Laughter and Tonality

I am fascinated by dramatic works that interweave comic and tragic scenes. 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 clearly tonal/modal music to nearly atonal music. In retrospect, the results disappointed me.

Changing the basic premise of the style I was working in seemed as blatantly obvious as overacting. I decided I wanted to make shifts along a stylistic continuum—a continuum that could encompass a broad spectrum of emotions.

Choosing the Basis of a Continuum

To choose the basis of that continuum, I first considered my gut-level responses. By then I had learned that various types of tonal and modal music consistently triggered my most emotionally charged responses.

I was also sure I wanted to include comedy in my spectrum of expressive possibilities. Whatever stylistic choices I made had to allow for the possibility of joyous, light-hearted expression, as well as darker emotions.

Situational Contexts

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 support comedy, tragedy, 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 comic or tragic effect. Comedy might involve unexpected swerves or playful dissonance, while darker emotions might involve more chromaticism, darker dissonance, or tonal ambiguity. Working within tonal frameworks allows me to maintain a conceptual continuum, which 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.