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Johnny Reinhard at the Stereo Society
Johnny Reinhard: Composing Polymicrotonally
The subject of this essay — polymicrotonality — never shows up in a dictionary, although it has real meaning for my music compositions. When performing extemporaneously as a bassoonist, I couldn’t imagine improvising sans microtones.
The complex world in which we live requires a new music that reflects what is special in this millennial era and, paradoxically, need not be overtly complex in its delivery. The insistence of a single tuning simply does not attract my aesthetic compass. Most significantly, communication in music demonstrably improves when one chooses from an unlimited set of meaningful intervals.
The concept of writing music “microtonally” appears fairly well understood in the late ’90s, although music composed outside of conventional 12-tone equal temperament is regularly composed in a single system of tuning (e.g. quartertones, just intonation, 19-tone equal temperament). More conservatively, conventional tuning achieves microtonal status through the peppering of ornamental microtones. Following 20th century innovations in polyrhythms and polytonality, I believe the next step is polymicrotonality.
Knowledgeably juggling diverse tuning approaches, often in a single work, is a personal artistic choice. Perhaps this predilection is solely a natural outgrowth of my unique microtonal concert experiences. For the past 17 years, I have produced concerts in New York under the American Festival of Microtonal Music (AFMM) banner. They reflect my preference for alternatives in tuning, a penchant for eclecticism, and a desire to be entertainingly interstylistic. AFMM concerts have served me well as a virtual laboratory of music exploration and experimentation. Each concert is designed to reflect a diversity of music traditions, while providing samples of the most progressive examples of microtonal music originals. The intention is to document the latest musical developments in a festive concert atmosphere. Audience members shift through modulations of style, tunings, and composers. Past tradition lives on in rare performances of the pioneering microtonal composers — Juliàn Carrillo (Mexico), Alois Hába (Czech), Harry Partch (U.S.), Mordecai Sandberg (Rumania, Israel, U.S., and Canada), and Ivan Wyschnegradsky (Russia and France).
The ear’s acuity is capable of much more than an apartheid of twelve-equidistant intervals per octave as found on the piano. Therefore, regular listening to music in diverse tunings is desirable for gearing one’s mind to new intervallic vocabulary. With a “microtonal sensibility” there are at least 98 new referenced intervals between the piano’s adjacent keys. This is based on the logarithmic division of a semitone into 100 cents, or 1200 cents to the octave developed last century by Alexander J. Ellis. Prominent well-tempered alternatives to equal temperament were developed and popularized by such tuning-oriented musicians as Andreas Werckmeister, Francesco Antonio Vallotti, and Johann Philipp Kirnberger.
Though at first there may appear to be too many intervals from which to choose, within a tabula rasa receptive to the full pitch continuum, there are recognizable essential relationships. The overtone series certainly rates as primary relationships. Called “just intonation” by virtue of its precise whole number relationships, these untempered relationships can beget several additional arrangements. One may use an inverted “undertone” series (as in Harry Partch’s U-tonality), or turn any single pitch into a pivot for an entirely different scheme, thereby allowing for modulation. One could stack untempered perfect fifths formed by the ratio of 3/2 of an open string as in “Pythagorean tuning,” customary to the Babylonians, Chinese, and much of the European Middle Ages. The distinctive “sound” exemplified by these interpolations escape the power of words to describe, and the growing corpus of works by prominent composers merely hints at its potential.
Just intonation turns standard equal temperament theories inside out, because F# is 22 cents lower than a Gb. Terms like” consonance” need to be reexamined, reevaluated and redefined. Prominent practitioners of overtone-specific arrangements have significantly influenced the development of composition in the United States and include such formidable works as Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury (Columbia Masterworks), La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano (Gramavision), and Ben Johnston’s Amazing Grace-String Quartet #2 (Nonesuch). Ensembles devoted to just intonation performance include David Hykes’ Harmonic Choir, Dean Drummond’s Newband, David Doty’s Other Music, and the American Festival of Microtonal Music (AFMM) Ensemble. Significantly, just intonation is an American phenomenon with Europe looking on, much as it previously did with jazz.
Whenever a composer internalizes a relationship between points of pitch and uses it compositionally, its affective logic transfers to the audience. Moreover, moving through different tunings in a single piece is exciting to listeners. Audiences “feel” the intent and conviction of the composer in the new material. Any equal division of the octave displays a perceivable uniformity that translates logically. This phenomenon has been discussed in detail by composer/theorists Easley Blackwood and Ivor Darreg. More fanciful relationships, based on stacking fresh intervals, or by borrowing relationships from other semantic realms (e.g. architecture), allow for new and stimulating scale arrays. “Sound and visual things are very close in the mind, but we are not conscious of that” said Iannis Xenakis before his recent American premiere of microtonal Kraanerg on November 12, 1996 in New York’s Cooper Union, which I attended. Examples of enriching and endearing idiosyncratic designs are evidenced by the work of Wendy Carlos (using her invented Alpha, Beta, Gamma tunings in her Beauty in the Beast CD), Andrew Culver (in his composition Architectonic Space based on a Benedictine Monk’s architectural designs), and John Cage (using 74-tone equal temperament tuning for his composition Ten).
Perhaps surprisingly, a number of self-described microtonalists view quartertone music as pedestrian, charging that it magnifies the errors of conventional tuning. Twelve-tone equal temperament is seen as an unacceptable compromise, a surgical “tamperment,” if you will, of the pure intervals found in nature. In this light other temperaments are usually less severe, as with meantone tunings. Temperaments vary the resolution of pure tuning to various degrees. It is indeed ironic that quartertone-based classics such as Charles Ives’s Three Quarter-tone Pieces for Two Pianos (Newport Classic), Alan Hovhannes’ Oh Lord, Bless Thy Mountains, Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. John’s Passion, and Iannis Xenakis’ Anaktoria are the most notable interval-enriched scores.
Radically different from quartertone music in aesthetic, thirty-one-tone equal temperament compositions, called “tricesimoprimal” music by its Dutch adherents, is championed in Henk Bading’s Contrasts, five songs for mixed choir (Webster College LP- Private), Jon Catler’s Hey, Sailor! (Freenote-EP, formerly M-Tone), Paul Rapoport’s Songs of Fruits and Vegetables, and Joel Mandelbaum’s Woodwind Quintet #2. 31ET — “ET” is microtonal shorthand for equal temperament– serves as the equivalent of a circular quarter-comma meantone tuning. 31ET allows for a plethora of consonant relationships which include the 7th harmonic, effectively outlawed by convention.
19ET is notably represented by Ivor Darreg’s Prelude for 19-tone Guitar (Detwelvulate CD-private), Neil Haverstick’s Spider Chimes (The Gate CD-private), Easley Blackwood’s Fanfare in 19-note Equal Tuning (Cedille), John Negri’s 5 Pieces for Guitar, and the theories of the late Joseph Yasser. A classic dissertation is Joel Mandelbaum’s 1960 “19-Tone Equal Temperament and Multiple Divisions of the Octave” (Indiana University). 19ET is effectively circular third-comma meantone and favors the purity of minor thirds in contrast to 31ET’s major-third focus. By now there is music in practically all conceivable equal divisions of the octave. Many microtonal works are beyond the tools of conventional music theory and go largely ignored because of their inscrutable nature.
It is on the emotional plane that I respond most profoundly to music with a microtonal vocabulary. Composing in conventional tuning of twelve equally-spaced tones exclusively left me unsatisfied — as if I was speaking with a limited vocabulary. At first, all I knew for sure is that a microtone, invariably a quartertone, was located somewhere within the expanse between two relatively known entities. This queasy feeling of limbo soon evolved into confident control of any particular system, because they were all quantifiable.
Chasing down microtones on an instrument has its rewards because it opens up your sound, exercises your fingers through the calisthenics necessary for new notes, and heightens the precision of measuring musical intervals. Now, I am a lush for the myriad of sound combinations and wince at too much vanilla. No matter which way you carve up the sound spectrum, it’s always legitimate if you’ve been there before and know how return. Rather than eliminate from my music any of the special tonal arrangements previously described, I intermingle them, and this has culminated in a mature “polymicrotonal” personal style. I don’t believe there is any virtue in remaining exclusively in a single tuning “system” per se, preferring what radio DJ John Schaefer calls my “catholic approach.”
The pioneer of polymicrotonality is the American, Charles Ives. I recently realized and conducted his Universe Symphony in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center on June 6, 1996. The score yields explicit notated quartertones, eighthtones, just intonation, and even an enigmatic indication to the concertmaster to play his violin entrance “somewhere between A and A-sharp.” Combination tones (the direct result of 9 flutists with distinctive parts rubbing up against each other). General directions by Ives that his notation recognizes sharps as higher in pitch than flats, and the inclusion of other acoustic phenomena add to the rich intervallic intricacy of this 74-minute giant. (Even with a near-to-full audience at its premiere in New York, this work is far from entering the public’s consciousness. A terrific recording exists of the AFMM Orchestra premiere, however it is not commercially available.
The first time polymicrotonalisms fully entered my consciousness was through my participating in Jon Catler’s Cowpeople for rock band in 31ET. There is an electric bassoon part that paired a quartertone 24ET ascending line against a 31ET descending line. The effect was quite charming and I soon learned to mold both scales, and others, for future work. It is only through rote learning that new intervals can be initiated, long before they can be imagined. More recently the AFMM successfully commissioned Mr. Catler to compose Joint which juxtaposed 31ET and 19ET for 2 guitars (in their respective tunings), bassoon, cello, and double bass. (Try dividing in half a new interval like a 7/4 harmonic seventh at 969 cents, and you’ll see that it is completely impossible to do so unaided. Perfect pitch doesn’t help either.)
Form takes on whole new meanings when using a polymicrotonal basis for composition. I readily adhere to that old Schoenbergian chestnut that form is organic and that if you prick it at any point, it will bleed. Fresh forms spring from the imagination, providing the ideal gestalt for presenting the new semantics of polymicrotonality. Culturally-based legends and science fiction make for some interesting crossovers, as do new scientific discoveries in general, suggesting titles that jump start the imagination significantly and serve as a catalyst for new abstract forms. This is not a clarion call to lift your arms and begin to write polymicrotonally, or even microtonally. If when reading this essay you are provoked to explore and become proactive, well, there’s plenty of room in the pool. It is certainly not necessary to give any more effort than usual to listen to my music — as always, one has the prerogative to either enjoy it or not. It’s well worth noting, however, that this new music remains vital for audiences after repeated listenings.
My notation for microtonally specific pitches places the number of cents deviating from straight quartertones (a number, N, from 1 up to 49) above a particular notehead. A plus or minus sign (+ or – ), added to the quarterflat (ñ ) or quartersharp ( d ) symbols indicates the direction of the deviation from an idealized 50 cent perfect quartertone, as shown here:
Add an extra lateral across the conventional sharp sign:
Conventional sharp, flat, and natural signs are altered in this same way.
This notation does not in any way favor quartertone intonation (24-tone equal temperament) which I rarely use explicitly. Surprisingly to most, rehearsal time is no longer than it would be for any new piece of music. Perhaps, since the advent of oboists tuning to electronic tuners rather than tuning forks, professional musicians are now intellectually prepared to make microtonal distinctions to any note found within a quartertone compass. When one navigates through the world of alternative tunings, all the spaces along the continuum, filling in all intervallic possibilities, become sensible and meaningful. Either through the 1200 cents-per-octave logarithmic scaffold, or by using ratios as in just intonation tuning, all musical intervals can be mapped clearly in musical notation, and rendered effectively.
I like the idea of a lingua franca for notation, especially since I believe that all music is microtonal from the cross-cultural perspective. While a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Columbia University in 1985, I submitted a thesis entitled “Phenomenology and Its Application to Microtonality.” After developing a disciplined treatment of the phenomenon of microtonality, I understood there could be no local cultural definitions of microtonality.
For practical reasons, it is important for the future success of microtonal music performances that there be a cogent notation. Performances, in general, are endangered in our culture, and microtonal music needs every possible advantage to succeed. It would be terrific if today and tomorrow’s players could be counted on to understand how to read and perform any and all tunings. Cents makes the most sense: 1200 divisions of the octave being the very threshold of human hearing for pitch differentiation. Additionally, cents allows for the total intellectualization of all pitch “points” on the line of frequency to be immediately apprehended. Most importantly, players always reference new pitches to constants — like open strings and harmonics — in order to find exotics. Microtonal notations that represent moving relationships can lose their constants in pitch drift, making it difficult to come up with the necessary hand positions or fingerings to produce the appropriate sounds. The solution is for all pitches to relate in a unified field in order to be fully prescriptive for players. Cents also anchors us to present music tradition — no small feat. Of course, by using enharmonic quartertones, one need not use numbers larger than 25 to indicate cents distinctions (recently pointed out by Paul Ehrlich, a subscriber to the internet’s busy Tuning List).
Of particular interest to me in my compositions is the solo piece for a virtuoso player. Even when composing for a larger ensemble I work with each player individually in a twilight before writing things down. The subtle machinations that affect my direction require that I meet with the players in advance of composing, before the juices start flowing. The 11 solo works, out of the 25 I’ve composed, would seem to indicate a microtonal variant on Hindemithian Gebrauchtsmusik, however, I don’t feel any responsibility for filling in the holes of instrumental repertoire. Microtonal solos, as in Indian raga, allow for a fuller musical space than can be achieved by a solo in conventional 12ET. Expanding melody with more meaningful and richer intervallic relationships implies its own harmony: The effect is multi-dimensional. And yet, I avoid duos because they are too two dimensional: In a duo, when one player breaks (for rest, breathing, alternation, etc.), the bottom falls out of the piece, which undermines the success of the work.
For long time friend and flutist Andrew Bolotowsky, I composed Chaco Canyon (1991), which utilizes three of Ptolemy’s modes (from 160 A.D.) in a new modulatory scheme. I refashioned the modes for a portrayal of the now extinct Anasazi Indian civilization. Some of the extended techniques include having the player whistle a drone while alternating between metal and wooden flutes; play in real time over my original text; improvise multiphonics simulating a desert expanse; and, of course, learn fingerings for the ancient Greek tunings specified by Ptolemy for the Tropoi, Lydian (not to be confused with contemporary Lydian), and Iasti-Aiolia modes.
Rama (1993) for solo trombone was written for trombonist Chris Washburne, who was previously trained in 72ET by Joseph Gabriel Maneri (founder of a microtonal mannered community at the New England Conservatory in Boston). Based on the Arthur C. Clarke series called Rama, the work uses a tuning based on quadratic primes (shown n Example II). Quadratic primes are described by Clarke as follows: “Each successive number is computed by increasing the difference from the previous number by two, resulting in exactly forty consecutive prime dollars. The sequence of primes ends only when the 41st number in the string turns out to be a non-prime, namely 41 X 41 = 1681.” This transforms nicely into a tuning system that is essentially just intonation, but much further up the series than usually conceived. (I later used it for a section in my string quartet since, in any combination, all notes work “consonantly.”) My inspiration for the piece came from one of the characters, Nicole les Jardin, in the book Rama II, who asks “What comes first? Do we use models to help us find the truth? Or do we know the truth first, and then develop the mathematics to explain it?” (Rama II, Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee, Bantam Books 1990). The title of this piece refers to a cylindrical spaceship.
Alternity for double bassist Guy Tyler is in 3 distinct movements (rare for my music). Each depicts a different Marvel comic book character: Doctor Strange, Doctor Doom, and Doctor Bruce Banner, who transforms into the Hulk. The first movement is in a tuning I call “six-isometric-seven,” because it juxtaposes 6ET and 7ET, both beginning on the same fundamental. The second movement is in a “golden mean spiral,” which uses the principle of stacking perfect fifths as understood by Pythagorean tuning, but with intervals of 833 cents. The last movement is in 48ET and features the use of an additional double bass bow for the “hulkish” finale.
In a recent work Urartu I have written parts for the audience to participate in the performance. This increases a solo work to almost symphonic proportions and makes it more economical for a single player to tour — in this case saxophonist Ulrich Krieger of Berlin — without bringing a large entourage. Audience involvement — finger clicking, stomping of feet, antiphonal repeats of certain phonemes, all under the direction of the saxophone soloist — is calculated to bring greater enthusiasm to the goings on.
Since I am also a player, I consciously determined that the bassoon — or any other instrument I play — would not dictate anything in my compositions. Perhaps it is an important question for all composers to ask themselves: how much do the instruments composers spend a lifetime learning dictate the patterns used in their composition? Since I pushed the envelope of what the bassoon is expected to do, nobody would notice if I was playing a “bassoonistic riff.” Nevertheless, my music comes straight from the head, though I might try out something by noodling on an instrument.
In a my solo for recorder, Eye of Newt, I did extensive noodling on that instrument to discover where sounds lie. Rather than get systematic in setting up scales, I intuited modes and played with descending lines of small increments. The work was first played at an international camp for teenage girls (Camp Rising Sun), and the special magic-like character evoked by sounds previously unimagined gave way to bold giggles and, finally, explosive applause. Extended techniques, including synchronized singing and playing, both microtonally and improvisationally, enhanced the planned vocal and instrumental counterpoint. The pitch indications are entirely in tablature.
Dune (1992) for solo bassoon has become my signature piece, germinating over a lifetime. Science fiction, legend, and ancient earth history, are very powerful imagination-tweakers that provide 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 to do justice to the legend. Perhaps it will indeed be, as one reviewer put it, the next contemporary music competition piece for bassoonists.
Although each section of Dune has its own program, it is not necessary to know them before first listening: there is another level for any curious listener. The aim is to design multiple levels of interest in the music so that individuals will find a level that speaks to them directly and in a profound way. Alternatively, I suggest in the score that the listener chuck the story line completely and think of Dune as reflecting the way the wind is constantly shaping sand dunes. For example, Dune begins with the bassoon, on the lowest Bb, being swirled around, which creates a very powerful acoustic effect. These resonating pedal tones resolve into thick and grainy multiphonic chords. The beginning of the piece is quite programmatic. On the book’s fictitious planet Arrakis, giant worms burrow beneath the sand, ultra-sensitive to physical movement above. When they sense motion they pop their heads above the sand and move to intercept it. The next section is a theme and variations based on the novel’s father and son characters (after all, what is more a variation than a son to a father?) This section is idiosyncratically modal.
The Tleilaxu shape-shifters are represented in the music by my changing the shape of the bassoon (with no interruption in the sound) by pulling the bocal out of the bassoon and placing the bocal into the bell, which is twisted off by the opposite hand. I use both my hands around the bell to effect a “wah-wah” sound, a morphed sound that suggests a microtonal harmonica.
The next section represents the Ixian technocrats, so the music appropriate to them is executed exclusively with the instrument’s keys, just the sound of bassoon percussion. The Freemen follow, represented by increasing equal divisions of the octave: two, Golden Mean, three, four, finally improvising in five-tone equal temperament. The final part is Spice, which is the driving force for the Freemen to hunt the worm that produces it; it is joyous, bluesy, ecstatic dance in full multiphonic chordal harmony.
I took a very different intonational approach for my composition Raven (1992), which might best be described as a tone poem. The music is inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s powerful poem The Raven (1844). Since there haven’t been any memorable musical settings of The Raven, except for a few exotic examples in the soundtrack of the film The Crow, I did a little investigating into the material Poe provided and found a monograph on the poem The Raven by the poet. Poe actually encouraged musicians to set his poetry to music.
Studying the poem further, I noticed that only some of Poe’s lines had quotation marks around them, as if to be spoken aloud. I pondered, how I could musically effect the difference between phrases that are in quotations and those that aren’t. Phrases are spoken aloud only if they are in quotation (except for the first line, “Once upon a midnight dreary….”). In my version, a tarogato sounds the raven’s “Nevermore!” regularly throughout the piece. Additional eerie chord progressions, made up exclusively of notes derived from ratios containing multiples of the thirteenth harmonic, are thundered by the full ensemble. In the middle of the piece there is a short quartertone improvisation section featuring bassoon and trombone.
Since Poe’s work was designed as a veritably crystallized music, I used the specific intonation of actor Paul Savior’s eloquent rendition from an informal audio recording. Bassoon, trombone, and double bass supplement the speaker by precisely playing his explicit microtonal inflections and intonation. The bassoon plays from a part in tablature, with specific instructions as to where to place the fingers in order to achieve the idiosyncratic tunings. Clarinet, saxophone, tarogato, and gong complete the gothic atmosphere of the piece.
Atlantis (1992) is for 5 conch shell players (one with an added tone hole and some additional shells, such as a triton, for color), tuba (with an added lever for quartertones and other microtones), and 5 pythagorean-tuned chimes (or at a pure fifth away from each other). The soundscape is derived from a “shell-intrinsic” intonation logic.
After meeting with each of the players, and taking notes as to the particulars of their instruments’ possibilities in controlling pitch, I wrote a work using graphic notation for the shells and 48-tone equal temperament for the tubist. Adding a single valve to any brass instrument alters the tubing to provide for more than the obvious quartertone differences, essentially allowing almost all microtonal possibilities, and opening up the general sound of the horn, as well. The chimes used were discovered in a Brooklyn movie house attic when I ushered during my teenage years. I retrieved them 20 years later to eventually use in this work.
My string quartet Cosmic Rays (1995) makes use of several distinct tuning arrangements. Perhaps it was my personal experience with the Ives Universe Symphony that drew me to an abstract string quartet affected by cosmic rays (much like the Fantastic Four comic book where four people are affected by cosmic rays and given unique new powers). One life-long dream was to involve the very best Juilliard string players in the sound world. Cosmic Rays accomplished this, since it has been championed by violinist Tom Chiu and cellist David Eggar, two of Juilliard’s best.
The inspiration for using the full pitch continuum for the harmonic basis of a piece came from seeing a physics textbook photograph of a single cosmic ray breaking up into two, then four, then eight new splinters. I traced the design on stencil paper, and then arranged particular lines for each quartet member. By turning the stencil paper over, and around, I found some profound sounds in retrogrades and inversion.
One section juxtaposes two different unison lines in their own respective tunings, then the quartet improvises using the tuning of the unison melody, which is followed by heterophonic improvising on scale tones. The tuning for the first unison line is in the Ptolemy-reported Lydian which, contrary to modern convention, had a 5/4 major third (of 386 cents). The power of this ancient mode (probably even more far-removed in its time from the ethnic Lydians) has evoked a bolt of shock in its appearance in the piece. A pure, just major third created strong reactions in some listeners, akin to the common reaction to a most horrible dissonance, truly an inversion of the principles of consonance that the interval had long come to designate.
The tuning for the second unison line was created by integrating 5ET, 7ET, and 11-tone equal temperament. To choose the ordering of pitches I wrote every note onto pieces of paper and then tossed them into an envelope. Strictly retaining the order in which I pulled them out, I added musically appropriate rhythmic values. Having one tone in triplicate in the set adds to a sense of tonic for the mode. Other tuning processes used include stacking specific just intervals, pile-ups of 22-cent commas, graphic notations, extensive glissandi, and the previously described quadratic prime just intonation (which I use for 48 beats of the music).
Odysseus Cello Concerto
My largest contribution to date is the Odysseus Cello Concerto, written for David Eggar (and premiered on May 22nd at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University as part of the AFMM’s MicroMay ’97 in New York ). Following the Homeric story chronologically, the cellist (a.k.a. Odysseus) and his cadre of survivors begin the piece with the fall of Troy and play their way through 12 islands and other locations (including the underworld) before returning to Greece. Achaen soldiers drop off gradually, as retold by Homer. Mr. Eggar is particularly gifted in improvisation and “microtonal” perfect pitch and, most importantly, can play standing up and while moving.
The other instruments are chosen for their special sounds, as well as their players. A 96-tone per octave Carrillo harp built and played by Skip LaPlante simulates the sea. Scylla and Charibdis, the two sea monsters, are played by just intonation electric guitarist Jon Catler and thereminist Eric Ross. The Lotus Eaters Island enjoys different flute-like instruments; the underworld is made up of low double reeds. The Chapel at Columbia University has been available for AFMM concerts for a decade thanks to the support of its chaplain, Orlanda Brugnola. Rev. Brugnola recognized that microtones fill up the chapel in ways that other music cannot approach. The Odysseus Cello Concerto is designed to use space in the chapel in its fullest sense.
My chamber symphony Middle-earth (1996-in progress) is in four movements. The completed first movement is fairly tame and accessible (good advice from colleague Wendy Carlos). Its tuning is a response to J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbit’s having twelve-equidistant months to the year. Only a little microtonal ornamentation was in order and so I orchestrated for conventionally-tuned piano, which is quite rare in my music. The outline of the second movement follows the program of the Dwarves, who regularly dig in mines for gold. By cycling in pure 3/2 fifths (of 702 cents) the movement has a chaconne-like idea driving it into a final descent of three-quarters of a tone (or 150 cents) by the movement’s end. The third movement (Mordor) will be completely polymicrotonal, and the final movement (High Elves) will be in just intonation.
Preparing to Compose
Perhaps this is the time to point out that one must “hear” the note relationships I have been elucidating. If the medium of print allowed, sound would be supplied with this essay. The essentially private journey towards increased pitch awareness can be time consuming, and befuddling — at first. If conservatories taught ear training using the overtone series as a model, along with tempered tuning, a musician would be better equipped to choose pitch resources. The phrase “out of tune” only applies when one aims and misses, not when pitch is reordered and the ear is reoriented.
Allow me to state categorically for the record, that each and every pitch array is legitimate and can be used for expressive material. I would never suggest that a composer change her or his pitch material for some misguided notion of improvement. Composers must represent who they are in their music, and if they feel that quartertones say it all, then so be it. Even 12ET is regularly expressed through pitch nuance. (A radical example might be the performance conventions for George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with its numerous blues inflections.) Blues, rap, heavy metal, soul, folk, all break out of a 12ET grid (although arguments can be made that blues is definitive microtonality). Musical styles are not germane to the issue here, merely a distraction, since all established styles partake of microtonality.
The most tedious, yet reliable pedagogical tool for developing microtonal skills is a tuning machine that “sings” out programmable pitches within the accuracy of a cent. Over time, one no longer requires a machine as a source for accuracy. To internalize simple just intonation relationships, learn to sing hoomi or overtone singing for one-stop-does-it-all reliability (prominent in the musical cultures of Tuva, Mongolia, and Tibet). Perfect pitch is a distinct disadvantage in acquiring an affinity for just intonation because pitch relationships occasionally drift. The inharmonic piano, no offense here, is a poor choice for ear training, let alone for microtonal adventures. Thankfully, with the synthesizer and with new instrumental techniques, and new designs for instruments, things are more promising for the next millennium.
High school students are adept at hearing and reproducing microtones because they haven’t developed any attitude that preaches against it. It was in high school that I became acquainted with the quartertone “school” of Tui St. George Tucker and her composition students Stephen Mayer and Robert Jurgrau. They would write for me as a bassoonist and recorder player, and I would have to figure out how to place the quartertones in a seeming vacuum. I promised them that once I received my Masters degree I would devise a complete list of fingerings. (The new fingerings have since been published in the Double Reed Journal and can be found displayed on the world wide web.) During a week-long public transportation strike, when travel to the conservatory was impossible, I journeyed to New York’s Central Park and began playing Mary Had a Little Lamb – a quartertone sharp! (Onlookers were confused by my shaky rendition of the standard, and couldn’t tell at first if it was expected for them to contribute money to a street musician, but not for long: it was so bad.)
After receiving a Masters degree in bassoon studying with Metropolitan Opera principle bassoonist Stephen Maxym at the Manhattan School of Music, I took a year to seriously contemplate microtones, shedding wood to play rapidly in quartertones. Before long I was improvising, recording, and touring in 31ET as electric bassoonist with Jon Catler’s Microtones Band. Simultaneously, I was in graduate school at Columbia University in the ethnomusicology department, while presenting an average of five AFMM concerts per year.
It was Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum who first confirmed to me that one could perform microtonally with aplomb. At last, I discovered performances in which microtones do not leap out at you to stress their weirdness, as if they had a self-esteem problem. My microtones are more like modal blues, with organic “blue” notes, and “green” notes, etc., located in clearly identifiable positions. Of particular interest to me are the non-tempered Renaissance a capella works, especially double choir works which are rarely heard in this century in their untempered splendor.
My composing officially began in 1987 when I released a studio recording of Chromagnan Symphonietta on the PITCH cassette which is published by the AFMM. Yes, I had juvenilia from college, pedantic self-training compositions that began with a piano solo Id, and which I later orchestrated for an odd chamber ensemble of bassoon, guitar, double bass, vibraphone and xylophone. Also, a percussion quintet (Entourage), a song for baritone and piano (Sing Hey!), and a violin solo (Excursion With Violin) worked their way into existence.
– Johnny Reinhard © 1997 NYC