The topic of pointillism came up in a conversation in Facebook, so I thought I would do a blog post.
Pointillism started out as an art term and refers to what Georges Seurat was doing with little dots. Each dot seems to have nothing to do with those around it. When you stand back from the painting, there is a picture.
Music adopted this word to mean that in twentieth century music each individual note seems to have nothing to do with those around it. Emphasis is on the word "seems." In the Schoenberg school Klangfarbenmelodie [tone color melody] is said to represent this. It looks very strange on an orchestral score, but when played, sounds like a tune with a lot of different instrumental colors.
I'm only familiar with the term applied to melodic lines designed for opera singers. Traditionally a melody is constructed from notes similar in pitch. A pointillistic melody jumps around to different far apart pitches, sometimes in different octaves and was a significant feature of modernist opera.
This aria from Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre is the best example I could find. It features the great Barbara Hannigan.
John Adams jettisoned most of modernism for Nixon in China, but he kept the jumping around in pitch. This example is minimalism.
Do these examples still have melodies? Decide for yourself. As you were.
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