Posts Tagged ‘Kyle Gann’

Microtonal Music, New and Old, Captures Tuesdays@MonkSpace Listeners

In a diverse, capably executed program of Microtonal music for solo piano and violin entitled “Beyond 12,” Tuesdays@MonkSpace further solidified itself as a major presenting organization for contemporary music in Los Angeles. Pianist and T@MS co-founder Aron Kallay, a noted exponent of microtonality, joined musical forces with like-minded violinist Andrew McIntosh of the Formalist Quartet in a generous offering of harmonically-expanded music spanning three centuries. The concert marked the season finale of T@MS, as well as that of Microfest–the primary source for microtonal music in the area–which co-produced the event.

While the octave (8 lines and spaces on the musical staff), is generally divided into 12 equally spaced notes, microtonality allows for dividing the octave into many more notes and spacing them at varying distances from each other, providing for greater and freer expressive power.

The first selection on the program­­‑‑a staple of Kallay’s repertoire—Kyle Gann’s Fugitive Objects (2004), exemplified the extraordinary harmonic richness possible in microtonal music by dividing the octave into 36 discreet pitch classes—three times the usual number of notes on the piano. With sweeping romantic intensity and lyricism–heightened by Kallay’s expressive playing—the piece meanders through original, unexpected dimensions of pitch. Listeners are kept on track by memorable ostinatos that define a form amidst a spongy, vibratory tone-massage.

Acoustic pianos are incapable of sustaining the pressures of such extreme tonal fission. Consequently, Kallay used a midi-controller with timbre and tuning courtesy of Pianoteq, a real-time piano modeling software.

“The changes in tuning required by Gann are so great as to be impossible on an acoustic piano: the strings would simply break,” Kallay pointed out. “Even when we can change the piano’s normal tuning system to a microtonal variant, it requires many tunings to stabilize the new tonal scheme, followed by additional tunings to restore the original temperament,” Kallay elaborated.

Such practical factors have led to the accepted and widespread use of electronic technology in live microtonal concerts.

Andrew McIntosh did not use software to produce the tunings of his program for solo violin. The simultaneous blessing and curse of the string player is the ongoing onus of intonation, note by note. The violin’s flexibility of pitch is ideally suited to microtonal music, where subtle tone-warps add expressive range, in many cases complementing programmatic content.

Taking the stage alternately with Kallay, McIntosh opened his survey of microtonality for solo violin with, “Intonation After Morton Feldman, 1” by Marc Sabat, from his suite Les Duresses (2004). McIntosh introduced the piece with enticing context-building commentary, adding an impactful additional element to the concert experience. All evening long, in standard T@MS form, the performers served as musicologists, drawing on extensive academic training in sensitizing listeners to each work’s essential attributes.

Combining a love for the music of Morton Feldman, icon of twentieth century experimental music, with a passion for precision, Marc Sabat pinned down Feldman’s allusions to microtonality in a fully worked out, rigorously notated adaptation of Feldman’s late string writing style.

“In his final few years, Feldman seemed to suggest microtonal inflections of pitch in his music for strings. When pressed to explain his methods, he seemed to avoid the question but hinted that some notes would weigh more than others,” explained McIntosh, who went on to perform the piece with clear, convincing modulations of pitch, indeed evoking weight in some notes, buoyancy in others.

The Weasel of Melancholy, a terse, humorous work for piano solo by Eric Moe, followed, closing out the first half with microtonal whinings and abstract figuration. Animal sounds and songs are always microtonal. Moe drew on the versatility of microtonality to convey animal emotion, and Kallay dispatched passages of virtuoso figuration with abandon and effortless fluency.

A jovial crowd, remaining close at hand throughout intermission, drew to attention as the stage was set for a substantial second half.

In a refreshing reminder that microtonality is nothing new, McIntosh presented a lengthy suite for violin solo, “the first example of microtonal music for solo violin,” by the Baroque composer Johann Joseph Vilsmayer.

Microtonal effects were common in the Baroque, having been used widely by Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber for subtle undercurrents of meaning in program music and character sketches.  Vilsmayr’s Partita number 5 is a fusion of Austrian folk melodies, French ornamental writing, and poignant microtonal leanings modeled on Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.

In an original scordatura tuning devised by Vilsmayr, the E string became a D string (for two D strings in total), allowing for numerous harmonic possibilities otherwise inconvenient in violin writing.

Aron Kallay, characteristically warm, acknowledged departing interns as well as MonkSpace owner Michael Lane, then continued to inform without lecturing. “There are pockets of microtonal communities throughout the country, especially Boston, as well as Birmingham, Alabama.”

The History of Elevators in Film, by Birmingham composer Holland Hopson, depicted the sensory experience of riding in elevators with virtuoso compositional prowess.  Doppler-like expansion and contractions of pitch evoke that unmistakable sensation of “Moving while standing still,” the title of one movement, as well as the ominous destination of floor number 13, in “Floor 13, please….”

Hopson’s History might be considered the sole collaboration of the program: a duet between piano soloist and technology itself. The keyboard’s tuning dynamically shifted in response to programmed triggers using Max, an interactive framework for real-time musical processes. Kallay would “play a low note, repeat a chord a certain number of times, leap by a given interval, etc.” and the tuning would audibly shift concomitantly. The process lent a spontaneous, interactive chamber music quality to the piece, further conveying the reduced independence of elevator passengers.

Apart from Vilsmayar’s Partita, all the pieces of the program were composed in the current century. Many were commissioned by Kallay himself. “I began to grow tired of equal temperament 10 years ago and began playing microtonal music then, but not much had been written for piano solo,” Kallay noted at the program’s outset. “I began commissioning works, and hope to continue building the repertoire forever.”

Among the latest additions to Kallay’s growing compendium is The Blur of Time and Memory, by Los Angeles-based composer, Alex Miller, which brought the program to a dramatic finale.

Miller’s Blur integrated uniquely microtonal effects with idiomatic, even traditional piano writing for a holistic listener experience. An inventive microtonal tuning allowed for seamless glissando-like transitions through the entire range, inducing a haunting, surreal atmosphere of liquefied pitches and flowing masses of sound. While inextricably linked to microtonality, the piece was not dependent upon it, drawing power from striking tone clusters, singing lines, and undulatory dynamic gestures.

Building energy progressively, Miller’s Blur seemed to conclude with its climax. A torrent of sonority reverberated in the lively MonkSpace acoustic, shortly giving way to authentic, spontaneous applause by a nourished audience.

The mood was set for a reception that would last hours—a known T@MS phenomenon—drawing together friends, new and familiar in the joy of a shared adventure, the sense of something meaningful in music, and the promise of another season.

Interview: Aron Kallay on Beyond Twelve

Pianist, composer, teacher, theorist, writer, festival organizer, man-of-many-nouns-used-as-modifiers Aron Kallay has a concert this Saturday at Beyond Baroque, and it sounds just awesome. For this closing event of Microfest, of which Aron is the assistant director, he’s commissioned a bunch of composers to reimagine what can be done with a piano. With all that this guy does, I’m lucky that he had a moment to talk about the project. See you there.

Let’s get right down to business: you commissioned works for piano using two ground rules, 1) re-tune the keyboard, pretty much in any way imaginable, and 2) re-map the keyboard. How have the composers you’ve commissioned responded to or interpreted these guidelines?

It’s been fascinating, to say the least. I deliberately chose composers for this project whose music I really liked. I wasn’t looking to commission “microtonal” composers, necessarily, but rather composers who I knew would take on the challenge of exploring alternate tunings. For many of them, like Tom Flaherty, this was their very first excursion into the microtonal world, and the results have been nothing short of stunning. Some of them divided the octave into many more than twelve steps. Kyle Gann’s Every Something is an Echo of Nothing, for example, has thirty, and they are all out of order! Other composers went back in time to find their tuning. John Schneider goes all the way back to Pythagoras, basing his tuning on a string of pure fifths. The most novel approach, however, goes to Brian Shepard. He started with the most basic of scales, the pentatonic, and created something so vertiginous that it needs to be experienced to be understood.
What sparked your interest in microtonal music? It seems like a bit of a surprise move for a pianist…but perhaps that’s why it’s working so well.
Ah… it was a surprise move for a pianist, before the advent of physical modeling software and really fast computers. The problem with microtonal music for an acoustic piano is that the number of pieces that can be performed on a given concert is directly related to the number of pianos in the hall. There are an infinite number of tunings available to composers and they rarely choose the same one for each piece. Add to that the complication that pianos don’t like to be retuned, and we have a problem. Often, it takes five tunings to get a piano to hold its pitch, even for something relatively straight forward like lowering the instrument a quartertone. The software I’ll use for this concert (pianoteq) models all of the intricacies of the piano while taking the new tuning into account (how the sound board reacts, sympathetic vibrations, key noise, etc…). The result is something not entirely unlike a retuned acoustic piano. In fact, it’s pretty darn close to the real thing.
As far as who sparked my interest in microtonal music, that’s easy… It was Professor Bob Moore at USC. He is one of the great unsung new music heros of Los Angles. I took two years of his 20th/21st century music theory class while working on my doctorate. He would often start lectures with something like: “One day, I was sitting at the bar with Takemitsu talking about X when Morton Feldmen walked in all mad about Y, and you won’t believe what Bernstein had to say on the subject.” This was a great class… When he played Ben Johnston’s Amazing Grace quartet for us, I was sold.
You’re also known for your work in combining acoustic instruments with electronics. Could you talk a bit about the challenges of both composing and performing in this medium? I ask partially out of self interest, as I’m writing a piece for guitar and field recordings and finding it extremely hard to make the two work together, as opposed to sounding merely juxtaposed on top of one another.
It’s funny to think that I’m known for anything at this point of my career, but thanks for the ego boost!
Not to avoid your question here, but I think that it really comes down to style vs. substance, to steal from Charles Ives. The great monuments of the electroacoustic literature, Stockhausen’s Kontakte, Babbitt’s Philomel, any of Davidovsky’s Synchronisms, for example, work not necessarily because the electronics are integrated with the live instrument, but because of the depth of meaning in the musical material. In other words, the electronics were never conceived of as separate from the acoustic part, they were necessary to the composer’s vision.
Of course, there are tricks that performers can use to help the composer out… Speaker placement, sound projection of the live instrument, effects, etc…
You’ve certainly covered a lot of musical bases around LA – composing, performing, teaching, running a festival, co-directing an ensemble of sorts…do you view aspects of our scene differently when you approach them from different perspectives? Or are there things that you’ve found to be true no matter what role you’re playing?

It’s interesting, and this is something that I think about all the time: the creative precess is pretty much the same for me regardless of the medium. If I’m curating a concert for MicroFest, I come up with a vision, or allow the music to dictate the vision to me, and try to shape a program that will fulfill that vision. The vision can be narrative or abstract, or a combination of the two, depending on the material. The result is like a meta composition–a symphony in several acts to hopefully be experienced as a whole by the audience. Whether or not I’m successful is actually beside the point. If the process is sound and I’ve created something that is true to the vision, people will come, and if they don’t, well, then I need to find a new profession.

The same is true when I wear my performer’s hat. I need a vision, and I need to be true to that vision, regardless of the dictates of “tradition” or “performance practice” or even what the composer is asking for in the score. If I don’t own that piece of music on the stage, then no one will be happy, not me, not the composer, and certainly not the audience!

What’s the most fun for me is something like Beyond Twelve, where I get to produce, curate, commission, promote, and perform. It’s difficult to wear so many hats at once, but talk about owning an event! And, even if it falls flat and there are ten people in the audience, at least I’ve helped to create new microtonal repertoire, which really is the point in the end.

What’s your favorite thing about new music in LA?

The abundance of amazing performers in this city. I’m not sure if it’s having the studios or institutions like USC and the LA Phil or the weather, but I’d put our musicians up against those from any city–any day of the week.

And your least favorite, or something you’d like to see change?

We need a more geographically contained city, or a transporter like they have on Star Trek! The only thing new music has going for it in places like New York is that everything there is closer together.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Nope! Time to get back to practicing!

Info about this Saturday’s show is available at Learn more about Aron and his projects at and

Concert you should go to: Piano Spheres next Tuesday

On Tuesday, January 31, at 8 pm, Kathleen Supové is playing an all LA premiere program with Piano Spheres down at Zipper Hall at Colburn. GO. Three of the five works have video with them. Supové is a monster player. The thing that excites me most about it, however, is getting to hear Carolyn Yarnell’s piece The Same Sky. I know absolutely nothing about Carolyn Yarnell, but Kyle Gann called the piece “one of the most fantastic keyboard works anyone’s written in the last 20 years,” and he’s absolutely right. Click here to read his blog entry about the piece, among other things. I’ve shown this recording to a lot of friends, and they all seem to be similarly blown away. Even the ones with no interest in classical music as such.

Here’s a recording:

And here’s the poster for the show: