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date: 26 February 2020

Dissonant counterpointlocked

  • John D. Spilker


Dissonant counterpoint is a compositional method based on subverting the rules associated with traditional contrapuntal techniques; for example, in its strictest manifestation dissonant intervals are used primarily, and while consonant intervals are allowed, they are preceded and followed by dissonant intervals.

The early development of dissonant counterpoint (1914–17) involved the collaborative efforts of henry Cowell and charles Seeger at the University of California, Berkeley. Surviving sources that document the technique after its initial development include Cowell’s unpublished notebook of exercises, a single loose-leaf sheet titled “Exercizes [sic] for Seeger,” and Cowell’s book New Musical Resources (written 1916–19, published 1930). Seeger left Berkeley in 1918 and abandoned his work with dissonant counterpoint. During the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s, however, Cowell continued to work on the technique and disseminated it to other composers. In 1929 Seeger revisited the method with Ruth Crawford at the insistence of Cowell, who had taught it to her during the mid 1920s. The collaborative efforts of Crawford and Seeger resulted in two documents, although only Seeger’s name appears on them: “On Dissonant Counterpoint” (...

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