Tone cluster

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A tone cluster is a simultaneous musical chord comprised of consecutive tones separated chromatically (i.e., by semitones): for instance, the tones C, C#, D, D#, E, and F, held at the same time. Variants of the tone cluster include chords comprised of consecutive tones separated diatonically, pentatonically, or microtonally. In Western classical music practice, all tone clusters are classifiable as secundal chords—that is, the interval between two consecutive notes in a cluster is never more than three semitones. In tone clusters, the notes are sounded fully and simultaneously, distinguishing them from ornamented figures involving acciaccaturas and the like. In the context of most Western music, tone clusters tend to be heard as dissonant.

In general parlance, a tone cluster consists of three or more contiguous notes sounded at the same time—e.g., any three or more adjacent piano keys (visualizing the black keys as full-length) struck simultaneously. Such a "stack" constitutes a chromatic tone cluster. Three-note stacks based on diatonic or pentatonic scales are technically clusters, as well; however, because they involve intervals between notes greater than the half-tone gaps of the chromatic kind, commentators tend to identify such stacks as "tone clusters" only when they consist of four or more notes—e.g., four or more successive white keys or black keys on the piano struck simultaneously. Keyboard instruments, because of the arrangement of the playing area, particularly lend themselves to the performance of tone clusters, but clusters may be performed with almost any individual instrument on which three or more notes can be played simultaneously, as well as by most groups of instruments.

Origins/Western classical

While sporadic examples of tone clusters may be found at least as far back as the late 1600s, not before the second decade of the twentieth century did they assume a recognized place in the Western classical tradition. "Around 1910," Harold C. Schoenberg writes, " Percy Grainger was causing a stir by the near–tone clusters in such works as his Gumsuckers March." In 1911, what appears to be the first published composition to thoroughly integrate true tone clusters was issued: Tintamarre (The Clangor of Bells), by Canadian composer J. Humfrey Anger (1862–1913). Over the next few years, the radical composer-pianist Leo Ornstein built a reputation for his performances of cutting-edge piano music. By mid-decade, Ornstein was publicly performing his composition Wild Men's Dance (aka Danse Sauvage; ca. 1913–14); constructed almost entirely out of tone clusters, it is the first work to explore the technique in depth ever heard by a substantial audience. Concurrently, Charles Ives was composing a piece with what would become the most famous set of tone clusters—in the second movement, Hawthorne, of the Concord Sonata (ca. 1904–19, publ. 1920, prem. 1928), mammoth piano chords, some gentle, some violent, requiring a wooden bar almost fifteen inches long to play. This extraordinary example aside, most piano compositions incorporating tone clusters then and now call for performers to use their own fingers, hands, or arms. Between 1911 and 1913, Ives also wrote ensemble pieces with tone clusters such as his Second String Quartet and the orchestral Decoration Day and Fourth of July, though none of these would be publicly performed before the 1930s.

Example of piano tone clusters. The clusters in the upper staff (for the pianist's right hand)—C#-D#-F#-G#—are played by striking four successive black keys at the same time.
Example of piano tone clusters. The clusters in the upper staff (for the pianist's right hand)—C#-D#-F#-G#—are played by striking four successive black keys at the same time.

The seminal figure in promoting this harmonic technique was Henry Cowell, whose Dynamic Motion (1916) for solo piano, written when he was nineteen, has been described as "probably the first piece anywhere using secundal chords independently for musical extension and variation." Though that is not quite accurate, it does appear to be the first piece to employ chromatic clusters in such a manner. A solo piano piece Cowell wrote the following year, The Tides of Manaunaun (1917), would prove to be his most popular work and the composition most responsible for establishing the tone cluster as a significant element in Western classical music. (Cowell's early piano works are often erroneously dated; in the two cases above, as 1914 and 1912, respectively.) Assumed by some to involve an essentially random—or, more kindly, aleatoric—pianistic approach, Cowell explained that precision is required in the writing and performance of tone clusters no less than with any other musical feature:

Tone clusters...on the piano [are] whole scales of tones used as chords, or at least three contiguous tones along a scale being used as a chord. And, at times, if these chords exceed the number of tones that you have fingers on your hand, it may be necessary to play these either with the flat of the hand or sometimes with the full forearm. This is not done from the standpoint of trying to devise a new piano technique, although it actually amounts to that, but rather because this is the only practicable method of playing such large chords. It should be obvious that these chords are exact and that one practices diligently in order to play them with the desired tone quality and to have them absolutely precise in nature.

Historian and critic Kyle Gann describes the broad range of ways in which Cowell constructed (and thus performed) his clusters and used them as musical textures, "sometimes with a top note brought out melodically, sometimes accompanying a left-hand melody in parallel."

During the 1920s and 1930s, Cowell toured widely through North America and Europe, playing his own experimental works, many built around tone clusters. In addition to The Tides of Manaunaun, Dynamic Motion, and its five "encores"—What's This (1917), Amiable Conversation (1917), Advertisement (1917), Antinomy (1917, rev. 1959; frequently misspelled "Antimony"), and Time Table (1917)—these include The Voice of Lir (1920), Exultation (1921), The Harp of Life (1924), Snows of Fujiyama (1924), Lilt of the Reel (1930), and Deep Colour (1938). Tiger (1930) has the single largest chord ever written for an individual instrument—fifty-three notes. Along with the work of Ives, Cowell's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1928) is one of the first large-ensemble pieces to make extensive use of clusters. With The Tides of Manaunaun, Cowell also introduced a new notational method for the sizable tone cluster, which has been adopted as the standard.

Other exponents

Later Western classical

The most renowned composer to be directly inspired by Cowell's demonstrations of his tone cluster pieces was Béla Bartók, who requested Cowell's permission to employ the method. Bartók's Piano Sonata (1926) and suite Out of Doors (1926), his first significant works after three years in which he produced little, both feature tone clusters. Already, Aaron Copland had composed his Three Moods (aka Trois Esquisses; 1920–21) for piano—its name an apparent homage to a piece of Ornstein's—which includes a triple- forte cluster. At least as far back as 1942, John Cage, who studied under Cowell, began writing piano pieces with cluster chords; In the Name of the Holocaust, from December of that year, includes chromatic, diatonic, and pentatonic clusters.

Tone clusters play a major role not only in many subsequent piano works, but in important compositions for chamber and orchestral groups, as well. Robert Reigle identifies Croatian composer Josip Slavenski's organ-and-violin Sonata Religiosa (1925), with its sustained chromatic clusters, as "a missing link between Ives and [György] Ligeti." Bartók employs both diatonic and chromatic clusters in his Fourth String Quartet (1928). The sound mass technique pioneered by such works as Ruth Crawford Seeger's String Quartet (1931) and Iannis Xenakis's Metastasis (1955) is fundamentally an elaboration of the tone cluster. One of the most famous pieces associated with the sound mass aesthetic, Krzysztof Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1959), for fifty-two string instruments, has been described as "a set of variations upon a cluster." In 1961, Ligeti wrote perhaps the largest cluster chord ever—in the orchestral Atmosphères, every note in the chromatic scale over a range of five octaves is played at once (quietly). Avant-garde Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi frequently used tone clusters, as in his last large-scale work, Pfhat (1974), which premiered in 1986.

Other practices

Tone clusters have been employed by jazz artists working in a variety of styles. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Storyville pianist Jelly Roll Morton apparently began incorporating them in his rags. The Stan Kenton Orchestra's April 1947 recording of "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight," arranged by Pete Rugolo, features a dramatic four-note trombone cluster at the end of the second chorus. Pianist Horace Silver uses tone clusters as a comping technique to rhythmic and lively effect, while they appear as punctuation marks in the lead lines of Herbie Nichols. The "tart tone cluster" that "pierces a song's surfaces and penetrates to its heart" has been described as a specialty of guitarist Jim Hall's. Clusters are especially prevalent in the realm of free jazz; Cecil Taylor, in particular, has used them extensively as part of his improvisational method since the mid-1960s. Scholar John F. Szwed outlines their use by free jazz composer, bandleader, and pianist Sun Ra:

When he sensed that [a] piece needed an introduction or an ending, a new direction or fresh material, he would call for a space chord, a collectively improvised tone cluster at high volume which "would suggest a new melody, maybe a rhythm." It was a pianistically conceived device which created another context for the music, a new mood, opening up fresh tonal areas.

Since its beginnings, rock and roll has made use of tone clusters, if usually in a much less deliberate manner—most famously, Jerry Lee Lewis's live-performance piano technique of the 1950s, involving fists, arms, flying feet, and derrière. Composers and arrangers such as Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Nelson Riddle, and Bob Brookmeyer have used clusters for variety in commercial work and they are employed often in the scoring of horror and science-fiction films.

The use of tone clusters in cadences has been identified in Native American social dance songs. According to researcher Lee Zelewicz's analysis of two Seneca recordings from different eras, "The clusters do not follow the western use of semitones; instead, the pitches are more closely related, making them microtones." In traditional Japanese gagaku, a tone cluster performed on shõ may be employed as a harmonic matrix.

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