Welcome to the Tristan Chord


I’m mindful of Wagner’s opera ‘Tristan and Isolde’, as I begin to traverse the days of this new year. The composer shocked his 19th century audience, by beginning his masterpiece with an unexpected chord sequence. A sequence of dissonant sounds. 

Dissonance (notes that seem out of place) holds an interesting space within the dynamics of any musical scale. Their sound feels disjointed from the assumed route that is expected to be taken. Something that carries the hints of a mistake. A disruption to the norm, that allows the composer to reach dimensions of tone beyond what is assumed for the piece of music. It has the edge of creating an uncomfortable space for the listener. Placing a demand upon each participant to trust in the process. Back in the 19th century, that is exactly what happened.

At the time, it was an accepted practice that if ever you introduced a dissonant chord, it would lead back into resolution. Discord back into harmony. So when Wagner chose to open up with the sound of dissonance, the listener was looking out for a particular chord to follow. Yet it never came within the Prelude. What proceeded was further dissonant chords. A sound that was never unharmonious, but left the audience unsure, unsettled. Questioning what would come next. The approach would later be termed the ‘Tristan Chord’. And it is this chord that comes to mind as I start the New Year.

In a landscape where many things are laid out for us. Where our access to knowledge, information, strategy and understanding seems easily available at a touch of a screen, we can very quickly believe our own hype of self-assurance. Many times our future seems planned out. Sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly. Yet the road map of our lives carry a familiar copyright of ‘what is to be expected’. 

Dissonance speaks of another landscape. A mysterious topography that is beyond our initial sight and accepted norm. It disrupts our plans and expectations, and leads us into an uncomfortable space of mystery. Where rules are changed, and the realisation emerges that we know only in part. It praises creativity and opens our senses to a sound often hidden by the noise of our lives. So let 2015 be a year where we all live well, being mindful of those moments that will disrupt with the norm. Urging us, encouraging us, daring us, to not always follow the expected route. 

It’s time to welcome the sound of the Tristan chord.

Andy Smithymanarticle