Feb 14

JI Composers: Randy Gibson

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.

Composer Randy Gibson - photo by Stern Weber Studios for Avant Media

Composer Randy Gibson – photo by Stern Weber Studios for Avant Media

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.

Nov 13

JI Composers: Taylor Brook

This is the second 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 a special edition, since we’re premiering Brook’s Motorman Sextet this Friday, November 15th, at the DiMenna Center.

Composer Taylor Brook

Composer Taylor Brook

Why not 12-note equal temperament?

I do sometimes use 12tet, however I consider 12tet as one possibility among many. Perhaps a better question for most composers would be: why use any temperament at all? I look to just intonation as a default tuning system because it is not a temperament, but the most direct way to think about intervals. Indeed, all temperaments are in relation to just intonation, a deformation of JI that serves an end that may have to do with the music or the construction of the instrument. With this in mind, if I choose to use a temperament then it should be a meaningful part of the composition. For example, in my new work for Ekmeles, Motorman Sextet, I employed pythagorean tuning in quotations of an organ prelude by Buxtehude in order to better invoke how the tuning of a Buxtehude piece would be realized by voices as well as create a division between the quotations of Buxtehude and my music.

Taylor Brook - Motorman Sextet score excerpt

Taylor Brook – Motorman Sextet score excerpt

Why the systems and pitches you use?

I tend to approach each new piece I write from as fundamental a place as possible. Most of my pieces begin with an idea that has nothing to do with pitch, and so pitch will then be controlled to serve some larger goal. Not until I have a clear idea of what I want to do with a piece, will I begin to think about how I will use pitch. This means that many of my pieces use very different systems or sometimes no system at all for pitch. With this said, I always think about pitch from the basis of just intonation. It’s important to remember that just intonation isn’t a system, just a way to measure the acoustic consonance of an interval, and so one must carve out a system from it as many composers do with 12tet.

What was your first encounter with microtones?

The first piece I heard with microtones was James Tenney’s Bridge and Flocking for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. I was in high-school at the time and I was good friends with Tenney’s daughter and so was curious about his music and bought a CD of his works. I must say that I didn’t really understand or enjoy his music until years later and this encounter was not so meaningful to me other than bringing forward the idea that such a thing would be possible.

What piece of microtonal music that you didn’t write is most important to you?

I’m not sure about it being the most important, but the most meaningful microtonal piece for me is LaMonte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano. During my undergraduate studies I spent a lot of time in the electronic music studio with another composer named Jacob Sudol. Jacob was doing his masters and gave me a lot of great recordings. One time he played The Well-Tuned Piano for my on the super-hi-fi speakers at the studio and it had a very strong effect on me. This piece is very direct and allows for enough time to deeply feel all of the pitch relationships as they are presented in different combinations and textures. It somehow invents and completes a genre of music all its own. Many composers have attempted to write pieces like this, but in my opinion, The Well-Tuned Piano is one of these truly unique works.

Nov 13

JI Composers: Christopher Trapani

This is the first 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.

Why not 12-note equal temperament?

It comes down to this question, one I ask myself often: What exactly enchants me as a listener in the music I love? More often than not, it’s small expressive details that capture my attention, the fleeting surface gestures or stylistic inflections that make a performance distinctive. Replicating that kind of expressivity requires a full palette of pitch material; my works often run the gamut, mixing highly-detailed microtonality with tempered passages. Microtones are a vital component of almost every musical tradition: jazz, blues, country, electronic music, many folk styles, early music — almost everywhere except in the mainstream art music of the last few centuries.

Speaking more broadly, I’m captivated by the idea of consonance, and devoted to pushing the boundaries of what can be considered to “sound good.” Just intonation sparks my imagination because what appears to be a complex network of pitch relationships can be boiled down to multiples of whole numbers, simplest ratios that require extreme precision in tuning. I’m very attracted to this idea that simplicity and complexity can be a matter of perspective.

Why the systems and pitches you use?

My approach is simple: the system has to fit the project. I’m very concerned with making my music practical form a performance standpoint, so that the microtones can be reliably performed — whatever that might mean in a given context. I’ve often used the trick of retuning winds, plucked strings (guitar, mandolin, autoharp), or bowed strings (playing only harmonics and open strings) down by a quarter-tone, so that a player can use “normal” fingerings but still play reliable microtones.

I’ve also written for instruments which are specifically designed to produce microtones, in which case the system is more or less decided for me. I’ve worked extensively with the qanûn for instance, a middle-eastern zither equipped with small levers under the string that can produce microtones by changing the string length. I’ve used both the Syrian version (in Üsküdar and Widening Circles) which gives tempered quarter-tones, as well as a just intonation qanûn designed by Julien Weiss, for whom I wrote a solo part tailored to his particular tuning system in Cognitive Consonance. Or another example: the Fokker Organ, a MIDI-controlled microtonal organ in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw, for which I also composed a short piece.

Another approach I’ve used is to write strictly tempered music for tempered instruments complemented by electronically created microtonal sounds, aiming for a fusion of live sound and synthesis or retuned samples that sounds like a single microtonal instrument. And there’s also my hexaphonic electric guitar, whose strings can be electronically retuned by a Max/MSP patch. I find that working with electronics offers the broadest range of possibility and precision, and a lot of my most fantastical pitch-related ideas are best realized in that medium.

A qanûn, showing the levers used for tuning

A qanûn, showing the levers used for tuning

What was your first encounter with microtones?

Wow, it’s coming up on a decade now… Shortly after I first moved to Paris in 2003, I caught a complete performance of Gérard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques. I’d heard Partiels (the third piece in the series) about a year earlier, and (weird to think of this in retrospect) only the theatrics at the end made an impression. But being enveloped by those lush harmonies in the concert hall was life-changing. Microtones were the key, it dawned on me around then, and I started devouring all the French microtonal music I could find, starting with Murail, Hurel, Leroux… For my first piece with microtones — a quartet for four clarinets written in 2004 — I decided I’d consciously train myself to hear microtonal intervals, and started constructing chords from slices of the harmonic series. But even in this first piece, I wasn’t doing just intonation drones, but working towards a richer polyphony, focusing on the voice-leading interactions between multiple microtonal lines.

My second microtonal revelation came when I discovered Turkish music. Often you hear that microtonal music has to be slow to be effective, that it takes the ear a while to attune itself to “unfamiliar” intervals. But in Ottoman classical music I discovered an entire tradition of fast and yet extremely precise microtones. The Turks rely on a combination of specially designed instruments and an internalized tradition that divides the octave (approximately but not quite exactly or consistently) into 53 parts. The idea that a microtonal theoretical framework could exist in tandem with a practice that tolerations deviations (which is in fact the way most supposedly tempered music is performed!) was illuminating for me and a source of inspiration for several pieces to follow.

Excerpt from Trapani's Cognitive Consonance

Excerpt from Trapani’s Cognitive Consonance

What piece of microtonal music that you didn’t write is most important to you?

I’ll go with either Harry Partch’s And on the Seventh Day the Petals Fell in Petaluma or Blind Willie Johnson’s version of “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground”

May 13

Handwriting and engraving

Furrer's FAMAPreparing the vocal ensemble parts in Beat Furrer’s FAMA has been an athletic physical challenge, and a catalyst for a lot of thinking about music, notation, and the voice. The score to this work is in the composer’s hand, which is becoming less and less common. The ubiquity of Sibelius and Finale have led to most scores being computer-engraved, including scores from major publishing houses who used to go through the painstaking and difficult task of literally engraving music for composers:

Now it is often the composer herself who must submit a score to the publisher, fully edited and formatted in the software of her choosing. For the composer and publisher, computer-engraved scores allow for easier corrections, re-formatting, and extraction and transposition of parts. For the performer, they allow for a standardized legibility that a composer rushing to meet a deadline may not always provide.

I’ve found myself becoming deeply engaged with the visual aspect of scores lately, what with our recent Augenmusik program. Each of the scores from that program has a unique visual world it inhabits, immediately presenting something of the work to the performer. On the other hand, the standardized default computer-engraved formatting of scores can lead to a homogenous visual presentation, which completely ignores the way that a musician will take in the score. While Furrer’s hand is not always as immediately legible as an engraved score, I think it has something to show us about the music. It is angular and sharp, with blocks of repetition across the page. The hard angles of Furrer’s flags and stems seem to communicate the precision with which the rhythms are to be executed. The time-saving device of writing in repeat marks for literal repetitions of measures also serves to illuminate their structural nature.

Perhaps this attraction to hand-written scores is nothing but nostalgia for a craft gradually being left by the wayside, but I think there’s something to the human connection it makes. In the same way that even a scrawled letter can communicate more than a double-spaced Times New Roman printout of the same text, a hand-written score can be a more intimate connection to the composer than a default Sibelius/Finale engraved score can. That isn’t to say that computer engraving precludes communication and individuation of a composer’s visual personality – many tech-savvy composers are doing incredible things with computer engraving. Timothy McCormack for one has managed to bend some notation software to his will to a remarkable degree, displayed in the score excerpt below, from his Mirror Stratum for contrabass clarinet and cello:

An excerpt from Timothy McCormack's Mirror Stratum; click for larger version

An excerpt from Timothy McCormack’s Mirror Stratum; click for larger version

Jan 13

Ben Johnston

This Thursday, we’ll be singing a program of music by living American composers at Roulette. I’m especially excited to be presenting a few short pieces by Ben Johnston, a composer whose music fits our mission of performing music that would otherwise go unperformed. Despite being earlier works in Ben Johnston’s exploration of just intonation, both his I’m goin’ away and Rose present special difficulties to the performer. In rejecting the equal tempered tuning of the piano as an acoustical falsehood, Johnston expands both the consonances and dissonances available. The 3-limit consonances of 3:2 perfect fifths, and 5-limit consonances of 5:4 major and 6:5 minor thirds are familiar to the ear of a seasoned choral performer, but Johnston’s systematic exploration of pitch space requires a specificity and fidelity to exact intonation that eclipses most music. To complicate matters, both of the works we will be performing include 7-limit intervals, including the 7:4 or ‘natural’ minor seventh, and the septimal 7:6 third. Whereas tuning compromises are made quickly and in passing in most music—especially unaccompanied vocal music—Johnston has accounted for every pitch relationship and every adjustment to be made. It’s a dramatic raising of the stakes, requiring a new kind of precision from performers who need to sing or play not just an F, but the F. In this way, Ben Johnston is a most uncompromising composer, a composer of absolutes. You can hear a sample of his vocal writing below in his Sonnets of Desolation, sung by the Swingle Singers.

Jan 13

Aaron Cassidy – Experimental Composer

I’m very excited to have another chance to sing Aaron Cassidy‘s wonderful I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips at our upcoming concert this January 24th at Roulette.

If you don’t know his work, I think the piece is an excellent introduction! Here it speaks (and shouts and burbles) for itself, in my performance from the very first Ekmeles concert.

Aaron Cassidy – I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips from Ekmeles on Vimeo.

After that, you might also be interested to read his paper, I am an experimental composer , now available on his website.

And would be remiss if I didn’t post the incredible JACK Quartet‘s inspiring performance of Cassidy’s Second String Quartet, which is referenced in the above paper.

Aug 12

Just Intonation in Renaissance Music

Just a little mid-Summer check-in here! We’ll be back on a more regular schedule as we come into our season in the Fall, which kicks off mid-October.

I’ve just been totally engrossed by Ross Duffin’s fantastic article about the theory and practice of Just intonation in Renaissance music. While Ekmeles has performed music explicitly written for and formulated to work in Just intonation, I’ve always been fascinated with quantifying the more intuitive method of tuning employed by choirs and vocal ensembles performing older music.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts, a few terminology refreshers: The octave is divided into 1200 cents, making each half-step in 12 note equal temperament 100 cents. Just intonation is more easily expressed in terms of frequency ratios, which will appear as a ratio between 1:1 and 2:1, expressing an interval smaller than an octave.

Anyone who’s performed in an ensemble knows the sound of a just perfect fifth, and its solid, grounded feeling due to the elimination of beating caused by overtone dissonances. It can be expressed as the ratio 3:2, or 702 cents, putting it 2 cents, or 2 100ths of a halfstep wider than the fifth on the piano. Just thirds, the major’s ratio 5:4, the minor’s 6:5, are slightly less intuitive to modern ears, as they are 386 cents and 316 cents respectively, deviating by 14 and 16 cents from the piano’s tempered thirds.  However, performers of Renaissance music are familiar with the sound of these mellower thirds. Why this discussion about applying Just intonation? Why not just sing these pure fifths and thirds and be done with it? The short answer: polyphony.

The long answer is dealt with beautifully in Duffin’s essay. Tuning purely homorhythmic vertical chords one after another is a simple matter, relatively speaking. When a composer writes notes that hold while other notes move, the moving notes have to tune to the held note (assuming the held note isn’t sliding around). This sometimes means pure fifths will have to be tuned downward from a held note that was tuned as, say, a pure major third. Now a third tuned above that lower note will be doubly low, and you can imagine how things go from there! Duffin deals with Renaissance theoretical puzzles in which the chains of intervals tend to push the pitch in one direction or another, and devises wonderfully musical solutions to the practical problems of keeping in tune.

As a practical example, Lassus’s Ave Regina coelorum is exceptional. If all the intervals were to be tuned justly, the pitch would droop by somewhat less than a quarter tone (43 cents) over the first 5 measures! This example is included in the text of Duffin’s essay, along with several possible tunings.

Below you can hear a synthesized version of this excerpt in a pure (and totally impractical, given the aforementioned drift) Just intonation tuning, followed by a different kind of mechanical solution, performed using an H-Pi Instruments keyboard. Incidentally, I use their exceptional Scordatura software for realizing microtonal scores. Below that video is a human performance of this beautiful piece which doesn’t drop a quarter tone – you can really hear them fighting that downward tendency though, when your ears are attuned to it!

Dec 11

Classical Christmas on Spotify & YouTube

I’ve been enjoying this 8-hour Classical Christmas themed playlist on Spotify. While it’s not all actually Christmas music, it’s all festive and quite enjoyable, with good performances selected. For the contemporary listeners in you – enjoy Crumb’s “A Little Suite for Christmas A.D. 1979”, complete with score. Check out the other videos on this user’s channel for an incredible selection of recordings paired with scores.

Oct 11

Hilliard Ensemble + overtone singing

Thanks to Ken Ueno, you can hear a beautiful combination of a few of my favorite things! (So they’re not Tuvan. But it’s still pretty fun!)

Jul 11

Happy 4th!

Hopefully you can enjoy the lovely music knowing that the above image associated with the video is in fact a visa application photo, and has nothing to do with the spurious story of Stravinsky being arrested for this admittedly arresting arrangement.