Counterpoint & style

Examinations of contemporary style may start most productively from the perspective of a particular element. Whatever the issues behind failing to garner a broader audience, contemporary music shows no lack of recognizable personal styles. While the perspective of reaction to melody is a prime orientation for both compositional development & assessment, and counterpoint is one such reaction, its specific nature is also ripe for a more flexible examination. Setting borrowed melodies to "common practice" harmony was a major driver for Romanticism, and more recently the concept of explicit borrowing has been reinforced by the basic search for material which is postmodernism. Given the rise of historicism, we are now in the unprecedented position of also being able to use distinct preexisting contrapuntal styles. Indeed, the amateur world has seen an explosion of "mix & match" compositions which essentially take a melody from one source and a harmonic style from another, combining them to form something at least superficially new. Such activity is a straightforward way to fill gaps between various distinct, but related styles. While world music presents ample opportunity for melodic exploration, counterpoint per se has a primarily (although not completely) Western orientation.

Both the contrapuntal variety and frequent borrowing of the Franco-Flemish masters suggest an explicit correspondence with contemporary compositional ideas, providing at least one impetus for the enthusiastic reexamination of this music in the mid-to-late-twentieth century. Within that idiom and its application today, one is left to wonder which aspects of contrapuntal technique are able to convey individual style. Within the "common practice" realm, at least in its most restrictive sense, a harmonic setting must be done in a particular way to be correct, and so there is little one can do to display personality. Even within that framework, such restrictions are not entirely binding, and eighteenth & nineteenth century composers do develop some personality in e.g. their occasional fugues. For the most part, though, their melodies and sense of repetition-based form define them, even if the melodies of any period tend to be constrained to fit the fashionable harmonic style (rather than vice versa, I submit). Moving back to the fifteenth century, while certain melodies became quite popular and drew fame to their creators, the basic "stock" of melodies was the same for all composers, with free borrowing and reuse. Somehow, a composer such as Ockeghem managed to develop a distinct personality via his contrapuntal style without actually using contrapuntal techniques in consistent ways. This fact, which we can perceive by ear, suggests very clearly that our means of describing counterpoint are deficient.

Josquin's subsequent fame and many imitators actually serve to blunt his personal style, especially as many other works became attributed to him. Less well-known composers are easier to discuss in this way. A composer such as Agricola, with his intricate and capricious counterpoint (historically described as "dark") becomes quite distinctive, and even the large variety of technique employed by La Rue (including the frequent parodies) coalesces into an overall stylistic image driven by the contoured distinctiveness of his lines. Of course, Obrecht's sunny textures and formal drive are almost instantly recognizable, at least to those with a good ear. We must remember, however, that even during the period, contemporary writers were fully able to become confused regarding attributions, sometimes in cases which seem impossible today. In some sense, deducing personal style from implied consistency is always chimeric, but a contrapuntal orientation makes such a reduction that much less concrete. If music suggests patterns of thought, if it affects us in some way directly related to a composer's own thoughts, then we should be able to hear a composer's individuality, and we (believe we) do. It is the nature of that individuality which we find difficult to pinpoint, leading to musings on whether our own emotional investment might have created the illusion of a distinctive personal style (relative to a composer's contemporaries) in the first place. This question is inherently unanswerable, since both scenarios arise from the same involvement.

We might even seek to brush aside such a distinction, suggesting instead that it is resonance between our own thoughts and the music which engenders either reaction, and that it is such a resonance upon which any effect is predicated. Such a position effectively sidesteps scrutinizing the nature of individuality, something we might be forced to do when individuality hinges upon counterpoint alone. While later counterpoint was largely an embellishment of the underlying musical content, for many composers of the Josquin generation, it was the content. Those formal consequences eventually produced the symphony concept (although only explicitly after lighter ideas came to dominate large-scale abstract music). Indeed, the idea of personal style exists at least partly as a retrospective concept, available to us only after general stylistic categories have been defined and designated. To some degree, personal style operates only in opposition to a standard, a standard which is usually impossible to define precisely. Such an orientation seems entirely appropriate to late-fifteenth century music, based upon a standard which was then only in the process of becoming, consummated eventually by later generations. Stylistic descriptions of individual composers have consequently been bound to ideas on how they did not reflect the emerging Western contrapuntal standard of clear imitative textures, dissonance treatment, textual illumination, etc. We can define e.g. La Rue's style by its "lapses" in dissonance handling.

If such ideas are to be an orientation for contemporary practice, it is again precisely the lack of a "standard" which makes assessment of postmodern music so troubling. Demands for a standard are then a crutch for an activity which is essentially only a validation of our own vanities. Counterpoint as an orientation for stylistic evaluation provides us something of the same reactionary basis, in that it depends upon how a composer reacts to his basic material, if not to a standard. Counterpoint can be viewed as an act of deconstruction, and as a form of expression cultivated only after basic utterances have been exhausted. More optimistically, it musically encapsulates reaction to stimulus, one fundamental pole of living. Counterpoint to me is very much about the mental processes involved in making a coherent whole from a society of increasingly disparate components, with the divergences of contemporary music reflecting the greater variety of our own personal worlds. A preference to hear & perform independent contrapuntal parts as chords probably reflects something of the preference for democratic dictatorship among many people today, whereas listening separately & simultaneously to individual parts is often too complex a mental process. In that sense, counterpoint is not only reactionary itself, but one's response to counterpoint can be indicative of a preference for a monolithic or celebrity-oriented world, instead of one based upon equal individuality. Counterpoint becomes a general arbiter of personal style, and its more specific assessment within individual musical contexts will be undertaken from this perspective.

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Todd M. McComb