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Johnny Reinhard interviewed by Mike Thorne

An edited transcription of a September 1998 interview with Johnny Reinhard by Mike Thorne, in which he talks about his evolution as a composer and performer and about his compositions on the Raven album.

Raven album coverI first focused on microtonality as a player.  I wanted to develop the bassoon compositionally by encouraging composers to write for me; I just wasn’t satisfied with the available repertoire.  I didn’t care much for the published works of the bassoon.  There’s a certain standoffishness that institutions have towards the instrument compared with instruments like violin and piano, let alone flute.

René Longy was the most  famous person for ear training that I could possibly study with in New York.  She had taught Copland, Bernstein, but she was deaf by the time I got to her; she’s not alive now, sorry to say.  I developed a real respect for ear training, although I wasn’t actually very good at it.  That turned around, though, after I got my masters degree, when I spent a year researching microtonal music in other cultures.  And I was just floored by Um Kalthoum, from Egypt, a combination of Sinatra, Beatles and Edith Piaf all in one.  She sang quartertones so beautifully that nobody noticed that they were microtones, they were that comfortable.  And I thought, ‘that’s the way to go’.  After one year of independent research, I received a fellowship at Columbia University, remaining for four years.  Afterwards, having taken all the coursework that was available in ethnomusicology and theory,  I produced concerts.  And, gradually, I developed my composition focus. 

There are extended techniques that progressive musicians learn, such as circular breathing or, especially in my case, microtones.  One thinks of Charlie Parker with all his incredible technique and no music to use it on until he came up with his own.  In a certain sense, I was an overly athletic bassoonist who was stretching to move forward; microtones became the way.  You can’t study microtones from a single individual, because that way you find only one particular perspective on what’s possible.  I’m a polymicrotonal composer.  And the only present way to be a polymicrotonal composer is to produce concerts for ten to fifteen years for which you rake the earth for whatever’s available, put it on yourself, direct it, or invite guests to perform it.  Then, when you’ve seen everything that’s being done, material that’s rarely (if ever) reviewed or spoken about (let alone taught), then you have a good basis to create your own.  The function of composer/player and concert promoter becomes all bound up in one.  I wear so many hats that I promised myself never to wear a real hat.

I don’t erect strict walls between styles of music, preferring to be interstylistic, feeling just as comfortable in classical, jazz, rock and ethnic environments.  I’m very involved with early music, as much as I might be with any kind of music.  Nor would I segregate myself from any kind of music; there are just musics I perhaps have yet to discover.

I prepared myself as a composer by not allowing the bassoon to dictate anything to me.  I have more difficulty writing for myself than for other people.  It is a good question that all composers have to ask themselves.  How much does the instrument that one spends a lifetime learning dictate the techniques used?  However, since I’ve pushed the envelope of what the bassoon is expected to do anyway, even if my bassoon was to dictate something in my composition, nobody would notice.

Dune has become my signature piece, germinating over a long period.  Science fiction, legend and ancient earth history are very powerful imagination-tweekers that suggest new forms for microtonal music.  Like many fans of Frank Herbert’s powerful Dune novels, I was disappointed with the movie.  I thought ‘well, I’ll take care of that,’ and wrote a bassoon solo that does it up just fine.  And I’m pleased to say that it’s been very well received by the bassoon world.  Perhaps it will be, as one reviewer put it, the next contemporary music competition piece for bassoon.

Although each section of Dune has its own program reference, it’s not necessary to know it.  There’s always more for anyone who’s curious.  People

say that the brilliance of Mozart is that there is a level accessible to everyone, that every stripe of person will find a deeper level or aspect to speak to them directly.  I’d like to feel that the same is true here.  In the score I suggest that you can completely disregard the Frank Herbert connection and just think of Dune as reflecting the sand dunes which the wind is constantly shaping.

For instance, the opening of Dune is a physical swirling of the instrument that creates a very powerful acoustic effect, resolving into a multiphonic, thick, grainy chord sound.  On the planet Arakis, a desert world, giant worms burrow beneath the sand.  Sensitive to physical movement, they eventually pop their heads up and move towards whatever is moving.  I’m being quite programmatic in the beginning of Dune.  The next section is a theme and variations returning to the novel’s father and son (after all, what’s more of a variation than a son to a father?).  The Tleilaxu, for instance, are shape shifters.  In this section I even change the shape of the bassoon with no pause, screwing the bell off the top of the bassoon, then screwing the bocal out of the bassoon, playing on the still-connected reed, popping the end of the bocal into the bell and then using my hands to create a wah-wah sound – which is the Tleilaxu all over.  The next section is the Ixians.  They were technocrats and so everything is done exclusively with keys, just the sound of the percussion of the bassoon. Next, we have the Fremen, represented by equal divisions of the octave: two, three, four, five, improvising.  Finally, the Spice, which drove the Fremen towards the next day, when they would gather more spice from the worm.  Spice is all multiphonics, just a joyous series of chords, an almost bluesy, ecstatic dance.

Chaco Canyon was inspired by my stay with a Navajo friend, Will Tsosie, who has helped a lot of writers write about the Navajo.  Will was able to take me places that most gringos would never find.  We would see Kokopelli etchings of a thousand- year-old microtonal flute player (must be microtonal, if you saw the guy you’d know he was a microtonalist).  I went to Chaco Canyon and saw these dwellings carved out of canyons.  Will turned to me and he said, ‘You know . . . . they didn’t do this themselves, they had slaves.’  The Navajo were enslaved to the Anasazi people.

Chaco Canyon  is the result of that moving encounter, the mood springing from the feel of the place.  I could have gone with the theme of Kokopelli and made a flute piece, a Kokopelli-piece which would have been more, lets say, in a Greek sense,  Dionysian, more wine-like, more fun.  But no; Chaco Canyon is quite a serious, sensitive work, based on three ancient Greek scales written out by Ptolemy in Alexandria around 200 AD.  The Greeks had their own modulation scheme, but this piece modulates in a way that turns out to be completely modern: any tone can turn into the fundamental of a brand new key, or any step thereof.  I have a metal flute switch to a wooden flute by connection of a whistle.  This is the feeling that I get from the area, a desolate feeling.  A single flute is tiny in New York City, the noisiest place on earth, but huge in New Mexico.  There’s a curious connection I saw during a visit to the Hopi (who may  be the ancestors of the Anasazi).  The Hopi have several flute clans, and yet not a single one of them plays flute.  When I pulled out a real alto recorder, they were absolutely aghast.  They were thrilled, and yet shocked that someone could play it.  So they have this extraordinary, proud connection to the flute, without ever playing it.  And yet it’s a very powerful force in their cultural context.

Similarly, the Navajo have a special hour glass drum that is only for their own ceremonies and not for non-Navajo to see or hear.  Music is not always totally public; it can be largely symbolic.

In the bowels of Chaco Canyon stand the children of an arid plain.

Ruinous remnants of tightly fit stones built by continuous and monotonous pain.

Their millennia-deep roots have long been pulled by their nameless pueblo mother.

The sun-dagger clock ticks silently by the roofless stories, smothering the moans of their slave-drenched father.

Atlantis is another very strongly programmed piece, in three parts.  Very naturally, it starts with the sea, land comes up over the sea, people go onto the land, settle it, volcanic eruptions destroy the island – and so we go back to the sea.  Actually, there is an island in Greece called Santorini (or in Greek, Thera) which blew its stack around 1690 BC, destroying two-thirds of the island and creating tidal waves that destroyed much of the Mediterranean,  including Crete and parts of Egypt.  It may have had quite a big impact on history.  I walked into this ancient city of Thera (they had just reclaimed it from the lava in which it was embedded).  You walk this road in pre-Minoan culture, and it’s like a Long Island suburb in the Flintstones.  There are mansions which had incredible art work, most of which you can see in Athens, since it’s been peeled off the walls.  Then, if you had to flush something, you’d throw it out the window and it would roll into the sewer. 

The islanders had huge jars for food, water and wine.  They had everything.  The art work indicates that they were well traveled.  This may be the original Atlantis.  In my piece, five shell players signify the importance of the sea, conveniently.  Shells produce very powerful sounds and are used, for example, in the middle of the Pacific for long distance announcements.  Stretching a point, the tuba might be thought of as a giant shell.  It’s a giant conical tube and by adding the quartertone valve on it, we’ve opened it up to a myriad of new possibilities of pitch.  And we also used very special chimes recovered from an old Brooklyn movie theater.  I had kept track of them since I was 15 and went and got them when I was 25 – the manager said to go ahead and take them.  They are Pythagorean-tuned, pure fifth-tuned, and have a very death-knell quality to them.  What could be better, I thought, then to use these chimes to signal the imminent earthquake and final destruction of Atlantis.

Some of the physical performance gets quite wild with a cadenza, where the bell of the tuba is placed on the floor, using the floor as a kind of reflecting plane for the sound.  It’s harder to describe than it is to listen to, and quite undignified to record. 

Some of the pieces on this record are pretty much pure improvisation.  Classical music suffered greatly when improvisation skills were taken out of the training of musicians.  By the nineteenth century, it became a lost art.  A classical musician today is more of a re-creator.  My route into improvisation was as a player who wanted to extend palette and expression.  Being able to do something extemporaneously allows me to have more of a Klezmer effect on people.  You make people come to you by the sound you are making, though, it is an issue as to what degree people can respond to what you are saying.  I don’t believe for a second that music is an international language, although it’s a nice political thing for the United Nations to say.  I would say mathematics is a much safer universal language; however there are many distinct musics.

When we say classical music ‘communicates’ we can never find unanimity on what is actually communicated.  No one agrees.  But as long, it seems, as an individual ‘feels’ that communication, that’s enough.  And I have to take into account that if I am going to be writing interstylistically for unusual instruments (and polymicrotonally) I have to be very careful about my semantics.  Such meaning has to affect people on a level that they aren’t even aware of.  My challenge is to find and utilize the essences of microtonal intervals.  In my 1982 paper written at Columbia University, called Phenomenology and Its Application to Microtonality, I examined the essences of microtonal music.  Equal divisions of octaves, overtone series and undertone series, golden mean relationships, stackings of particular intervals into either closed cycles or spirals, intonation systems of other cultures, and newly invented modes: these are some of the ways to have a listener sense the intelligence encapsulated in the music, and the culture that produced it.

Circle, I thought, should begin with metal and end in wood.  Metal gets your attention and wood provides the solace.  I thought, let’s try a new form.  We travel from percussion metal to didjeridu, then to bassoon, to wooden percussion.  And then, finally, everyone together at the end, coming full circle.  We did triple trackings (superimposed improvisations), so I was able to judge and cue instruments in this context. We took several takes of different layers, aware of the danger (which is often expressed in the studio) of over analyzing, approaching sterility and losing the spontaneity.  There were recorded layers in Circle that we didn’t use.  We very carefully wanted the second layer to match the first; the third layer turned out to need to be less thick, more filigree, more like the ribbon that ties it all together. While I certainly wouldn’t call Circle new age, it has such vibrancy in its Klangfarbe as a result of the studio.  In fact, I can’t imagine it being performed live.  It’s the only piece that I have that I wouldn’t perform live.

The Trios, specifically, can’t be claimed as my composition.  It’s a group improvisation, equally composed with Ulrich Krieger and Yoshiaki Ochi, performing in New York City as ‘New Berlin Tokyo York’ at the New Music Cafe.

I’m not sure whether each piece is at its best in the studio.  Chaco Canyon can sound very special in an intimate space.  Some of the pieces have a theatrical element that may not be as apparent with a lot of space in an audio recording.  For instance, when I’m swirling the bassoon in Dune, the visuals are going to get your attention even before the sound.  You can’t see the swirling on the recording.

Enhancements were effected in the studio to compensate for the lack of the visual element.  They are as cartoons for me that just come alive in the imagination even though there’s no sound in them at all.  When the studio enhances already-exotic instruments, they become virtual visual.  The effect is much fuller.  For instance, there are so-called studio tricks used in this record such as abrupt changes of perspective on a solo instrument and pitch shifting a vocal declamation.  We held no allegiance to the documentary style of classical music recording.

We were very careful not to be gimmicky.  Since so much was happening acoustically in Dune, there is not much that you’d want to effect in the studio.  At least you wouldn’t want to camouflage the brilliance of that change of sound by some kind of electronic technique.  I don’t think we used electronic techniques to hide anything; quite the opposite.  If anything, they brought out what were the natural propensities in the music, separating sounds and adding definition.

Raven is one of the more startling studio productions on the album, done in a Gothic pop music recording esthetic.  Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven is one of the most powerful poems in American literature.  There hasn’t been any real musical usage of The Raven, except for a few exotic examples.  So I did a little bit of nosing around into the material Poe provided, and I found a monograph on The Raven with Poe actually encouraging musicians to set his poetry to music.  The Raven was designed as a very formalistic poem, and Poe was very proud of its musical quality.  I noticed some of the phrases had quotation marks around them, and thought that one either reads a poem in the head silently, or read it aloud.  How do you make the difference between the phrases that are in quotations and those that aren’t?  I only use phrases that have quotations as if they’re spoken aloud.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.

‘Tis some visitor. Only this and nothing more, tapping at my chamber door…Only this and nothing more.

‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door.  Only this and nothing more.


Other friends have flown before.  On the morrow he will leave me as my hopes have flown before.

Doubtless what it utters is its only stock and store.

Prophet, thing of evil!  Prophet still if bird or devil!


Take thy beak from out my heart and take thy form from off my door!

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting on the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door, and his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.

I decided to have the raven go off on several solos, since they’re not said in words.  I used the tarogato, a very loud instrument reputedly used by the Hungarians to scare the Turks, an instrument that still hasn’t been domesticated.  And with that being the sound of the raven, and using the incredible vocal tessitura of Paul Savior, we had the setting for a very powerful musical engagement of The Raven,  I call it Raven to distinguish it from Poe’s, The Raven.  A gong helps create the gothic feeling.  The work was created for this album and only performed live afterwards.  Luckily it works well in both situations.  Other instruments that were used: clarinet, saxophone, trombone, string bass, bassoon, are all very mood-oriented instruments, and help, I think, to sound scary.  This is as close as I will probably ever come to writing a piece that has any element of horror.

I believe that human beings inherit certain cultural icons.  They go through an initial period where they have to confront them, and they either accept or deny them completely.  After a certain time, if they are in good health, they find a third way.  A very good corollary would be religion.  You are born into the religion of your family and then you confront it.  You either accept it or go to something which denies it, or you come up with a third way of dealing with your spiritual needs.  I don’t see the present Western inheritance of 12 tone equal temperament being any different. 

If people are going to be trained rigorously to that, they will be hard pressed to be flexible.  But, thanks to MTV and rock’n’ roll and so many other influences, most people are intuitively quite open to microtonal music.  It’s rare to hear a television commercial that’s not microtonal in some way.  If you want to get someone’s attention in 15 seconds, you might as well use microtones, because that novelty will do it.  If it’s going to sound like something that sounded before, who’s going to pay attention?  My favorite example of commercial microtonality is the Oldsmobile car horn:  Honk Honk honk Honk.  Its neutral third at the top, which is a quartertone interval between major and minor, now that’s going to get your attention on the road.  Somebody hears that.  That’s fresh.  I’m sure that was done deliberately.  Its distinctive motif is immediately  recognizable in most every country because of old movies.

Schoenberg in his time hoped that everyone would whistle his tunes in the street.  That didn’t come to pass.  Schoenberg probably came to a fork in the road.  Wagner, the previous German sensation, had proposed a believable theory that every note is related to every other note in some harmonic manner on a piano.  Though Schoenberg followed that principle early on, he felt it wasn’t the future.  He needed to find the future.  And through microtonality this was possible, although requiring a new vocabulary.  So instead, for expedience, Schoenberg opted for serialism: same material, same vocabulary, but put in a new order.  Schoenberg was an artist, a painter.  I think of his 48 permutations of serialism as symbolic of a paint brush.  If  you take a brush stroke across a canvas, you have in essence, according to Wagner, all the notes of music.  And what can you do with a brush?  You can go backwards –  there’s your retrograde.  And you can turn the brush, that’s inversion.  And you can take that turned brush and pull it back, and that’s retrograde inversion.  And of course you can pick the brush up off the canvas and return it to any place (those being the holy 12) and have 48 permutations.

It’s very natural if you think about it from that perspective.  He did not think of himself as atonal, but as pantonal.  People who called his music atonal grated on him.  He did not like that judgement.  And often, people mistakenly think microtonal means atonal.  Microtonality includes tonality, with all the hierarchies that are part of our acoustic real world. And micro- in this sense does not mean tiny. It is quite significant.  It’s not merely small intervals.  It’s plenty of much larger intervals.  It’s the whole storehouse of intervallic relationships.

We don’t often realize how adept we really are with sound.  Somebody can call us and we immediately turn in their direction.  That’s quite powerful.  Visually we may not even be as powerful as we are sonically.  In other cultures of the world, we find terrific phenomenal uses of sound, such as talking drums in Africa.  We have a myriad of pitched languages all over the world.  Sound is a very, very powerful medium, but if we segregate and impose an apartheid of only twelve notes we are left with far less than is possible.  I can understand that for reasons of semantic communication, keeping 12 might help some people think that they are holding the fort against the barbarians that would knock down the walls.  That’s the way our world is going anyway.  Not that there really are barbarians, but there are heretics.  And these, in their turn, have their own approaches, ways of seeing and hearing the world.  They are knocking down the false walls of the mind. 

From the cross-cultural perspective of our single earth, microtonality is a ‘unified field theory’.  We’ve been living in a small town, and now we have to discover the country.