Microtonality is often quipped at as “the cracks between the piano keys.” It is tradition in our Western art culture to have the smallest interval be what is called a half step, or semitone; but why do we divide the octave into twelve semitones, why not eight or thirteen? In the live preview last week at Harvey Mudd College of the second volume of his Beyond Twelve series, Aron Kallay used an electronic keyboard to realize a six different composers’ takes on alternate tuning and temperament.
The program kicked off with I’m Worried Now by Monroe Golden. The first thing that struck me was the schizophonia – Aron would strike a key in what ought to be the lower register of the piano, and it would sound a note from a higher register. He would sweep his hand up and down the keys in a glissando and it seemed a crapshoot whether the notes would rise or fall. One of the notes I scribbled during the performance reads: “Vince Guaraldi on an ancient piano in a thunderstorm.” The piece is jazzy and tipsy. The thunderous low notes set apart from the tip-toeing upper melody. The retuning sometimes sounds intentional and other times not, to the intriguing effect that it would set my teeth on edge and then resolve into tonality, though no longer equal temperament; yes, during the performance I was certainly worried. All in all, music that moves your emotions and mind in such a rollercoaster is surely a triumph by Golden.
Alex Miller’s composition The Blur of Time and Memory used 1/10th (instead of ½, or half) steps. The result was that chords in which one or two notes move chromatically upwards seemed to peel away from the original chord identity to glide into another, like a chameleon shifting its coloring. The piece was meditative overall, intensified in sections by shifting harmonies and tugging the listener’s ear through tonal areas it is not used to visiting. It ended with an uncanny resemblance to wailing wind in a drafty room, like a ghost had haunted the keys to take the tuning out of whack.
Underbelly, by Stephen Cohn, utilized notes above and below the standard piano range, in which a dance fitting for the Mad Hatter’s tea party plays and the Jabberwocky thumps below in the bass region. The unfamiliar overtones from the bottom register give an otherworldly twist. The other parts of the piece resembled water music, but with more finesse and realism thanks to the microtonality at play. The smaller intervals gave an ultra-realistic fluidity to the cascade of notes winding through the recital hall.
The last work before intermission was Paths of the Wind by Bill Alves. It began as a wall of sound, like standing atop a windy mountain straining to hear the rumbling bass melody in the distance. The clusters of notes washed together and averaged into a drone which became a musical line unto itself. Like the Cohn piece’s effectiveness in using microintervals to enhance fluidity, Alves glided through notes like a bird on the wind, seemingly continuously rather than discretely. Without microtonality, there is no way a piano could sound so natural; it’s as if wind were transported directly into the hall and pitched to a melody, but still unfettered by tonality. A truly spellbinding work by Alves.
Post-intermission we were treated to two more pieces, the first of which, Involuntary Bohlen Piercing, was composed by Nick Norton. This used temperament in an even more unorthodox manner, by cutting up a perfect twelfth instead of a perfect octave into segments. The twelfth is divided into thirteen even segments, each slightly less than a quarter-tone larger than our equal-tempered half step. The first scribble I have for this one reads: “Drunken tip-toeing complete with running into things.” In other words, the piece begins hesitant and gentle, even a little uncertain, but is soon brought out of its nascent stages by magnificent Rachmaninoff-esque crashes. Reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Six Small Pieces for Piano, minimalists like Terry Riley, and a peppering of Impressionism, this piece was never dissonant, but always pleasant even when alien. The pacing was slower than the other composers’, but worked within the frame of the hesitant beginning and end. The tolling bells near the end seemed to be a clock announcing the end of the piece, or perhaps, in Norton’s case, the nearing completion of his PhD.
The concert ended with Clouds of Clarification by Robert Carl. Given my adoration for the book and movie “Cloud Atlas,” it was difficult to extract my mind from that world. Carl explained before the performance that the piece included four movements played without break: water, earth, wind and fire. After a stately opening, the first high note not belonging to the equal temperament was jarring like a shard of glass. The aquatic movement came off like water dripping from stalactites, and had a distinctly crystalline feel. The music split the difference between pentatonic and whole tone scales as it moved into the earth movement, lumbering across the keys. Upon reaching the air movement, Aron’s hands looked like birds flitting on the keyboard, and it was reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen’s bird pieces. Nearing the end, each low thwomp in the bass was ear cleansing relief between microtonal clusters, like healing a burn from the fire movement. My favorite part of the piece was watching the composer react to Aron’s portrayal. He knew every note he wrote; this piece, like everything he has written, is his child, and he was infectiously joyous hearing it realized. I believe most of audience felt his enthusiasm, and I hope all may be as enthusiastic as microtonal music when they encounter it.
Editor’s note: Aron Kallay will be performing on Piano Spheres’ Satellite Series at REDCAT this Tuesday, December 16, at 8:30. GO!
Inoo/Kallay Duo – Five Conversations About Two Things
Aron Kallay, Piano Yuri Inoo, Percussion
From populist records comes an inaugural CD by the Los Angeles-based Inoo/Kallay Duo, that includes seven varied pieces from five different composers. Together with versatile percussionist Yuri Inoo, Aron Kallay explores an amazing variety of textures and timbres through premiere recordings of contemporary Southern California composers.
The first track is Like Still Water by Thomas Osborne and this begins with a series of solitary piano notes followed by periods of silence that allow the overtones to hang incandescently in the air. The vibraphone joins in with a series of solid, syncopated chords that at first counterbalances the airy lightness, but this evolves into series of delicate tones that mix and hover overhead. The ensemble of piano and vibraphone here is nicely done, producing just the right conditions for a ghostly interplay. Like Still Water is precisely descriptive of the liquid feel in this piece – it is like hearing the ripples you see when a stone drops into a quiet pond.
The Question Mark’s Black Ink by Bill Alves follows and this has an entirely different feel – cool, remote and with a soft whirring sound like some alien machinery running in the basement. The sound steadily increases, as if we are approaching the source, and the crescendo builds to a single strong piano chord. A series of syncopated rhythms in the vibraphone and piano follow and these mix to form a lovely melody while a warm, sustained pedal tone rises from underneath. This develops a nice groove that is soon dominated by a powerful piano line – the texture here turns bolder and more percussive. Quiet introspection follows, with solitary piano notes heard over a warm wash. In it’s quieter moments The Question Mark’s Black Ink is beautiful music and the playing has just the right sensitivity and touch.
Cantilena III by Karl Kohn is next and this begins with a low sounding marimba trill that immediately creates an exotic feel. A strong piano entrance follows, providing some nice riffs that seem to bounce off the marimba in a mix of the sophisticated and the relaxed. The interplay produces some interesting textures, combining the soft mallets and the slightly harder edge of the piano. Cantilena III suggests a visit by an American to a rural Mexican cantina – there seems to be a gentle clash of cultures occurring and by the end of the piece the marimba and piano, interestingly, seem to be on completely different wavelengths. Cantilena III is an intriguing exploration of contrasting sensibilities and the playing is carefully balanced.
Tracks 4 through 6 comprise the three movements of Elliptic by Caroline Louise Miller. The first of these, Distorted Sundown – Golden Moonrise, begins with a low, almost inaudible hum that crescendos into a series of sharp piano notes. A soft metallic clang is heard along with the sounds of gentle waves – like standing on a distant lake shore at sunset. The piano soon predominates with a series of slow arpeggios that add to the introspective feel. The piano fades softly away, followed by a short silence, and then re-emerges in a stronger, brighter line as the moon rises. There is just enough that is strange and unnatural here to evoke a certain alien remoteness, as if we are experiencing a natural phenomena in an unusual way.
The middle movement, Earthrise – Anarchy, begins with a more pensive feel – with tentative piano flourishes and light, bell-like percussion – we seem to be hovering in space. A sudden piano crash and a series of bass drum rolls add a burst of drama and energy that suggests a chaotic process unleashed. A rapid snare drum solo gives the sense of standing in the center of a battle. This is followed by an ominous rumbling by the piano in the lower registers that explodes upward into a series of crashing chords and thunderous waves of percussion. The movement concludes with a massive chord that recedes like a distant explosion.
The final movement, Exodus, is just a little over two minutes and has an ominous start, continuing the decrescendo from the the middle movement as if rolling outward in the distance. Soft piano notes follow, like watching a ship slowly sailing off towards a horizon. Elliptic is dealing with big, planetary issues and embraces a wide range of dynamics and textures. The playing here is well-matched to the moods as the story unfolds.
The last track is Wagon Wheeling by Tom Flaherty and this starts off softly with a syncopated repeating melody in the piano followed by a dramatic buildup in the percussion. The intensity increases with a good sense of balance in the percussion – always building but always under control. A smoother section follows with the piano and marimba weaving in and around each other with remarkable precision. This piece is quiet at times and at other time boisterous, but with a sound that is always carefully contained and shaped. The percussion especially stands out – so many notes and passages but always finding the right feel. The ending is a crescendo that comes to a sudden halt. Wagon Wheeling is a complex piece with a lot of moving parts produced by just two players.
Five Conversations About Two Things brings together a wide range of composers and compositions performed by two excellent musicians who are ideally suited for each other.
Aron Kallay will perform in the Piano Spheres Satellite Concert Series at RedCat on December 16, 2014.
Five Conversations About Two Things is available from populist records.