In Which All Is Explained

Dissonance is cool. Its cool-factor and yuck-factor are often, however, at war.

For every elderly concertgoer who wrinkles his face and complains “it’s so dissonant!” there’s a conservatory student in his late teens at a carrel in a listening library hearing Gesualdo or Kreuzspiel for the first time, beaming, eyes wild, thinking “dude, that’s f*&*()#$ awesome!” You know I’m right about this. So am I suggesting youth cherishes dissonance and age consonance? Or just bandying stereotypes? I know, for example, my parents are in their 70s (I don’t know if that’s considered young or old anymore) but they can be quite dissonant in the mornings, especially when my dad’s making green chile and eggs and mom gets in the way of his frenetic journeys to and from stove and sink. Anyway.

Syllogism: Dissonance is cool. The Fonz is cool. Ergo: dissonance is the Fonz. He (or you can imagine a female Fonz if you like) strides in in a leather jacket; he does what he wishes; he cares not for convention; he is not fazed by conflict; he makes waves, stands out, attracts attention; he is seductive; he attracts and exists in clusters; he resists resolution, i.e. conformity, but he values his relationships; he knows where he is going, but is in no hurry; he loves to be prolonged (aeyyyyy!); he has a distinctive identity; he lives over the garage… Imagine if you must all the dissonances living in a little apartment over a garage, partying harder and harder through the 19th-century, testing their limits, until finally Schoenberg comes along and emancipates them all (the Abraham Lincoln of dissonance); suddenly with a shudder and one last mournful Tristan chord they come to realize all the fun’s gone and that without limits the party’s just a lame bunch of drunken dissonances above a garage, getting old and with nothing to do.

The cool “Fonzian” dissonance of the day (should this be a regular feature of Think Denk?), which prompted these “profound” reflections, comes from good old J.S. Bach BWV 1052:

Just look at that puppy! Madrigalian, searing dissonance. The F-sharp there in the bottom of the cembalo, travels down to F-natural, on its way to E-natural, just slidin’ on down “innocently” (nobody here but us chickens!); meanwhile the A in one treble voice is heading up to C# and has to pass through B-natural, and there it is, the “Fonzian tritone” (I so TOTALLY invented that term, dude) that results, F-B, the ultra-hip diabolus in musica, a viscerally satisfying traffic accident of passing, colliding lines in which no one needs to get hurt but there is all the thrill of conflict and the onward rush of the incompatible. The B-natural is also wonderfully dissonant against the A pedal (the dominant pedal, that is) and the general D minor-ness of everything (music theorists, moan if you must, at this imprecise labeling, moan on and on, I’m not listening lalalala), and its searing ascent reverses a large extraordinary pattern of preceding descent, so it’s also semantically dissonant, so there! These dissonances are linked, spiritually connected, to the ongoing tension of the dominant; they symbolize and represent the music’s captured, caged, not-yet-allowed-to-hit-the-tonic fury. If you are at the Carnegie concert on Dec. 2, or at the other Orpheus appearances, and you recognize this moment, and you remember to think of the Fonz, please say “Aeyyy!” to yourself, quietly, in your mind. If you say it out loud, it might be distracting. Or say it to me backstage, I’ll be delighted.

In a mostly unrelated note, one of my exes delightful, dear old friends studied my concert schedule and casually invited herself to stay in my apartment while I was away playing. During her tenure, my dish soap apparently gave out (certainly not due to overusage on my part!) and she replaced it not with Palmolive but with one of those so-called Natural Soaps from the Organic Aisle. For months I have been using this Natural Soap, as if under the evil, irresistible spell of Whole Foods, and I had apparently forgotten the real nature of suds; for today when the natural stuff ran out and I had to use some new Green Apple Palmolive, it was like being reborn in the Scrubbing Garden of Eden. The suds fairly overflowed the sink with joy at returning after long exile to my besoiled domicile, and I too couldn’t help smiling as the smell of a green apple jolly rancher filled the kitchen, and I meditated that dissonance is a lot like a green apple jolly rancher, sour but tasty and eventually melting, etc. etc.

P.S. I have never been and probably will never be a fan of the show Happy Days. I obtained the proper spelling of the Fonz’s catch phrase from this indispensable website, in which the cultural milieu of my pubescent years is enumerated.

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  1. M. A. Peel
    Posted October 19, 2006 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy, landed here via Alex Ross. The Fonz on the staff tripped me. What a riot. And interesting that he could still be a touchstone of cool (I don’t mean that judgmentally, but professionally). I have sung the Gesualdo Tenebrae Responses, on the luscious alto part. Bringing a dissonance to life from within a chord itself is one of the coolest experiences you can have.

  2. hari
    Posted October 20, 2006 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    the fonz really was cool, but dissonance probably now belongs to the rap movement. although the rappers, too, are becoming more commercial (diddy) and established.

    i saw a ballet last night with music by mozart (symphony #28-4th movement) and phillip glass tirol concerto or piano and orchestra (2nd movement) and it was f—–g awesome; very dissonant and exciting.

    if you think dishwashing liquid is dissonant; try switching from photo to prell shampoo.

  3. Kelsey
    Posted October 20, 2006 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I find your discussion more interesting than any music class I’ve ever had. Intellectual without being uppity – “I’m not listening lalalala”. very funny. The Fonz though? Really? I guess there is no more modern example that matches the rebellion and cool that the Fonz represented. Hmmm, nope. Nothing’s coming to me.

  4. mark
    Posted October 20, 2006 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    wicked neato cool, man. nice work.

  5. Lane Savant
    Posted October 21, 2006 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I was a teenager in the 50’s. “The Fonz is a a disnyesque cartoon of what “cool” was then. Think Tiles. Think monk. Think Mingus.
    A comparable image in the 50’s would be Micky Mouse, or at best, Bugs Bunny. Rock&Roll! Mr Fonzarelli is an agent provocature cop who infiltrated your “Beatnik” hangout to prove you were “commies” , he thinks he’s cool, but his brown shoes don’t make it.
    Dissonance used properly can knock Joe MacCarthy on his ass.
    Those were “interesting times” I don’t miss them at all at all.
    Pity that music has been nuetered since then.

  6. Emily
    Posted October 22, 2006 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Awesome post. But I have to ask: Is it dissonance itself that we love or the resolution of dissonance? The human ear seems inextricably drawn to a lilting melody or a groovy hook rather than sonic discordance. Perhaps that explains, in part, why composers like Charles Ives or Brian Eno, for that matter, never enjoyed a true mainstream following. But who wants to be mainstream anyway?

    Side note: the only thing cooler than the Fonz perched upon that staff just might be J.S. Bach wearing a leather jacket………or, the Fonz sporting a powdered wig. Mmmm, okay maybe not.

  7. Claire
    Posted October 26, 2006 at 1:19 am | Permalink

    okay this is totally random, but have you ever considered doing a video blog? i’m interested to see how your thoughts flow when you are speaking aloud rather than typing 🙂 think about it youtube is god 😛

  8. Claire
    Posted October 29, 2006 at 4:04 pm | Permalink


    no back to your reguarly scheduled programming

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