As an event, polytonality appears to be much easier to recognize than it is to define. Within jazz improvisation pedagogy circles, recent attempts have been made to instruct musicians who are curious about improvising “outside” of a prescribed harmonic framework, while at the same time not playing purely intervalically. And while each author appears eager to put his stamp on an arguably self-developed method, he would appear to be operating under the assumption that the reader has without discussion chosen to adopt the same definition of what polytonality is and where it occurs.
To arrive at a standardized (or perhaps just more widely accepted) definition of polytonality, it would be prudent to trace the term back to its origin. Within the framework of the music of composers such as Darius Milhaud or Maurice Ravel, polytonality is a compositional technique introduced in the early 20th century*, and is sometimes recognized as a trend easily overshadowed in an era of more radical and perhaps more noticeable techniques and soundscapes. Indeed, much in the way that cubism can shift the attention of the art world at large to focus from impressionlsm, conventional musical material articulated in multiple keys can scarcely be considered modern in the wake of radical departures such as atonal serial composition, aleatoric performance-derived music, or a handful of other concurrent techniques and genres.
Even within accepted and respected codices specializing in modern composition, polytonality, while usually included, does not appear in my view to have been sufficiently explored, or in some cases even explained. This is perhaps because, in many instances of polytonality, it is often taken for granted that the standardized rules of harmony and voice leading usually still apply, only with the modification that events happening in multiple keys simultaneously. As such, it is feasible that these events can be perceived, analyzed and understood in manners akin to those applied to a single tonal environment. Bearing in mind that a differentiation between simultaneous tonal events is not always so clear, it is my aim to examine a variety of types of occurrences, seeking applications of common methodologies.
As a means of achieving maximum function, this series will focus on composed concert music from the early to mid-20th century, and improvisations from the late 20th and early 21st centuries, providing reasoning behind why certain choices are made as opposed to others, and how those choices may affect the listener’s psychology of perception.
*While earlier occurrences of the articulation of multiple keys can be found in Bach and even in pre-tonal music, “polytonality” as a term and formal concept was not formally articulated until 1922.