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The Essay
Show #259
Love Bugs
David Gunn

This week, the computer world has been abuzz about a new nettling software virus that infects e-mail servers and discombobulates data files, particularly PC-controlled missile guidance systems. Disaffectionately called "the love bug" because of its uncanny resemblance to the same-named Disney movie of the 1970s in which Bill Gates clones from outer space settle in the Philippine Islands to raise burdocks, the virus has been traced to the Philippines, where the real Bill Gates reportedly developed Microsoft's interactive root canal programs. After injecting large doses of anti-viral drugs into their mainframe operating systems, some cybersecurity agents have pronounced the threat under control. But we here at the K&D Research Junta are less sanguine, and caution that it would be naive for computer users to let down their guard. A similar viral event infected the music world 18 years ago, and we would argue that the compositional cutting edge has ever since been corrupted. That virus, called "the new tonality," struck with equal suddenness. One day the modern music world was dominated by a bunch of sourpuss serialists and pontificating pointillists, the next day the most niggardly compositional grant demanded a bushel of one-four-five-one progressions. Out went chords in which minor seconds gnashed against major sevenths; in came happy parallel thirds and fifths that were more than perfect. The triad was au courant for the first time in 120 years. Audients long barraged by unrelenting stridency reacted ecstatically to the world of C major. Eight bar jingles begat whole symphonic works. The humming repertoire burgeoned with hundreds of sunny, new melodies. Gerontological rock icons teamed with hungry backwater orchestras to crank out two-chord operettas that were repackaged to incorporate light shows and aromatherapy. And the Lite Music love-in continues to this day.

And now, I must fess up to my own shameful indiscretion. In 1987, the new tonality infected me, too. One day I was crafting algorithmic-driven, spatially disconnected lumps of sound; the next I was giddily scribbling restrained manifestos of feel-good wholetonery. It's an insidious malady, resistant to medication, therapy, collegial heckling or personal disgrace. To this day, I'll cobble together a tune comprised of predictable constructs before I attempt to turn an acoustic event into a musical one. Still, I hold out hope for a cure. Recently, your obedient hosts descended upon a major collegiate new music festival to see if the academic arena had become any more resistant to the new tonality. Of the 15 tunes on the program, only five employed tonic-dominant progressions, and of those, only one seemed to do so intentionally. After the concert, I broached the subject of tonality to some of the composers and was rewarded with withering diatribes of scorn and derision. It seemed that the modern music ethic, at least in this academic environment, had turned a metaphysical corner and was poised to shake off the humiliating mantle of euphony!

Still, the new tonality virus persists, and we may never completely eradicate it from our repertoire. But with careful rehabilitation, such as exposure to anti-tonal electroacoustic theories, it can be controlled. Some day, bleep-bloop music may again be the rule rather than the exception, and parallel fifths will go the way of all Harmony 101 assignments (though no one really knows where they wind up).

This 259th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, by the way, has been specially treated with anti-tonality viral software, so it is unlikely you will hear the merest suspicion of a major triad during the next two hours, unless it is deliberately ululated out of context by Kalvos.