I was so glad this weekend to be at Lincoln Center, seeing a crowded lobby and excited, young crowd for New York City Opera’s Monodramas triple bill of Zorn, Schoenberg, and Feldman. It could – but in this case, won’t – go without saying that an establishment venue taking a risk on programming like this is a good sign for New York’s cultural life. For me, the high point of the night was Morton Feldman’s Neither, which despite clocking in at over an hour of very static music, kept me continuously rapt. I wrote recently about my experience of Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett, which I found frustrating at times. With this opera, for which Beckett was librettist, I felt completely engrossed. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Neither has what could be called melodies, or at least melodic fragments, whereas For Samuel Beckett consists almost entirely of Feldman’s luxurious harmonic clouds. Something about the obsessive and repetitive nature of these melodies – especially when delivered by the voice – powerfully implies a kind of desperation, a lost and hopeless striving that connects vividly with Beckett’s text about the “impenetrable self”. See Drew Baker’s blog for an insightful review of the rest of the show.
At the inaugural Hartford New Music Festival, curated by Matt Sargent and Bill Solomon, ekmeles will reprise their commission by Martin Iddon, hamadryads. The work is for 5 singers, each playing 3 wine glasses. Not to be missed!
ekmeles personnel for performance
- Christie Finn, soprano
- Megan Schubert, soprano
- Jeffrey Gavett, baritone
- Michael Weyandt, baritone
- Steven Hrycelak, bass
Minimalist composer Randy Gibson, curator of the Avant Music Festival, is currently working on a piece for Ekmeles. I’m just starting to explore the sound-world he’s developed, and wanted to share some of the unique aspects of the tuning systems.
Randy is working with what he calls “pillars” of just intonation intervals to build scalar tunings. Just intonation, for the uninitiated, is a tuning system which involves small whole number ratios. These were originally developed by the ancients, and the ratios corresponded to string lengths of simple monochord instruments. Pythagoras is credited with the discovery of these ratio tunings, the simplest of which are derived from the lowest primes. Taking 1 (or 1/1) as the tuning frequency, multiplying by 2 will yield the octave, 3 (expressed as 3/2 to put it within the range of the octave) the pure fifth, 5 (again, 5/4 to drop it into the proper octave) will yield the just major third. You can also think of these intervals as being derived from the overtone series; the 2nd partial is the octave, the third partial the fifth, the fifth partial the major third etc. These perfect intervals were, for various reasons, gradually left behind for tempered tuning systems, which eventually led to the 12-note equal temperament we find on modern keyboard instruments.
The tuning of the piece for Ekmeles focuses on the prime number 7, a ratio favored by Randy’s teacher and mentor, La Monte Young. Most of Young’s seminal work The Well Tuned Piano is in septimal tunings, and the use of 7 is prominent in his work generally. Most simply, the seventh scale degree in this upcoming work will be tuned as 7/4. This is the natural, lowered minor seventh we encounter in natural brass instruments. The majority of the rest of the scale is constructed by building a “pillar” of 7/4 ratios on top of this first 7/4 ratio, yielding, in descending scalar order, 49/32, 343/256, and 2401/2048. Note the powers of seven as numerators (the denominators again function to move these ratios down within the octave range). Much like the simpler ratios noted above, the numerator of the properly reduced fraction also represents the partial to which the note corresponds. This pillar also means that the interval between 7/4 and 2/1, the septimal second, is also repeated between 49/32 and 7/4, 343/256 and 49/32, and 2401/2048 and 343/256. Randy fills out the scale by including several lower primes, 9/8 (a true major second above the tonic) and 3/2 (the perfect fifth, which lies between the 2401/2048 and 343/256 in the scale).
Intervals constructed from lower primes are easier to hear, but Randy’s scale is actually very singable! He’s provided the group with a sine wave drone, which includes most of the pitches from the scale in various registers, so much like Indian classical music, properly tuning these notes is a matter of resonating with the drone. The experience of singing just-tuned music is a physical one, in a way that is difficult to describe. Each interval takes on a unique character borne of its ratio, and the way the waves interfere. The piece is in its earliest stages now, and I look forward to spending the time internalizing this unique tuning system.
We were so glad to be a part of the 2011 Avant Music Festival, and now you can see photos and videos from all the performances at their website. Take a minute to remember the great moments you loved if you were there; if you weren’t there, take a minute to see why you should come to the 2012 AMF! We’ll be premiering a new piece by curator Randy Gibson.
In the past few weeks I’ve attended several concerts with pieces of relatively extreme duration, and it got me thinking – is there a line between something being boring and meditative, or is it all perspective? I’m reminded of a story by Cage about playing a record of a Buddhist service for Henry Cowell’s Oriental music class, which had very different reactions to the same material. After 15 minutes of the same loud percussive sound with no perceptible variation, one woman screamed “Take it off, I can’t bear it any longer!”. He did so, and another man in the class said “Why’d you take it off? I was just getting interested.”
I sympathize with both of the characters in this story, though I suppose they function as rhetorical foils. In something either repetitive or very sparse that goes on for more than a half hour, I usually find my mind beginning to race around, thinking of what I could be doing rather than continuing to hear the same thing over and over. But if it’s a good piece, I’m usually converted to the second man’s camp by something. Maybe it’s a point of structural articulation that illuminates a proportion in the form that wasn’t perceptible until a large section was defined by a slight change.
Can something in fact be both boring and meditative? Those of you who compose and perform extremely long, repetitive, or sparse music – do you consider the boredom of your audience a desirable effect, or at least a part of the experience? Even at the recent performance of Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett – which I found incredibly beautiful – moments of frustration set in, full of awareness of my thoughts and surroundings, rather than the music. Sciarrino has said that he is seeking “The tension and the thoughts of the person who listens, made perceptible by the person who plays.” I think this is an apt description of the self-awareness we experience during extended-duration works.
Maybe we have to accept this boredom, these frustrations, as a part of the experience of listening to music. The experience of one’s self is often uncomfortable, and just as often illuminating. I’ve done some great composing in my mind during concert performances that started to bore me.