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Tonality refers to the tendency of music to gravitate toward or around a pitch (or pitch class). It’s a kind of harmonic vocabulary frequently used by composers, so that “as long as there’s some pitch that’s pulling everything to it, we refer to it as ‘tonal,’” he explains, playing some chords to illustrate the tonal concept that influences and is defined by Western ears. According to legend, when Mozart sat down one evening and wrote the overture to Don Giovani, the ink was still wet when he gave it to the players. We marvel at this kind of prolific genius, yet music theorist Morton Subotnick contended that “Mozart was really improvising within a tonal system that was already set for him. He didn’t have to be concerned about the harmonic function of stuff.” One chord seemed to lead naturally to another. “The problem for twentieth-century composers,” says McKenney, “is that they must design their own tonal systems.” One might see this freedom as a blessing, but McKenney contends that, as far as composing music goes, sometimes too much freedom isn’t a blessing at all: “At some point in time, you have to put shackles on yourself and limit yourself; otherwise, it can be chaotic as far as the piece goes.”
“I believe that all art is a product of that society in which it exists, and our society has become much more conservative over the last number of years,” McKenney suggests. During the 1960s and ‘70s, America was experiencing social upheaval. “You had some composers who were using mathematical processes to write pieces and everything was intellectually conceived.” At the other extreme were composers who didn’t notate anything but geometric shapes. It was in this period of great experimentation that electronic music began to take hold. “Music is more tonally conceived now,” McKenney observes, and less experimental than it used to be.