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The site of GIOVANNI GROSSKOPF, composer and pianist

If you understand Italian, you can also read the texts in the section OPINIONI E SCRITTI in the Italian language, which are different from those published hereafter.


Contemporary music, tonality/atonality (first part) and (second part)
Composition & research
Music genres
What could be the discriminating points between classical and non-classical?
Some favorite modern and contemporary composers
About my interests outside music

My goal is mainly to create profound, highly communicative, spontaneous refined atonal music. What does this mean exactly? My colleagues, the musicians that will read this page, will probably smile at this question, but you can't imagine how many people have asked it to me and even sent me e-mails to know what tonality and atonality are! So, I'll try to put it in these terms: the traditional classical music of the past ages was based on arranging all the tones and chords of a composition in relation to a central 'key' note (called the 'tonic'), thus forming a system or an arrangement of seven tones built on a tonic key or note, which ought to be also the last note of the piece in order to obtain an effect of satisfying conclusion. This traditional system was also based on a number of mainly consonant well-known traditional chords which could be easily classified according to the well-known traditional rules of harmony. It was named 'tonality'. Pop, rock and non-classical music are still based on tonality nowadays. During the 20th Century, on the contrary, classical music has developed greatly, getting more and more different from tonality-based music: composers tried to avoid arranging music in relation to a conclusive sound, and began to employ even strong dissonances as ordinary sounds with wonderful astonishing suggestive effects, and irregular rhythms as ordinary rhythms, and also began to abandon the use of motives and of leading musical themes, focusing on tone color and timbre qualities rather than on melody. This new musical style is very distinctive of the contemporary classical music, sometimes called also 'learned' contemporary music, or 'new music', or 'avant-garde' music. This fascinating, strongly evocative new style of music is not really 'new' at present: it began to exist in European and Western music about the year 1900, and we must remark - for instance - that some of its features have always been part of ethnical musical traditions of many peoples in the world. It is not therefore a music without natural bases, of course, but it has only different natural bases. This new musical style is simply not based on tonality, so it is often referred to as 'atonal' music. It's sad that so many people today do not even know what atonal music is, because it is the classical music of our age.

Of course, this evolution did not occur without problems. Classical music is no more based on tonality nowadays. But it was. When the musical system of tonality has been left aside, we have also abandoned a certainty, a commonly accepted system that ensured the possibility to build chord sequences that surely were to sound logical and consequent, a feature that has always been distinctive of the music of Europe, in my personal opinion clearly influenced by the diversity of the Christian faith, that states that the Sense of the History has entered the History and so that the man has become free and can have an active part in its development, because his task is not only to follow some teachings or laws or to recreate an eternal myth: History has a direction, a sense. Now a standard method to ensure a feeling of consequentiality (and then a feeling of Sense, of proceeding towards a Destiny) does not exist any more; on the contrary, the need to make the listeners perceive in what direction a music will go on has become more and more attenuated in many composers, in my opinion proceeding side by side with a loss of clarity about the sense and direction of the life itself, so typical of the present age. Besides, also in the domain of the contemporary music a tendency to the creation of static, repetitive, hypnotic atmospheres has been spreading all about us in the last years, partly owing to the influence of certain vaguely Oriental conceptions. Facing all this, I have been concerned, since fifteen years ago, with doing some research to find a solution to what seemed a problem to me. When, years ago, I started to feel interested to atonal music, I guessed that the problem of understanding and appreciating spontaneously a music written in an atonal style should necessarily be connected to the revivification of a method to give a feeling of logical consequentiality in music also outside the old rules of tonality. At the same time, however, the practical experience, the facts, demonstrated clearly that the atonal music was not at all necessarily the product of a situation of crisis and disorientation, as many erroneously think, and that the contemporary music could and can certainly be as great as the traditional classical music used to be. I perceived that to dismiss the great expressive goals that have been attained through the use of the dissonant atonal chords would have been like to suppress a cardinal part of the 20th Century musical heritage, a sort of apostasy committed towards an objectively beautiful and poetic experience, which had been created with the labor and struggles of many; in other words, to ignore the beauty of atonal music would have been like to ignore deliberately an important part of reality in order to escape the problems related with it, instead of reflecting on them. To ignore facts and experience.

So, I simply tried to start from the observation of reality: that is, I sometimes felt that a given succession of two atonal chords sounded more logical and more consequent than other ones, and I started to wonder why it was so. I wondered: how does the atonal harmony work when we feel that "it works", that is when it has an appropriate and clear effect? What is lacking in it when, on the contrary, we feel that "it doesn't work" properly? In other words, I tried to do some research on the hypothetical rules that could govern a system of atonal chords, to order them in logical and consequent successions, just in the way that chord sequences based on tonality used to sound logical and consequent. I tried to obtain something that could work as a common shared technical basis, so that I will not be obliged to put aside something that has always been one of the essential features of music in my culture: a feeling of consequentiality, indeed, a feeling of being proceeding towards a ultimate final goal, a sense given by its directionality, by the presence of a clearly perceivable thread in the music. I try to actuate this practically above all through my music, of course. As a researcher, however, these thoughts brought me also to explore the development of a method to analyze the atonal chords. - (GO ON about contemporary music) (TOP OF THIS PAGE-INDEX-TOPICS)

Yes, I work also as a researcher. My work as a researcher is related to the fact that I do not agree with classifying the discussions on structure and technics as academic and dry. I believe that in music meaning and poetry are in structure, or at least rely on it. Of course a structure that causes some audible effects, that you hear (possibly also without noticing its presence), not the type of structure that can only be viewed on a score. Any music has necessarily a structure. A structure in itself is far from being arid. I mean, poetry and emotion rely on structures that cause a feeling of coherence, or a feeling of hypnosis, or a perception of dialoguing voices, or a feeling of tensions, and relaxations, so that each passage derives from the former one and brings to the following one, and you are forced to wait something, until the end of the piece comes and you feel that you are waiting for the completion not only of that piece but of your life, which you will of course find only in Heaven... Really, the poetry of music, or of a passage, or of a single sound or tone color, is in its form (also a few milliseconds of sound have a form, as I learned from my electronic music studies)...this is the way I usually think about this problem. Atmospheres, emotions, already exist. But isn't it poetry and a fascinating task to try to understand (always in part, because a music is like a living person, and you never know it completely) why that emotional effect is there, what causes it, which structure is emanating such a beauty, and how could I do it again? Thus you discover that everything, every structure, conveys and points to a meaning that you never reach in this life... But why should we reject structure, technics, materiality? It's only through this one that some Meaning seems to appear. My problem is never how I feel, but what reality is made of! And reality is also materiality and rationality, I am also made of rationality and I feel complete only if also my reason is considered. The fact is that I compose what I like, but I need also to understand technically why I like that passage in a particular way, so that I can gain more control in what I am doing and understand more profoundly what I really want and what I really like and especially why. In my experience, the technical comprehension and the aesthetic emotion are not separated and also the technical research is poetic in some way, because it is made to understand where the beauty is coming from! Really, sometimes analysis, when analysing or playing, or building structures, when composing, can be poetry, in this way. This gives me emotion: the unity and collaboration between spirituality and materiality, the fact that what you feel when you listen to Beethoven, for example, IS related in some partly inexplicable and partly understandable way to how Beethoven used to modulate from I to III or to write a pizzicato. We are one, body and soul. Also any good interpreter knows that there is a profound unity between technics and interpretation, for example. And this is what I find fascinating. (TOP OF THIS PAGE-INDEX-TOPICS)

What are my favourite music genres? Besides the contemporary and 20th Century classical music, I love the authentic field-recorded ethnic music (I'm fond of ethnomusicology). I believe that a composer has much to learn from it, and that the authentic ethnic music and the contemporary music have much in common. I love ancient music very much, too, from the Middle Ages to the Baroque and Haydn (philologically performed, please! "The method to know an object properly is suggested by the object itself", wrote Luigi Giussani, and this is crucial in music). I usually love to work with people who deal often with ancient music: they often know the importance of accuracy, understanding, precision and absolute and passionate dedication to their work, and I like this. And often they like modern and contemporary classical music, too, like me. I really love Grieg, too. That's peculiar for me: I am not particularly inclined towards Romanticism (and opera), generally speaking, although with some remarkable exceptions. I often find excellent music in the works of the so-called minor authors (in music, and also in painting!), and I absolutely agree with those who study them. Besides, I often find music in the precise observation of natural elements (birds songs, animal calls, natural forms, natural sounds). With regard to the question whether we should go on to regard the classical music as a genre apart, somewhat profounder than the others, or we should regard all the genres as having a substantial parity and compose cross-genre music without any problem, well, I confess that my opinion is the first one. (TOP OF THIS PAGE-INDEX-TOPICS)

What could be the discriminating points between classical and non-classical?
I made a lot of deep studies about this problem, a problem which many people regard as irrelevant, meaningless, old-fashioned or irritating, today, while I think it is a crucial one. There is a complete long text about this subject that you can download from this site, but it is in Italian. Anyway, if you understand the Italian language, you can download it here. I will try here to summarize three points from it:

1) In non-classical music the "tune" or "rhythm" or "timbre", or "athmosphere", or any basic idea, is important in itself. In classical music the only important thing is what I do with it. This stresses the importance of constructing, building architectures, structures, forms. In classical music, meaning and style coincide with form, accurately planned and built, both in the short and in the long duration spans. And one must show his mastering of technique in modelling any element (harmony, timbre, and so on) to follow the building of the structures he is developing. This, also when one improvises (Mozart used to build accurately structured cadenzas when improvising), and moreover when one writes music.

2) A serious classical composer must have an approach which I call "Catholic", in the philological meaning of this word: comprehensive, universal, inclusive: "evaluate anything you meet and appreciate and make treasure of anything that has a value" (thinking to what St. Paul wrote).
This means that a serious classical composer does not simply compose what he likes, but tries to understand all the tendencies of his age (and the recent past ages), and to incorporate in his own style any aspect of them that he finds valuable, and tries to point out where are the most important problems of the music of his age, and also to indicate a possible solution for them, that is to indicate the possible direction towards which the music should move, in his opinion. The first tradition that one cannot absolutely neglect is the history of contemporary classical music in the 20th Century (including, moreover, CLASSICAL music after 1945, moving from the heroic years of the Darmstadt School, of the first years at IRCAM, but also from other streams which are as well important, like post-Bartok composers, for example, or composers like Ives, Crumb, Perle, Varése, Babbitt, Murray Schafer,...and many others, to quote only names related to America; but one should take into account a lot of European masters, like Berio, Castiglioni, Donatoni, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Nordheim, Gubaidulina, Schnittke, the great Messiaen, Boulez and so on). Listening to one's music, in order to classify his music as classical it must be evident the fact that he knows well this special tradition. Also, an important merit is to avoid to stress breaks in classical tradition, that is, for instance, to show that, in an original and new way, your music has been influenced by composers who were living Centuries ago... and that classical music, though one uses an up-to-date and ultra-modern style, is always the expression of the same, everlasting tradition and human attitude, that is exactly what leads one to choose that style. Beethoven and Monteverdi were ultra-modern, at their times. One can build something really new only out of tradition. And the tradition has always been to create something new, but with a precise approach.

3) People are made of heart and brain. Some music stresses the importance of heart, other of brain. Today, I think, a dangerous tendency stresses heart only (emotions, instinct, and no more). Well-made classical music, correctly listened to, must stress the importance of both of them exactly to the same degree.

There is so much more to say on this subject… (TOP OF THIS PAGE-INDEX-TOPICS)

What are my favorite modern and contemporary composers? Among them there are Debussy, Ravel, Milhaud, Bartók, Charles Ives, Alban Berg (mainly because of his taste for lyrical melodic lines), some British and Nordic authors who are not very much known in Italy (like Cyril Scott, Delius, Ireland, Lars-Erik Larsson), and then Stravinskij, Messiaen, Berio, Niccolò Castiglioni, Crumb, Ligeti, Takemitsu, Grisey, Lutoslawski, Nordheim, Bronius Kutavicius, Jonathan Harvey, George Benjamin..., but also many, many others.

There is a LOT of wonderful contemporary (especially atonal) music, there is an atonal tradition, too, full of dignity EXACTLY as the classical tradition of the past, but the mass media and record labels almost ignore it. (What is atonality? Click here). There are not only the great pieces composed by the aforementioned authors, of course. But also many pieces composed by friends of mine, after a life of studies, hard work and efforts. When I see that so many people despise contemporary music and throw away the good one with the bad one, I become really irritated. More, I feel hurt, and I think to me and my friends, and our passionate work considered as if it were nothing. I'd rather to save both (good and bad contemporary music) than to throw away the good part with the bad one, to give up and destroy the love and passion for beauty that so many composers demonstrate with their hard work and their life. I think that one must be concerned with the prejudices of those who speak badly of contemporary music without even trying to understand it. Understanding the contemporary classical atonal music is often a problem of what education you have had (and musical education cannot be separated from human relationships and from a global education of a person, as we can learn from the classical early music or from the traditional cultures), and also a problem of what the mass media let you know. For instance, sometimes the little children and non-musicians understand it better.

Really, contemporary (atonal) music is not (and shouldn't be) a matter who interests only some cerebral academics: there are plain, simple people who love it, and they are more than what one usually imagines. Being involved with it can only enrich you. Besides, I believe that one should prefer - and should be prone - to be changed in his soul by the music he listens to, than to change the music he listens to according to his mood. A music that does not surprise you, a music that you already listen without problems, is not interesting for your life. So I'm always very concerned with making people love good atonal music (of course there is the bad one, too!) and get enriched, and free from prejudices. For instance: tuneful atonal melodies CAN exist. Yes, it occurs to me quite often to whistle themes from Berg (sonata op.1), Messiaen (a lot, really, and very often!) and even Stockhausen (Tierkreis, that can be one of the possible demonstrations that atonal melodies can indeed be tuneful). Why not? They come to me spontaneously and unconsciously. I believe that music is not ONE universal language. There are MANY languages, as in speech. One should simply know the language, so, as already stated, it is also a problem of education (and mass media, and, and the language itself must be understandable, that is (for me), it must be partly based on natural foundations and on the culture of the environment from which it spreads. And, at least for us Europeans (I'm Italian), on consequentiality.

And, like with language minorities, each language must have the right to exist and must have its space, equal to the others. We all have the right to speak our native, spontaneous language. And atonality is absolutely spontaneous, for me, more than tonality. This does not mean I don't have composition techniques, of course, nor that I praise any kind of atonal music; on the contrary, I am very concerned with the development of an understandable atonal language with natural bases (tonality is NOT the only language with natural bases!). For instance, my technical purpose is often to demonstrate that we can build sequences of atonal chords having a clearly perceivable directional logic, e.g. from the most consonant one to the most dissonant one, or from the one that has the poorest sound to the richest one, in order to achieve a feeling of consequent development in the music (so that a listener can follow it better), like the one that we can hear in tonality-based music, but this time doing so in a completely atonal piece, that can sound absolutely natural and spontaneous (if in the composer's heart there is above all poetry, beside a good technique!).

Also all my work, together with my other colleagues, on software for computer-aided composition and music analysis (though less important than the musical one, of course!) is done for the same reasons that I have presented here: helping to develop and to understand a natural, spontaneous atonal or modern musical language.

People who is not used to atonality regards it as an expression of nervous uneasiness, as something involving tragedy, or the lack of meaning in modern life, and expressing the stressing modern life, and so on. I think this was true 90 years ago, when tonality was not completely dead yet, at the time of Hugo Wolf or of the first works of Berg and Schoenberg, but that was a distant age, when my grandfather was young, cars and airplanes where still uncommon, telephone was a strange experiment, the Two World Wars had not occurred yet, and computers did not exist.
I do not think to atonality in that way.
I think that the fact that the musical language has changed, tonality is dead, and the music of our days, whatever its expressive aims may be (including sweetness, serenity, jokes, merry moments and joy), should be completely atonal, is absolutely obvious, or at least should be obvious: when I say "should be", I mean: not an imposed choice (of course!!!), but a choice felt and regarded spontaneously as obvious. Writing tonal music, today, can only be a matter of academic exercises, semi-serious pieces, jokes, pastimes, light-minded commercial songs, meaningless background New Age music, quotations, movie soundtracks (or music that sounds like them), brass bands, Church music (but not necessarily! Why, after all?), military music and so on.
Well, the death of tonality in classical music occurred more than 100 years ago!
Of course, the music of any age, and so also ours, may include uneasiness, tragedy, stress, drama and so on. But this must be the result of the personal character and choices of a single composer, and not a matter of musical language regarding the choice between tonality and atonality.
So the problem is not simply to be or not to be tonal (that's a consequence), but to understand in which direction the most valuable, profound, precious part of today's music (that in my opinion is atonal contemporary classical music, in all its many different existing styles and tendencies) must go now and in the near future. And moreover, to be authentic and honest with oneself.

Do I have interests other than music? Oh, yes, several ones: watching and identifying animals in the wild, birdwatching, botany, strolling in the Alps, among fir forests, high meadows, brooks and moors, reading as much as I can, looking to the works of the great painters (Bruegel, Monet, Seurat, Kandinsky, Klee, and my great Chagall...), collecting rare authentic traditional music field recordings, reading or following studies in ethnology, anthropology or folklore, reading good literature and theatre, watching movies by great directors when I have time (almost never), playing with little children and learning from them. I have also a strange attraction for languages, linguistics and ethnic minorities, and for funny tricks based on logic and maths, for music boxes (but I have only one of them) and for astronomy, for mountain life and nature, for the Northern Countries and especially for Norway, for the hardingfele, for the old fairy tales, legends and surviving old rituals and customs, and for the studies about any of these subjects. And I love museums, but also cartoons... (TOP OF THIS PAGE-INDEX-TOPICS)

With many thanks to Roberto Andreoni, David Isaac Barclay, Cristian Floris, Enrico Raggi for their questions and remarks that made me think.
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