After posting the little piece (Haydn?, January 9) in which I lauded Terry Teachout's spotlight on the underexposed (not an insult) composer but took umbrage at TT's referring to tonality as a "natural law," I got an e-mail from an acquaintance whose criticism I cherish infinitely more than most people's compliments.
I defended my stance on 'tonality not being natural' (in the universal sense) by evoking other cultures who have lived happily (and still do, some) without it - and on 'tonality not being a law' of any sort, by making note that actual natural laws - gravity, for example - will pull a Chinese musician down to earth as much as it will keep Bach from floating.
The problem about getting smart with people smarter than I is that they write back. And, with a sentence or two, can take the air out of my argument and the smug, self-content smile off my face. Sure enough, I am being told that while gravity does work everywhere, "some cultures created airplanes by using gravity creatively and other cultures created cargo cults when they saw their first airplanes. Same thing with tonality."
Go outwit that. I can't - but I (until I get the next e-mail, no doubt) gleefully detect a slight mismatch in the analogy here. I can assume that the cargo-cult brothers were a certain three men from Vienna (two in particular!) and their followers... some of whom perpetuated their most heinous and hideous crimes in the thenceforth most irreputable town of Darmstadt.
Alas - "discovering tonality" and sticking with old ways turns out to be more a jab at the renitent Chinese who still blow air into their reed flutes or Indians who squeeze more distinctive notes into five fingerboard inches of a sitar than an extended Bösendorfer yields. If I may pick up the analogy I was given and extend it (against my instincts perhaps, but I think rather accurately) to those at whom it was aimed, it would go like this:
Some among the 'aeroplane flying folk' figured one day, that, really, there's only so far you can go with gravity and flying and all... let's go for more! So they built themselves a splendid, fancy rocket - state of the art, academically sound, and all - fueled it - stood a good distance away and watched. The rocket, sure enough, exploded into bits and pieces, getting (if that) a few inches off the ground.
The engineers looked at each other, at the shards littered about, at their blueprints, and each other again and - slapping each other on the back - exclaimed: Capital! Now there's really something! Regular flying? Puh... how bourgeois when you can have this!?! Since then, their burst rockets' craters have littered the Western musical landscape and their originators have been named Knights of the Order of Transcendental Flight.
P.S. I made someone (innocent) listen to all of Pierrot Lunaire last week. Somebody stop me before mere bystanders get hurt.