Thursday, May 19, 2011

Occasional Consonance: Twelve-tone Theory and the Cleveland Indians

In musical composition, there is a method called twelve-tone theory. The progenitor of the larger serialist movement, it was initially designed to push composition to its natural farthest point, removing the familiar contexts of key and tonality, and replacing them with a rigid mathematical system that utilizes all twelve notes in the western chromatic scale. The composer places the twelve notes in some order, either randomly or by design of a specific sequence or melody line. Once ordered, that sequence of notes becomes the top row in a 12 X 12 matrix generated based upon their order. When the matrix is complete, the composer may use any row or column (or half row or column) in its linear, retrograde, or inverted state to generate musical content, with the stipulation that the row must be completed before a new sequence may begin. This allows for compositional permutations, but within the limited parameters dictated by the twelve-tone matrix. Since every note in the chromatic scale is used, without reference to a set tonal center, the music produced by this method is jarring and disorienting (and often downright ugly to listen to), simply because our ears are not used to hearing the harmonic relationships it produces (we perceive them as dissonance) and the meandering nature of music which has no defined point of resolution.

However, if you listen to enough twelve-tone music (or atonal music in general), you not only begin to grow accustomed to the lack of focus, but your ears will start to discern moments in which the composition is briefly consonant, by virtue of two or more lines synchronizing in such a way that a temporary illusion of tonality is created. It's doesn't happen often, but it is there if you look for it. In college I was once assigned to write a twelve-tone waltz, and I accidentally created a matrix that, when used in the way I happened to use it, created a perfect-authentic cadence at the end. (This is the most consonant an expected conclusion/resolution to any composition. Basically, it's the musical equivalent of "... and they all lived happily ever after. The End.") It wasn't supposed to be that way; this stuff was designed with the expressed purpose of defying all the notions and rules of musical tonality and logic, but it happened. And you can hear plenty of examples of similar, if less-glaring, consonant happenstance in twelve-tone pieces if you listen hard enough.

Which is to say that if you muck around with enough random sequences and permutations, occasionally, something beautiful will be brought into existence, no matter how improbable or fleeting that beauty might be.

Which brings us to the formerly hapless Cleveland Indians.

For reasons that no one has yet been able to fully discern or satisfactorily explain, one of the league's most consistent doormats suddenly has the best record in baseball. Sure they play in the AL Central, arguably the league's shoddiest division. And yes, there's plenty of time left for them to flame out and finish under .500. Again. But at this point I think the term "fluke" no longer applies. Consider the Baltimore Orioles, who everyone was going gaga over for the first few weeks of the season after they charged out of the gate in stellar fashion. Now they're sitting at 19-22, in their familiar position of "bottom of the AL East." That was a fluke. The Tribe? They've been consistently beating up on people since opening day. Currently, they have a .650 winning percentage, which puts them on pace to win 105 games this year. 105 games! The Indians! How in the name of Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn is this happening?!?!?!?

Well, it really shouldn't be. For one thing, Cleveland's current roster is devoid of anything resembling a marquee player. Perpetually flagging attendance at Jacobs Field has necessitated that they trade those types in order to stay afloat over the years. I can't imagine the angst Tribe fans must have felt watching their two former Cy Young winners, C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, go on to great success with other organizations after Cleveland dealt them to cut salary costs. In seeking to maintain some semblance of a competitive team after such moves, the Indians' front office has essentially taken what it could get. Castoffs, strays, iffy prospects, and guys who wore out their welcomes or were little more than trade bait elsewhere. It's been roster assembly as a random sequence. A matrix of seemingly ineffective and dissonant pieces.

Manager Manny Acta has been somewhat unfairly charged with the task of forging all these (seemingly) statistically irrelevant guys into a relevant team. And mostly, in the past, said team has played as their public perceptions of talent would suggest. They've been battered and abused and laughingstocks and goats. And yet, slowly, through enough sequencing of events and changes, something great has emerged. The dissonance and atonality that has surrounded this organization for so long has taken a hiatus, and in its place we're now hearing the sweetest of harmonies. This 2011 Indians incarnation keeps grinding out wins without a single player whose baseball card you'd really be excited to have fall out of a pack of Tops. You know, if anyone still bought baseball cards. (Puts on crotchety old-guy voice) "Back when I was a kid ..." (I'm only 29, but I'm gonna make a great crotchety old guy. Just you wait.) If you want a closer perspective on just how improbable this team is, consider the following:

The Tribes' starting rotation is keyed by Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson, two guys you're likely unfamiliar with unless you live in Cleveland or are a total baseball nerd. And yet, their staff holds a perfectly respectable combined ERA of 3.56. The bullpen is similarly nondescript, but they're holding it down night in and night out. They don't blow leads, they stay out of jams, and they keep the mound and the scoreboard friendly for closer Chris Perez, who has racked up 10 saves this season and sports a 1.24 WHIP.

Conversely, the very definition of a "rag-tag assemblage" that is Cleveland's lineup is proving a dangerous and frustrating proposition for opposing pitchers. They have five starters batting .265 or better, with Travis Hafner and Asdrubal Cabrera as the offensive linchpins. "Who?" you ask. Exactly. But Hafner's .345 batting average and .958 OPS are sufficiently imposing, while Cabrera leads the team with 48 hits, 7 homers, and 27 RBI's. There aren't a ton of mashers here, but these guys just keep hitting and getting each other across the plate. It's "small ball" at its finest.

Dissonance. Atonality. The Indians have been through one of the most depressing stretches is recent baseball memory. Their evolving twelve-tone matrix of players has produced an extended period of grating, painful experiences. Finally, that disjointed randomization has produced a sonorous few measures of brilliance. The question now is: will they end the season in discord like so many compositions of twelve-tone creator Arnold Schoenberg, or with the perfect-authentic cadences of Mozart and Bach? Time will tell, but for the present I'd encourage Tribe fans to crank the speakers and enjoy the music.

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