Perfect Sound Forever


The Metaphysical Ultramodernist Composer
Part II By Daniel Barbiero
(August 2023)

See Part I of this article

"Dissonant Harmony" 1: Tone

In contrast to the essentially linear approach to post-tonal composition with which the ultramoderns, and in particular Seeger, were associated, Rudhyar's compositional concept was based on what he called "dissonant harmony." "Harmony" was the key quality here, and it in turn was based on the foundation of Rudhyar's particular concept of tone, or "Tone," as he often liked to spell it.

It was "tone," and not the note, that was for Rudhyar the foundational element of music. As he argued in the 1922 treatise "The Relativity of Our Musical Conceptions," a note is an abstract concept and not something that exists in any natural or concrete sense. He observes that in theory an "A" played on a violin is identical to an "A" played on a horn, but in actual practice the two notes, although ostensible the same, are in reality two different sounds. This is because what we call a "note" is, as it actually sounds, is what Rudhyar call a "compound-tone," which is to say a complex sound made up of a fundamental tone and a series of overtones. Although he didn't put it quite this way, his argument was that what we think of when we refer to is the note is only the fundamental tone, isolated as a kind of ideal Platonic entity, and not the fundamental tone plus its spectrum of overtones, i.e., its full complement of partials, which is what gives the note as actually played--on a violin, a horn, or any other instrument--its concrete sound. A "tone" in Rudhyar's sense, by contrast, is the aggregate of the fundamental tone and its associated spectrum of overtones, which Rudhyar thought of as a kind of living organism, in contrast to the abstract ideal "note," which he saw as necessarily standing at a remove from the concrete life of music. The implication of all this is that because he defined it in terms of the entire spectrum of sound given off by the fundamental, Rudhyar's tone is inseparable from its instantiation--which is to say that "tone" in his sense has to be an actual sound realized on an actual instrument.

Because it conceived of a note in terms of its full spectrum of partials, Rudhyar's concept of tone is notable for being a kind of intuitive spectralism. But it was a spectralism motivated as much by philosophical as by purely musical considerations. It was, in effect, a metaphysical spectralism. In The Magic of Tone, for example, Rudhyar wrote of tone as "the fullness of vibratory space, the pleroma of all experienceable sounds...[a] holistic resonance." This really is a remarkable casting of musical element in metaphysical terms. In addition, he employed terms recalling Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, such as when he characterized the fundamental tone or tonic as the "One" or, as we have just seen, referred to the compound-tone as a whole as a "pleroma." With very little imagination we can see the "One" of the fundamental tones as analogous to the Neoplatonic One, the generative principle and origin from which the multiplicity of all things emanates. "Pleroma" in turn is a term associated with the Gnosticism religions; its literal meaning is "fullness" and was used to refer to the wholeness of the divine realm along with the entities it contained. Rudhyar's choice of "pleroma" to describe the totality of the compound-tone gives the latter a particular metaphysical force that is of a piece with the occult and quasi-occult philosophies he embraced in his life more generally.

But it wasn't just Rudhyar's engagement with occult philosophies that lies at the origin of his thinking about tone; his unorthodoxy goes back to his earlier musical studies in Paris. He provides an interesting confession toward the end of his life in an unpublished autobiography of 1981: "I never had any feeling for tonality, and the lessons in harmony in Paris had bored me to death. But I did carefully study the acoustical basis of sound and the ancient theories concerning numbers and proportions" (quoted in Ertan, p. 130).

Whatever its origin, Rudhyar's conceiving of the basic element of music as the compound-tone provided a way of looking at musical elements as aggregates rather than as single, discrete pitches to be employed as points along a line--as one-dimensional objects among other one-dimensional objects in a horizontal sequence. Instead, with the compound-tone as the basic musical unit, music would reveal itself to inhere in relationships among multiplexes of stacked partials--as something essentially vertical. The primary consequence of this is to make harmony ascendant over melody. In fact, Rudhyar liked to describe tone as being like a seed from which melody germinates and arises. As he put it in The Magic of Tone, melody is "an emergence from the resonant substance of the tones;" as a consequence, melody and harmony were "inseparably united." For Rudhyar there was no qualitative difference between the compound-tone and the chord; the difference instead was quantitative, or the difference between a first-order compound-tone--the single tone produced by one instrument--and a second-order compound-tone--the chord produced by the combination of single tones produced by multiple instruments. Hence, all music is harmony and, as he asserted as an axiom in "The Relativity of Our Musical Conceptions," "there is no fundamental difference between Monody and Polyphony." Even a melody reveals itself to be "the same thing as a sequence of chords" and "every melody is a hidden harmonic succession." Or, to put it in mock-Derridean terms, harmony is prior to melody, and there is no outside-of-harmony.

Because the characteristic sound of a given type of instrument is determined by the pattern of overtones it produces, Rudhyar's notion of the compound-tone, being based as it is on sound spectra, naturally facilitates a special sensitivity to timbre and the timbral differences between instruments. It comes as no surprise, then, when he asserts in "The Relativity of Our Musical Conceptions" that orchestration is more properly understood as something falling under the category of harmony. Here too there may be a faint carryover from his early interest in Debussy's music, and perhaps a lingering trace of what with caution we might call a certain "Frenchness" in his musical thinking, despite his conscious rejection of the European musical and cultural heritage in favor of what he saw as the possibilities America offered for the rise of a truly internally diverse culture.

Interlude: Dissonance among the Ultramoderns

Rudhyar's rejection of the European past put him in essential agreement with the other ultramoderns who endeavored to create a uniquely American approach to post-tonal composition. Certainly this was the case with Seeger, whose dissonant counterpoint also represented a rejection of contemporary European forms of post-tonalism. For Seeger, European composers like Schoenberg were still engaging in an "elaboration and extension of the old diatonic and chromatic harmony" which his own dissonant counterpoint, in taking dissonance rather than consonance as the musical default position or norm, opposed (quoted in Nicholls, p. 90). But despite their agreement that American music would have to find its own way independently of whatever European composers were doing, Rudhyar and Seeger disagreed on some of the specific paths the American way of post-tonal composition might take. The most basic of these disagreements concerned the relative importance of the line, or melody, versus harmony.

Rudhyar's insistence on the irreducible nature of the compound-tone and the origin of melody in harmony put his concept of music in opposition to the essentially linear conception of music underlying Seeger's dissonant counterpoint. Seeger emphasized this focus on the line in his treatise "On Dissonant Counterpoint." Although "On Dissonant Counterpoint" appeared in 1930, after Rudhyar's treatises of the 1920s had come out, it represented ideas Seeger had been developing since the mid-nineteen teens. There, Seeger asserted that the individual lines making up dissonant counterpoint should be different enough from one another in order that "our homophonically over-educated ears" wouldn't hear unintended "chordal structures." For that reason, the composer should "cultivate 'sounding apart' rather than 'sounding together'" as a basic strategy for composing and combing lines (quoted in Nicholls, p. 104). The distinctiveness of the line, in other words, should be preserved against its combination with other lines into a harmony.

Interestingly, Rudhyar and Seeger got into a polemical exchange over dissonant counterpoint in the pages of the Eolian Review in 1923, when Seeger objected to Rudhyar's writing, in an article on Ruggles' work Angels, that the latter's dissonant counterpoint sounded "out of tune" and "unnatural" (quoted in Oja, p. 115). Although a contributing factor to the disagreement was what Seeger characterized as the imprecision of Rudhyar's "peculiar terminology," we might speculate that the nub of Rudhyar's criticism may have lain in Rudhyar's hearing Ruggles' lines in terms of harmonies which to Rudhyar's ear revealed a confusion of sound based on a fundamental misunderstanding or ignorance of the actual complexity of the individual tones involved. As to Seeger's point about Rudhyar's lack of analytical rigor, it certainly is true that Seeger's theory of dissonant counterpoint had been worked out in a way that addressed technical matters systematically, and that he might be expected to find Rudhyar's language vague and in some ways beside the point. In a sense, Rudhyar admitted this when he answered that he was more interested in what he saw as the deeper philosophical implications of music and not in what he called the "technical and dogmatic point of view analyzing what to me is but the skeleton of music" (quoted in Oja p. 115, emphasis in the original). For Rudhyar, the music was there in the service of something he considered to be of higher importance. Interestingly, this attitude did not necessarily put him at odds with at least some of the other ultramoderns. In fact, it was Rudhyar's interest in extra-musical ideas, as well as his musical theories, that made his dissonant harmony influential among the other ultramoderns. Joseph N. Straus, in his study of Crawford, argues that Crawford's favoring of "relatively static harmonies," dissonance, and atonality, as well as her interest in theosophy, can be attributed to Rudhyar's influence (quoted in Estin, p. 7). And Oja finds him to have had a significant influence on Cowell and Ruggles as well, particularly due to his thinking beyond music (Oja, p. 151).

"Dissonant Harmony" 2: Harmony

Just as Rudhyar saw American culture as potentially containing and preserving a multitude of difference, he envisioned "dissonant harmony" as containing and preserving a multitude of musical difference. His "dissonant harmony" was, in effect, a harmony made up of difference. In his 1982 book The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music, which serves as a kind late-life summing up of his musical philosophy, Rudhyar describes dissonance as being, in effect, a higher form of harmony than consonance. Overall, Rudhyar's notion of harmony was something of the opposite of the traditional understanding of harmony if we assume that this latter consists in a practice based on the fundamental unit of the triad and employing a syntax or ordering that tends to point toward resolution in a consonant combination of pitches. Although traditional harmony includes dissonances, these occur within certain restrictions; the goal and endpoint of traditional harmony is the consonance. But Rudhyar's dissonant harmony was based instead on the assumption that dissonance rather than consonance should be the ground for musical development--that dissonance should be the normative state toward which it aimed and which it aimed to preserve. There is an obvious parallel here to Seeger's dissonant counterpoint, which also took dissonance as the norm.

In "The Transforming Power of Tone," a 1972 talk delivered Berkeley, Rudhyar provided insight into some of the specific methods, he used to produce dissonant harmonic organization in his music. As he said there,

Most of my music is more or less based on series of fifths. ... The fifths of course are not always perfect fifths. They are modified by sharps and flats, and so on...The chords, in order to become harmonized -- a dissonant kind of harmony -- do not depend on tonality, but on the proper spacing of dissonant centers...Thus you find in my music extended chords which provide a definite sense of spacing between notes, notes which are supposed to be in dissonant relationship.
But as with his definition of tone, so with his definition of harmony: it was based as much on extra-musical, philosophical considerations as on musical criteria. That Rudhyar's idea of dissonant harmony overspilled a purely musical context is clear from the title of his 1928 statement "Dissonant Harmony: A New Principle of Musical and Social Organization." There, he described dissonance as representing "a new harmony [in which] differences have become harmonized," conflicts unified into serenity, and the "eternally dissonant Harmony" subjectively realized as nirvana. Perhaps most important of all, dissonant harmony would embody "not a natural but a spiritual Harmony." This had social implications for him. In The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music, Rudhyar contrasted the conformity he thought was inherent in what he called the "tribal order" of social consonance with the heterogeneity of the "compassionate order," which he likened to dissonance in music. While the former suppresses or levels human differences with the purpose of producing a uniformity of life--a consonant way of life--the latter allows difference, and with it human well-being, to flourish. What Rudhyar seems to have had in mind with his vision of dissonant social organization was a state of equilibrium in which differences--cultural, personal, and so on--are preserved rather than subsumed into an encompassing unity, and in which the conflicts brought on by difference would be transcended through the preservation of difference qua difference as a "field of tension" that somehow holds everything in balance. Not only does this recall Rudhyar's projection onto America of his hope for what we now would call a multicultural society, but it seems to allude as well to the first object of the Theosophical Society, which aimed toward forming a "universal brotherhood of humanity" out of diverse cultures, ethnicities, and religions.

Rudhyar also could use more explicitly mystico-estoteric language to describe dissonant harmony. In his 1928 statement, for example, he characterized it as a "tone-energy" "unclassified as yet by science" and as "based on the hindering of the natural [consonant] flow of overtones," with the purpose of "dam[ming] natural impulses in order to release power and mental energy." Dissonance, in short, serves as "a kind of psycho-spiritual engine which works by creating currents of induction in the organization of the hearers attuned to it." Rudhyar's language here is more of a piece with the esoteric language of theosophy, with its references to invisible forces and spiritual emanations, than it is with musical analysis, and consequently doesn't seem to provide much in the way of practical application to composition. It is difficult not to recall here Seeger's criticisms of Rudhyar's imprecise language and lack of technical rigor. But for Rudhyar, this wasn't a flaw so much as an attempt to situate music within the larger, literally cosmic context within which he felt it belonged. Proof of this can be found throughout The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music, which more often than note discusses music in highly metaphysical, rather than practical or musicological, terms. Rudhyar was, if nothing else, consistent throughout his life in his concern less with systematizing a method of composition than with drawing out what he thought were the metaphysical and social implications of music freed from traditional tonal conventions.

See Part III of this article


A digital archive of Rudhyar's writings, as well as a detailed biography, can be found here:

Deniz Ertan, Dane Rudhyar: His Music, Thought, and Art (Eastman Studies in Music, 61) (Rochester: U of Rochester Press, 2009). Internal cites to Ertan.

David Nicholls, American Experimental Music 1890-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1990). Internal cites to Nicholls.

Carol J. Oja, Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s (Oxford: Oxford U Press, 2000). Internal cites to Oja.

Vivian Perlis and Libby Van Cleve, Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music (New Haven: Yale U Press, 2005). Internal cites to CV.

Dane Rudhyar, Dissonant Harmony: A New Principle of Musical and Social Organization (Hamsa Seed Ideas No. 1), 1928 (accessed from

____________, The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music, 1982 (accessed from

____________, "The Relativity of Our Musical Conceptions," The Musical Quarterly, Jan 1922 (accessed from

____________, "The Transforming Power of Tone," a talk given at Live Oak Park Theatre, Berkeley, CA, Apr 1972 (accessed from

Nicolas Slominsky, Laura Kuhn and Dennis McIntire: "Dane Rudhyar," Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (accessed at

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