Wim Dijkgraaf

contemporary composer & jazz harmonica player

Peter Schat – What does a composer do?

Posted by on Aug 5, 2017

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Peter Schat has been an important influence for the way I work as a composer with melodies and harmonies. It brought me to the idea to create a webbased tool to give more meaning to pitches and groups of pitches. That idea came from Peter Schat’s ideas around the tone-clock.

From 1974 until 1983 Schat taught composition at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague; thereafter he supported himself as a full-time composer. He also wrote regularly for the newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

Schat’s fascination with – and distrust of – absolutist systems led him to formulate a system of his own, but one which attempted to reconcile tonality and atonality. Arnold Schoenberg’s articulation of dodecaphony, in 1924, proposed a “method of composition with 12 different notes related entirely to one another” – that is, where no single tone would be dominant (pun intended), as in the tonal system he was rejecting. Writing 60 years later, Schat disagreed:

A tone’s expressive power . . . is derived solely from its surroundings, not from itself. Because of this, Schoenberg’s administrative individualisation is the demise of his method.


I propose that we replace Schoenberg’s method of 12 individual tones with a model of “12 tonalities related only to one another”.

Schat’s proposition took the form of a “tone-clock”, elaborated in 1982, which reinstated the triad – a three-note chord consisting of two stacked thirds – over the modernists’ focus on the interval, the gap between two notes. His “tone-clock” was built on the 12 major and minor triads and identified a series of natural harmonic relationships even in the chromatic scale. Olivier Messiaen’s theory of “limited transposition” had reasoned along the beginnings of these lines; Schat’s insight now found limitless harmonic potential in an all- embracing compositional principle.

Schat published his discovery as De Toonklok in 1984 (an English translation, The Tone-Clock, appeared in 1993). Predictably, his radical erstwhile fellow travellers denounced what they saw as a sell-out to the past. Schat, though, was happy: he made no outlandish claims for his method (“it is not a recipe for composing. Perhaps it is of no use to anyone else; I myself am surprised by the possibilities it opens with each composition”), but its “chromatic tonality”, as he styled it, both focused and released his creative enthusiasms. As well as De Hemel, which bubbles with good-natured energy, the second of his two completed symphonies was written along tone-clock precepts, and when he died, he was working on the second movement of a third, the Gamelan Symphony.

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