Friday, October 01, 2010

Tension and Release: Alpha and Omega

After all these years practicing, listening to, writing about, and teaching music, the most fundamental unifying musical principal finally dawned on me. It happened while I was teaching a class. I heard myself say, while I was explaining the structure of the harpsichord cadenza in the Bach Brandenburg Concerto #5, the words "tension and release," and after class I realized that all music involves the successful or unsuccessful use of these two elements in proportion to one another.

Sonata form, for example, is all about tension and release. The repeat of an exposition is a release from tension (if set up properly by the performing musicians), a development section is all about setting up and building up the tension (harmonic and otherwise) that gives the recapitulation a feeling of release. Rondo form has the same buildup of tension and release, but it happens in different places in the movement. A successful multi-movement work "works" because of the sense of tension and release that happens between movements.

Bach often uses chromaticism to set up tension, and he relieves it in all sorts of ways: sometimes he does it gradually, sometimes he does it abruptly with tempo, sometimes he does it covertly, and sometimes he does it by resolving something cleverly (there are too many examples of this to name).

The observation and transmitting of musical tension is the responsibility of the performing musicians, but the composer is responsible for putting the necessary elements in the best order, and controlling the progression of the tension and release by using harmonic and melodic material, dynamics, orchestration, and tempo.

The ability to work successfully with the balance of tension and release is what divides the great composers from the good ones. An unsuccessful buildup of tension by a performing musician (or group of musicians) can make listening to even the most expertly-written piece unbearable, and an unsuccessful release of tension can make the most successful buildup of tension almost meaningless.

We have the responsibility as composers to be as vigilant as possible to balance the tension and release in our pieces, and as performing musicians we have the responsibility to follow the trajectory of the tension and release written into the music, and give performances that reflect a natural balance. It is much easier to do with "expert" music than it is to do with music that is less-well-written, and it's much easier to do with "common practice" music than with music that does not rely on harmony and melody to build up and release tension.


David Wolfson said...

I appreciate the insight here, but I have to object to your stating that making tension and release work is easier in common practice music than otherwise. If that's true of a given performer, it's only because he/she is more used to and attuned to how to create tension and release using that vocabulary. Any musician who spent as much time playing Elliott Carter (e.g.) as Beethoven would be as much at home with those means of expressing tension and release, no?

Elaine Fine said...

I think that with non-common-practice music the "rules" for tension and release tend to vary from piece to piece (at least in my experience), as well as from composer to composer. It also takes a long time to figure out, in many cases, what actually works, and it is sometimes hit and miss that it might happen again. I have found that there are pieces of Carter that have little to do with one another. Some people like Bartok and Berg set up their music in such a way that the areas of tension and release (even within a given phrase) are obvious, but I don't know if that is the case with Carter.

There is also a lot of emotional fakery that can pass for intelligent performances of later 20th century music, where the performer puts more of his or her stamp (sometimes literally) on the music at hand. I think that time and perspective will help us to separate successful recorded performances of middle and later 20th century music.