularly full knowledge of the man and his ideas.

For Seeger, music had to come from both the head and the heart if it was to succeed. Yet, paradoxically, while Seeger found little emotion in Ives' works, his own ideas on composition were far more scholastic in approach than Ives' had ever been. Apart from personal opinions expressed in articles on other composers (see, for instance, Seeger's contributions to Cowell's American Composers on American Music) and an early book on elementary composition, the only major published account of Seeger's ideas is the article on 'Dissonant Counterpoint'. Although this article appeared only in June 1930 (in volume 7 of the periodical Modern Music) it was based on an interlinked series of compositional principles which Seeger had been developing since about 1914 or 1915, initially in connection with his teaching of Henry Cowell.

To quote Seeger himself:

"Dissonant counterpoint was at first purely a school-room discipline - a link between the preparatory studies in harmony, counterpoint, canon and fugue of a regular composition course and the 'free' composition of the second decade of the twentieth century...It was based upon the perception of a difference, sincerely felt but also logically postulated, between consonance and dissonance...The essential departure was the establishment of dissonance, rather than consonance, as the definition the procedure was on the whole one of negation and contrariness."

Seeger felt that European forms of tonally dissonant composition (he particularly mentions Skryiabin and Schoenberg) were 'an elaboration and extension of the old diatonic and chromatic harmony rather than a revolutionary reversal of it' and that

"The chief fault of the Schoenberg school, as of all the others, seemed to lie not in the handling of dissonance, but of consonance. All went well as long as a thoroughly dissonant structure was maintained, but upon the first introduction of consonance, a feeling of disappointment, of defeat, frequently occurred. It was as if there were holes in the fabric. "

In an attempt to alleviate this feeling, 'the conventional...became a thing to be avoided' and dissonant counterpoint was born.

Initially, the old rhythmic species were retained; in matters of pitch the octave, fifth, fourth, thirds and sixths were held to be consonant, and the tritone, seconds, sevenths and ninths dissonant. The novelty lay in the principle that dissonance rather than consonance was established as the norm. Thus in First species counterpoint (example 3.1) no consonance between the two parts was allowed; additionally, the melodies themselves consisted in the main of dissonant intervals.

If any consonant melodic intervals were used, they were immediately dissonanted (i.e. counteracted by the introduction of a pitch related dissonantly to one of the 'consonant' pitches). In other species consonances had to be prepared and resolved by dissonances, preferably by leaping rather than stepwise motion.

Apart from these purely intervallic considerations, it was also felt that the melodic repetition of any pitch (or the sounding of its octave) was unsatisfactory unless the two appearances were separated by at least five other pitches. In practice this often meant that there would be eight or more intervening pitches, resulting in the creation of a densely chromatic line. The only exceptions to this were the use of a pivotal tone and the occasional appearance of reiterated (or rhythmicised) single pitches, though Seeger criticized the clich‚d use of the latter.

Difficulties accumulated, however, in direct relation to the number of voices employed; consistent application of the rules led to an increased dependence on homophonic rather than polyphonic textures. The solution to this problem came with the realization that rhythm, as well as pitch, need to be treated in a consistently dissonant way, both horizontally and vertically.

Indeed, Seeger felt that the ability to rhythmically 'dissonant' a single melodic line was an essential prerequisite to the successful writing of dissonant counterpoint and identified a number of practices through which this ideal might be realised.

These included successive (horizontal) rhythmic dissonation of a single line, simultaneous (vertical) rhythmic dissonation between lines, and also what he termed three species of dissonant counterpoint. Thus, rhythmically, as well as intervalically, the successive appearance of identical formulations was discouraged - regularity of pitch, interval or rhythm weakened the required dissonant effect.

Haveing described the development of the essential principles of dissonant counterpoint, let us now examine their dissemination and growth in finished compositions. In his 1932 article Cowell wrote:

"While Seeger has worked out some of his findings himself, his greatest importance lies in his subtle influence in suggesting to others both a new musical point of view and specific usages in composition."

Although the biographical section in Cowell's book (on page 215) includes references to a number of works by Seeger, it fails to explain that most of them were destroyed in the Berkeley fire of 1926. However, it does mention a series of Studies in Single, Unaccompanied Melody and in Two-line Dissonant Counterpoint written between 1915 and 1932. Although the fate of these studies is not known, what would seem to be two of them - Psalm 137 (1923) and The Letter (1931) - were published in New Music in 1954. p. 89-92

The lack of further published examples of Seeger's own practical realizations of his theories is regrettable. Fortunately, however, many of his ideas were taken up and developed more fully by his friends and pupils, in ways as diverse as the characters of the composers themselves.

Indeed, so individual, radical and wide-ranging was the reaction of Henry Cowell - Seeger's earliest successful protege - that it will be discussed separately in chapter 4.

However, Seeger's influence was felt also by those less directly connected with him, as was suggested by Cowell: 'most of those who use his ideas do not know his name and believe themselves to have originated the ideas'. p.96