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Wim Witteman

Listen to: Bolero by Maurice Ravel

Listen to: String Quartet by Maurice Ravel

Wim Witteman  professor of music theory Utrecht Conservatory

C: Would you like to tell something about the book you are working on?

W: It is already in a final stage. It’s called: ‘The Complete Works of Ravel’. It mainly consists of note examples and analysis. It is not something everyone has at their homes, but actually something that should exist. But foremost, I am writing it because I enjoy it.

C: Why did you decide to analyze Ravel instead of Bach for example?

W: Well, I’ve been busy with so many things, an enormous book which was also almost done, it was called: ‘The Autumn of Tonality’ -lovely title- It was about music from 1850 to 1950. I analyzed an incredible amount of works for it, but it is so much!

Ravel, one can oversee Ravel – he hasn’t written too much, and it’s all top notch. He is actually the last great ‘western’ composer and the key to pop- and jazz music. The whole jazz harmony is started by Ravel, it’s that simple. All the things that you do are exactly the same, all by Ravel. It’s a weird notion, that he already did those things a 130 years ago. I can show you that the b-10 chord dates back to 1898.

C: Did you combine all his works and investigate deeper what you already knew, or did you discover new and awesome facts that you were happy to have discovered?

W: No, I can’t say that -of course I already knew everything- the most important thing is that he invented octatonics. Before Strawinky, before the Sacre (du Printemps) and that in essence that whole tonality is built on the same tonic / sub-dominant / dominant system, but then with whole new modal means.

C: But does he actually think that way, with those three functions…

W: Yes absolutely, just like Debussy by the way, but then with all those replacements.

The most important theory I address in this book, is the difference between the major third and minor third. The major third as vertical / tonal, just like the fifth.

There are -also in psychology- vertical and horizontal relationships. A vertical relationship is like father – son and king – slave. This is like the major third and the 5th. A vertical power-relationship is what the fifth is in music, a situation of hierarchy.

One could say -but then I’m stepping into a dangerously sexist area- the major third is male (the figure of power) and the minor third is female.

I read a book the other day about the difference between men and woman. A man is a builder, a builder of systems (s-type) and a woman is an empathic type (e-type) or emotional.

Emotion and reason… in music it’s very present: The left hand is the male, forcing a certain rhythm and chord schemes, and on top of that is the emotion which seems to be free, but is still submissive to the male.

That is roughly how western music looks like: it’s all about the left and right hand, very two-part. Ever since 1600 music is two-part, always the battle between reason and emotion, male and female.

It is interesting to see -and that is why I find octatonics so important- that if you see minor and major as male and female elements, then it has always played a big part, especially in the romantic era as a dialog, because the whole romantic era is about love.

The interesting part of octatonics is that then for the first time the era of sex and struggle began, because of the combining of the major and minor third. That is why the whole b-10 story is so important. That was the beginning, the combining of the major and minor third had never happened before that.

Until 1900 the relationship between man and woman was about love and romance, after that it was suddenly about sex. The 20th century is the era of sex and war, which are related to each other.

It raises interesting issues looking at the connections between music and society. You never know if they influence each other or go side by side.

I’m reading the book: ‘The Entire History of Thought’ (‘De algehele geschiedenis van het denken’) in which is made clear that during a turn of the century such amazing things happen. There are always those enórmous changes. People are being influenced by such an abstract concept as a turn of the century.

The major third is a natural phenomenon (proportion 5 stands to 4) just as the fifth is proportion is 3 to 2. The strange thing about the minor third is that it is absolutely nòt a natural phenomenon, therefore it is an unnatural thing. So – extending that comparison, a woman is actually an …………. 🙂 It’s a curious issue: the popularity of the minor third has always been an unexplained situation by theorists, because the minor third is nowhere present in the overtone series.

Indeed in 1900 the combination of major-and-minor just springs into existence like thát, and the discovery of the tritone relation: C against F# is also in that time.

C: It’s kind of funny that that’s specifically one of those things seen in jazz, while other beautiful attainments like the modes of Messiaen -except for the octatonics which everybody uses / abuses- are not used.

W: No, but that is also very complicated. See, the ninetone scale is already a lot more difficult than octatonics and eventually a lot less interesting. The delight of octatonics is the merging of the four tonalities. What is that like with the ninetone scale? What do you get? You will have symmetry of…

C: You can play off the three major thirds against each other.

W: You mean there is that scale on C, E and on G#

C: Yes.

W: But what if you merge those chords? If you merge the major C chord on the ninetone scale with the major B chord, then you have the same chord.

C: That is what the Octurn group from Belgium does. They work a lot with enneatonics.

W: It’s a beautiful profession, that’s for sure.

C: But Wim, when do you find music really great? Is there something which is style-transgressing?

W: Well, of course I’ve heard it all.. I have literally indulged myself in the whole of classical music. I have heard everything. Which is unfortunate, because not enough new is produced. In my life I haven’t witnessed that after Ravel, Strawinsky and Bartok someone came along of which I could say: ‘Yes, that is also wonderful’ There is very, very little, almost nothing. That is tragic. After the second world war it’s scavenging for beautiful pieces, while until 1950 a lot…. No, it’s over, that piece of culture is over. We have to accept that.

C: That sounds a little depressing Wim!

W: Yes, well, it is.

K: Does that apply to only classical music, or to everything?

W: Well, from the moment that the great classical era died, the subculture -or pop culture so to speak- emerged. Jazz emerged around 1910, and that’s not to be sneezed at! Eventually the great masses have won, but that had more to do with the depletion of music we had created from 1200 – 1400. We only have 12 tones you know, you can do a lot with them, but it ends somewhere.

After that there was some experimenting with quarter notes, so you have twice as many, but that doesn’t work. You can hear if something is out of tune – like when you hear someone singing out of tune, it’s mostly ‘quarter notes’ 🙂 – but you can’t make an organisation with it, it’s just too complex. It was around 1920 when they tried that, but it failed.

There is also a limit to our imagination. When you look at Bartók, you are already on the edge of what we can perceive and grasp. Those people had outrageous hearing – that for example they could hear in this chaos of music that the clarinetist is a semitone too low. Absolutely incredible the skills of those people!

C: But you don’t think there is anything using quarter notes, serial or modern developments that makes you say: ‘This makes me excited’?

W: No. Quarter notes definitely not and that twelve tone scale music well, no.

It’s the same issue with non-figurative art, Mondriaan doesn’t excite anyone either. It’s nice to put up on the wall, but it doesn’t touch you emotionally.

But there are also people, which has to do with a different upbringing… I’ve grown up with a certain kind of music and I can remember having friends from high school who didn’t come from a classical background – they were able to appreciate Strawinsky much easier than my parents could, who had to overcome something.

No, I think the fuss about Mondriaan is all nonsense and snobbery. With art, I’m thinking lately, I want to have the feeling or the emotion of solving a puzzle, that you are feeling that something very difficult is being done and that there is someone who can do those difficult things. Half of listening to music is thinking: ‘Jesus, how can that man reach that high C!’ or ‘How is he able to maintain that tempo!’ I think for a large part that is a very important emotion. Of course there are other aspects, like hearing a bit of sadness in it for instance, that’s also true – but I think it’s mainly a sense of direction and the question of where does it lead?

That is what I have noticed by analyzing, that the straight lines could be the most important in what’s going on. That, when you hear a C, after that a D, you want to hear an E – and if that doesn’t happen, you get frustrated. Actually, those lines – what you call a common thread in a story – are what it’s all about.

If a composer goes from a C to a D an then suddenly to an F, you think: ‘What’s going on?!’ It has to be corrected immediately: c d f to E, and then you have the beginning of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. It is a simple example of a composer first having to make a ’mistake’ before making it ‘right’ afterwards.

The question is: ‘What is it that we experience?’ What are those emotions of which people say: ‘Music is so emotional…’

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