Invisible Tonality

2011 Symposium2

When we think of something being invisible, surely things that cannot be seen come to mind. The air we breathe, for example, is invisible because we cannot see it (though we can see the effects of it moving an object on which it blows). We know air is all around us because we breathe it to stay alive and because of what we see the air doing. We do not have to see air to know it is there.

A similar situation can exist with tonality. Notice I said can exist, because it does not always. In much of the Western art music repertoire, tonality is clearly heard every time we hear the stabilizing effect of the tonic chord providing respite from harmonic tension, or bringing the music to a temporary or concluding rest. While all this is so, there is also the invisible yet ever present aspect of tonality. Whether or not we are hearing the tonic chord, we nevertheless are constantly aware of what the tonic is. We know this because we audiate the tonality of the music we are listening to regardless of what chord we may be hearing at any given moment. So when the tonic chord is not being heard, the tonality is still there, invisible yet present because of our audiation.

As tonality became less explicit in the late nineteenth century, composers became more and more reliant on the listener’s ability to retain the tonic in mind while physically hearing it less and less. The whole concept of chromaticism and impressionism relies on this very thing. If we were not able to audiate the tonic amid chords stretching further and further away from the tonic, the tension, angst, and beauty of those chords and their dissonances would not be possible. As long as a composer gives listeners enough indications of a tonality, they can hear a piece as tonal and be aroused by the scarcity of physically present affirmations of that tonality. To the extent that a composer does this, he or she has created invisible tonality; tonality that is heard through audiation but not explicitly in the music itself.

Piotr Lachert

Piotr Lachert

Today, I would like to present, or perhaps introduce you, to a composer who, in my opinion, is a master of creating invisible tonality. If you listen to his music, you will find that you rarely hear a tonic chord, yet always seem to know what it would be if you were to hear it played. He gives you just enough indication of a tonality to enable you to audiate what he has left out–the tonic. The composer is Piotr Lachert, a Polish composer with some fascinating views on music, and extensive involvement in the music community in which he works. I hope you enjoy these three preludes.

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