This is the third in a series of conversations with composers who work in just intonation, and other microtonal systems. Questions from Ekmeles are bolded, the composer’s responses follow. This is another specially timed edition, since Randy Gibson’s Fifth Annual Avant Music Festival begins this Friday.
Why not 12-note equal temperament?
I stopped using equal temperament a long time ago. I always had a hard time in my ear training classes, and growing up playing a pitched instrument, but never really considering pitch (I played the Marimba for many many years), my relationship to pitch was always unusual. When I began studying with La Monte Young, my ears were really opened to the possibilities of Just Intonation, and what had been some simple experiments developed into a richer understanding of how pitch can function.
I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a “microtonal” composer. Rather, I’m interested in the harmonies that can be created through just intonation, these are often even more “tonal,” more consonant. I guess I feel like my goal is not one of microtonality, but one of harmony, although I get excited by some of the very small intervals that I use.
Why the systems and pitches you use?
I’ve been working in the same tuning system, refining and improving it, for the last 5 years, and everything I write is a part of it. It’s a simple system made up of very simple intervals, all over a unified fundamental. But there’s an incredible wealth of material that can be pulled from it, and the reason I keep returning to it is that there’s more and more to be discovered, and by keeping it the same from performance to performance allows us to continue to refine our understanding of the tuning and how to perform it.
In my most complete statements of the tuning we’re not even using all of the possible pitches. They’re all there in the drone, but we’re performing on a simple scale, creating harmony, exploring their resonance, and just this exploration of, say, the central chord, the lower half of the scale, the upper half of the scale, and the central chord again is taking us around three hours. This is the piece I’m presenting on March 1, Apparitions Of The Four Pillars In The Midwinter Starfield Under The Astral 789 Duet.
For something like Circular Trance Surrounding The Second Pillar (my piece for Ekmeles) or The First Pillar Appearing In Supernova (my new cassette for Cassauna), I’m just working with a single facet of the tuning, a single interval class and exploring all of the possibilities of that.
What was your first encounter with microtones?
I can put this into three parts that mirror my development as a composer.
The very first time I truly heard something microtonal, and I was aware enough to understand that it wasn’t “normal” pitches, was probably a recording of Cage’s Ryoanji that I credit as having been the inspiration for me to begin composing. Of course, the microtonality in this piece is completely abstract, there’s only a single pitch happening at once, so this doesn’t get to the harmony.
For that, I would look at my time playing in a Balinese gamelan in Colorado. The instruments themselves, of course, are not in equal temperament, they’re in their own pentatonic scale (I unfortunately don’t know the exact scale that the gamelan I played in was tuned to), but furthermore, the halves of the orchestra are tuned slightly apart to create beats, that shimmering quality of Balinese gamelan music. This experience led me to begin to explore how pitch and tuning could be used to create a feeling.
When I came to New York, I came to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. Dream House and their performances with the Just Alap Raga Ensemble were the big influencers here, the otherworldly sine wave drone of Dream House was revolutionary. I had originally known mostly about Young’s more conceptual pieces of the 60’s, these elegant instruction pieces were incredibly influential on my thinking, but it was Dream House, and ultimately the raga performances that really opened my ears to the expressive possibilities of just intonation.
What piece of microtonal music that you didn’t write is most important to you?
There are probably two pieces, both by La Monte Young, that I think are the most important to my development: The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119 and his solo cello composition Just Charles And Cello In The Romantic Chord.
The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry… is the music heard at Dream House, and is a breathtakingly beautiful example of vertical composition. Every spot in that room is vibrant and individual, you get the sense that no-one else is hearing the same thing as you. As big and imposing as the composition is, it’s still incredibly private and personal. With enough time in the drone, whole new sound worlds open up and your thinking is forever changed, the vibrations are that powerful.
Just Charles And Cello was very important to my development as well. Taking a single chord from The Well Tuned Piano, that chord being The Romantic Chord, La Monte crafts a piece of music that is beautifully expressive and powerful. The casual listener might think that a piece that is maybe four hours long on a single chord might be “boring,” but it’s not, it’s completely captivating. I was at every single performance in New York in 2005 and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced.
Tags: gamelan, John Cage, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Randy Gibson