Laughter and Tonality
Dramatic works that interweave comic and serious scenes fascinate me. The libretto for the first opera I composed contained striking shifts of mood. As the libretto moved from light to dark emotions, I tried expressing this shift by moving from tonal to nearly atonal music. Unfortunately, the overall result of that approach disappointed me.
Changing the basic premises of the overall musical style seemed blatantly obvious, much like overacting. Instead, I decided I needed to make shifts along a stylistic continuum—a continuum that could encompass a wide spectrum of emotions.
To choose the basis of that continuum my first consideration was my gut-level reactions. By then I had learned from experience that various types of tonal and modal music consistently triggered my most emotionally-charged responses.
I also knew that I wanted to include comedy in my spectrum of expressive possibilities. So whatever stylistic choices I made had to allow for the possibility of joyous, light-hearted expression, as well as darker emotions.
Comedy is inevitably situational. Comedy depends on expectations, on contexts that allow a comic perspective. I realized that I could only imagine composing comic and light-hearted music within the framework provided by some form of tonality.
So to allow for comedy and cohesion, I’ve made a pliable, consonant, modal/tonal vocabulary the basis of my working spectrum. This provides a flexible “norm” that can be altered for either comic or tragic effect. Comedy might involve unexpected turns, while darker emotions might involve more chromaticism, dissonance, or tonal ambiguity. Working within various tonal frameworks allows me to maintain a conceptual continuum, which in turn makes it easier to maintain a sense of cohesion and continuity.
In my works this continuity seldom involves an over-arching tonal center. Instead, I usually treat “tonality” as a loosely-defined concept that allows immediate shifts of pitch center and mode. These passing modal/tonal frameworks provide situational, fragmentary contexts that I can play with for comedic and dramatic purposes.