Illegal Harmonies: music in the 20th century
Excerpt from Chapter One
Listen. What do you hear?
Well, unless you are in an anechoic chamber, stripped of you wrist-watch, you can probably hear lots of things. Even in the chamber you would hear your breathing and, perhaps, your heartbeat; and you'd hear them to a degree that the mildest hypochondriac might find disturbing, because you wouldn't normally notice these sounds at all. We are surrounded by sounds all the time, but we tend not to hear them; our brains are very good at editing what our ears pick up. If we stop, for a moment, to listen, there they are: the ticking clock, traffic noise, fragments of conversation, birdsong, a distant barking dog, a passing plane. They are examples of what the American composer John Cage called 'illegal harmony'.
Harmony is created by bringing sounds together. At school, we learn how to do this in a formal, musically conventional fashion: we learn about chords and keys and modulation, and we are given rules for using them. This is the textbook way; this is legal harmony. Everything else, including the simultaneous sounding of clocks, dogs and aeroplanes, is illegal harmony. John Cage said we should begin to listen to these sounds and to appreciate them, rather than block them out [ . . .].
In 1899, the man who would one day become John Cage's teacher wrote a string sextet called Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night). It was one of Arnold Schoenberg's first major works, and it went on to become his most popular; but to the Viennese jury that considered it for performance, Verklärte Nacht proved unacceptable. Schoenberg, the jury members pointed out, had written a chord that didn't exist; it was not to be found in any textbook; it was, if you like, illegal.
© Andrew Ford 2002
Hale & Iremonger 1997; 2nd edition ABC Books 2002