On May 12, 2017 the Boston Court Performing Arts Center was the venue for a memorial concert marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lou Harrison, presented by MicroFest. No less than seven Harrison works were programmed – curated by Bill Alves – including rarely and never-performed pieces. The stage was packed with all sorts of instruments and found percussion, including authentic recreations of two conduit xylophones designed by Harrison and tuned to just intonation. The musicians of Just Strings and Varied Trio were on hand and a fine crowd filled the theater in anticipation of an evening of music by one of America’s most influential composers.
Suite for National Steel was first and this four movement piece was written for steel-body guitar re-fretted for just intonation. The first movement is based on a whimsical sculpture by the artist Nek Chand, and several other Harrison pieces compiled by guitarist John Schneider complete the suite. Accordingly, Suite for National Steel opens with a rapid melody and precise counterpoint that had a lively, dance-like feel. The second movement, Jahla, was more relaxed and reflective, the longer notes accentuating the tuning. Music for Bill and Me, movement 3, was slower still and had that Asian flavor so typical of Harrison. Heartfelt and lovely, this was played by Schneider with great feeling. The final Serenado movement was just that: upbeat and optimistic, with a sunny and active feel. Suite for National Steel was beautifully played by John Schneider from memory, and nicely summarized many of Harrison’s most identifiable musical traits.
Solo (1972) followed and this was performed on a carefully reconstructed metal tube instrument first built by Harrison using aluminum conduit tubes tuned to just intonation. Often called a “tubulong”, it resembles a xylophone with resonator tubes. The sound, while distinctly metallic, is rich in overtones and two of these instruments were built by Kathryn Jones specifically for this concert. Solo was played by percussionist-extraordinary Yuri Inoo and the mysterious, exotic feel was immediately evident. The melody was nicely matched to the tuning and pleasant to the ear – a tribute to the composition as well as the playing and construction of the tubulong.
Suite from Young Caesar, consisting of four short movements was next, and there was percussion, a harp and a violin in addition to the conduit tubulong. Lullaby, the first movement, opened with a nice mix of percussion and long, sustained tones in the violin. There was a quietly beautiful Asian feel to this, and an exceptionally fine ensemble between the confident violin playing of Shalini Vijayan and the assorted percussion. The second movement, Prelude to Scene ii, felt stronger and more assertive, with Alison Bjorkedal’s harp trading passages and playing counterpoint to the violin. Shadow Scene and Processional, movement three, again featured the harp and violin; with just the slightest presence of percussion this managed to convey an exotic and mysterious presence. The final movement, Whirling Dance, had an uptempo melody in the violin with counterpoint in the harp and some lovely, deep sounds in the percussion. All of this was skillfully played with intricate, yet even textures throughout. Suite from Young Caesar is a convincing demonstration of Harrison’s ability to find just the right combination of percussion and instrumental pitches, each complimenting the other for just the right balance.
Variations (1936) followed with Aron Kallay at the piano and Shalini Vijayan on violin. Variations is the earliest work in this concert – Harrison would have been just 19 years old when it was written. The score for this piece was discovered by Bill Alves among Harrison’s papers, and was apparently never performed. This piece dates from the time Harrison was a student of Henry Cowell, whose signature keyboard gesture at the time was the tone cluster. Accordingly, Variations begins with a series of these in the lower registers, dark and ominous, like an advancing storm. Each crash increases in volume and menace, and Aron Kallay managed to extract all of it from the grand piano on stage. When the violin enters, there is a subdued and sorrowful melody, while the piano softens with single chords underneath. There is no trace here of the sunny Asian optimism or interest in alternate tuning – these would come later in Harrison’s career. More tone clusters are heard in the higher piano registers, further unsettling things, and when the violin joins in again there is a bleak and angry feel that almost boils with intensity. A final series of roaring crashes and chords are heard accompanied by somber violin passages, and the piece ends, as if on a question. Variations is an intriguing glance at Harrison as the young composer: confident and expressive, yet untouched by his later influences and interests.
After a short intermission the stage was reconfigured and there was much moving and placing of various found percussion objects. Omnipotent Chair (1940) followed, and this was performed in five short movements. Harrison was inspired by Henry Cowell and John Cage to create a percussion ensemble fashioned from items found in old shops and junk yards. Omnipotent Chair opens with an exotic melody in the violin accompanied by the striking of flower pots and drums. The blend is surprisingly balanced and even: the typical Asian feel of Harrison’s work was clearly heard, especially in the delicate soundings of a small triangle. As the suite continued, Aron Kally was heard playing an elaborate sequence of bells, and turned in a nice performance. In another section, Yuri Inoo tapped out the beat on the body of a double bass. In the fourth movement, rapid violin passages and the lively rhythms in the wood block recalled Harrison’s many compositions for dance ensembles. Throughout Omnipotent Chair the profusion of unusual percussive elements never overwhelmed Shalini Vijayan’s confident violin, and the overall texture felt comfortable and familiar.
Air from The Scattered Remains (1988) followed, and this was the result of a commission by filmmaker James Broughton for a film score. Harrison’s approach was to provide a series of repeating figures in order to insure that the feel of the piece would survive the inevitable cutting in the film editing process. This piece opens with a simple solo melody in the conduit tubulong that extends for a bit, followed by bass drum and wood block that add some variety to the texture. The harpsichord enters in a repeating counterpoint that brings a sense of purpose as the work proceeds, with a triangle contributing a light embellishment. A nice groove developed and the ensemble was controlled and precise. According to the program notes Air from The Scattered Remains “.. was perhaps the closest he ever came to the then-popular minimalism, a style Harrison sympathized with and which influenced his students of the time.” This performance was the first since the original recording of the film score.
The final piece of the concert was Varied Quintet (1987) and for this concert the original orchestration with just intonation was used, including two conduit tubulongs, a harp, violin, re-tuned harpsichord and assorted percussion. Varied Quintet proceeds in five movements and the first of these, Gendhing, began with the harp and the conduit tubulongs entering in sequence followed by a simple but strongly expressive melody in the violin. With its exotic feel, Gendhing is clearly influenced by Harrison’s continuing interest in Javanese gamelan forms. The harpsichord joins in and some lovely counterpoint develops. As the program notes point out: “…the interweaving just intonation bell instruments sparkle with an entirely different texture than what can be coaxed from the conventional piano.”
The second movement, Bowl Bells, quickly turned into a percussion tour de force by Yuri Inoo, whose rapidly accurate playing on a set of bowls dazzled the ear while generating a solid groove. Elegy, the third movement, featured a simple, yet sorrowful melody in the violin aided by thick chords from the harpsichord underneath. The percussion was mostly tacit for this solemn movement, with only a few quiet notes from the conduit tubulong. Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard followed, written as a tribute to one of Harrison’s favorite painters, and the buoyant optimism was in complete contrast to the previous Elegy. Some lovely interweaving of violin and harpsichord added to the cheer. The final movement of the piece, Dance, looked back to Harrison’s extensive experience writing for dance companies and the active, whirling feel and rapid passages were precisely executed by the entire ensemble.
Varied Quintet, with its unorthodox instruments, just tuning and exotic character was performed in this program for the first time since it was premiered. The musicians of Varied Trio and Just Strings – as well as the scholarship of Bill Alves – combined to produce a unique concert to hear important works by Lou Harrison that have been too-long neglected.
It’s Lou Harrison’s 100th birthday! (Well, almost.) San Francisco-based pianist Sarah Cahill will be joining LA’s own Varied Trio (Shalini Vijayan, violin, Aron Kallay, piano, and Yuri Inoo, percussion) at Monk Space on April 4 to celebrate, performing a variety of Harrison’s works. I had the opportunity to ask Cahill some questions about the upcoming concert and more. Here is Sarah:
You’ll be performing several solo piano works by Lou Harrison at Monk Space, including Jig, Range-Song, Dance for Lisa Karon, Conductus from Suite, and Summerfield Set. Can you tell us bit about these works? Also, what are your thoughts about Lou Harrison’s music in general?
Even though Lou Harrison said “Equal temperament destroys everything,” and was far more fascinated by just intonation and other tunings, he wrote some extraordinary music for the equal tempered piano (which describes basically all modern pianos). His Jig and Range-Song have been played only rarely, if at all, since he wrote them in 1939. He was 22 years old, studying with Henry Cowell, who was in San Quentin at the time. In these pieces, he evokes Cowell with his chord cluster techniques. There’s a third piece from this set called Reel, and it’s sometimes called Reel for Henry Cowell. That gets played a lot, as opposed to Jig and Range-Song. Dance for Lisa Karon is a year earlier, from 1938, and the manuscript was discovered just a few years ago in someone’s house in San Francisco. Conductus is from the Suite which Lou Harrison wrote when he was studying with Arnold Schoenberg, and it resembles Schoenberg’s own Suite in that it uses a twelve-tone row but is not strictly twelve-tone. Summerfield Set is an exuberant three-movement work from 1988, and it’s the Lou Harrison we know and love, with dance rhythms and singable tunes. It’s dedicated to the keyboardist Susan Summerfield.
What do you find most compelling about commissioning and performing new works?
I love the surprise of receiving a new score, of bringing a piece of music to life and knowing it’s going to enter the repertoire and be interpreted by countless other pianists (after I have lots of time with it!). It’s exciting to explore a piece of music that’s completely unknown territory. And I love working with living composers, the exchange of ideas, the whole process of developing a piece and working towards a premiere or a recording.
What initially drew you to the piano, and what are your favorite (and/or least favorite) aspects about being a pianist?
I was initially drawn to the piano by a charismatic and beautiful teacher named Sharon Mann who is a Bach specialist. Because of her, playing Bach was everything to me. My least favorite aspect of being a pianist is the pressure of trying to learn a piece fast when ideally it should be given a year or two. My favorite part of being a pianist is immersing myself in practicing all day long, which is a luxury, and that feeling in performance that someone else is playing and I’m just listening– when the music seems to play itself. One other thing I find exciting is getting to the point where I know a composer’s work so well that I can identify mistakes in the score.
Do you ever compose? If not, what kind of composer do you think you would be?
I would be a terrible composer. I love the whole process of interpreting.
Microfest is teaming up with Tuesdays at Monk Space on March 14, featuring composer/performer duo Larry Polansky and Giacomo Fiore on guitars – with a variety of tunings. I had the chance to interview the performers about the program and more. Here are Larry and Giacomo:
The upcoming concert features microtonal works for two guitars by American maverick composers, including Ruth Crawford Seeger, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, Christian Wolff, and two new works that you will be presenting as composer/performers. As a collective, do you find something uniquely American about these works?
Larry Polansky: In the simplest sense — that they’re all American composers — yes. But more importantly, each of these composers, in very different ways, were (are, in Christian’s case) deeply embedded and woven into American culture and American music, particularly the most beautiful parts of each. None of them looked to Europe primarily as a model (though Lou looked often to historic Europe, and Christian’s musical and cultural viewpoint is pan-geographical and pan-linguistic).They emerge organically — like wildflowers — from the terrain American music in the best of all possible ways. Their ideas and music are not in contradistinction or opposition to other musical geographies or histories, but rather operate, as my friend the composer/poet Chris Mann would say, in a mammer that “doesn’t waste one’s own virtuosity”. They are all, in very real ways, related, and also to me personally. Three out of four of them were (are) among my closest friends, colleagues, collaborators, fellow musicians, mentors, and musical influences, and the one who left us before I was born (Ruth Crawford Seeger) has been a huge influence on my life and work.
Giacomo Fiore: Maybe—with the exception of my piece—I would say that all of the pieces share a degree of unpretentiousness. Each of them is clear in musical intent, generally focuses on a single idea or musical conceit, and doesn’t presume to unveil (or communicate!) some kind of cosmic truth. As I see it, those are characteristics of at least one branch of U.S. music—what we may call “American Experimentalism”—and I must say they’re what makes the genre so attractive for me both as a performer and in my research.
Can you talk a bit about your new piece, which you will be performing at Monk Space? What was the compositional process like for this work?
Larry: My piece, #4 (“34 More Chords: Charles Dodge in Putney” ) from the guitar duet 8 Fermentations has a happy history. 8 Fermentations was based on on a sketch for a never realized solo guitar piece for me by my friend and colleague — and wonderful composer — Charles Dodge. The piece is a tribute to his work, but written after he had stopped composing. For many years, Christian Wolff, Charles and I have had a regular lunch date. Some years ago, on a festival honoring Christian, I wrote him a solo guitar piece called 34 Chords: Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton, which I’ve played many times (as has Giacomo). 34 Chords… was intended as a gift to him to replace the “lost guitar piece” (now found) that Morton Feldman wrote for Christian. For me, it seemed logical to also write a similar piece for Charles, who had not “lost something” by no longer composing, but had in fact found a new passion (winemaking in Vermont!).
How has your experience as performers affected your work as composers, and vice versa?
Larry: For me, the older I get, the more all activities — most of life — become simply part of being a musician: composing, theorizing, performing, teaching, editing, researching, writing code…. living. For a number of felicitous reasons (including my close musical and personal friendship with Giacomo), I have been writing a lot more for guitar in the last few years. And fortunately for me, younger, gifted players all over the world seem to enjoy playing this material. I am however, very clearly, simply a composer who loves to play guitar (and not vice versa!).
Giacomo: Let me again clarify one thing—I don’t identify as a composer. I’m a performer and a musicologist, maybe I’d go as far as claiming to be a music theorist, but I don’t have the training nor the discipline to claim the title of “composer” (mainly out of respect for those who do have the credentials!). However, when I was asked to write a new piece for this concert, I figured I could use the opportunity to comment on some of the recurring tuning problems, approaches, and solutions that I’ve been exploring in my academic research as well as in my performance career, both as a soloist and in the duo with Larry. “Cognates” Is Just a Fancy Term for “Relatives”—as the title suggests—is not a particularly serious piece. It muses on tuning theory and its terminology (“cognates” are pitches who share the same name, but are tuned differently) and uses a fairly complicated tuning scheme for two guitars to try to show that these differentky-tuned pitches can be traced back to a common ancestor (both guitars tune the lowest string to D, which is the true fundamental of the piece). Nerdy stuff aside, the piece is simply an improvisational framework for Larry and me, referencing some of wacky the things we do in our playing, and serving as a small homage to the way he has inspired me as a musician, mentor, and friend over the past several years.
What do you find most compelling about microtonal music?
Larry: Pitch is so important in music that we are obligated to treat it with the respect it deserves, much as we treat other people with the cognizance of their individual extraordinary potentials, and the freedom and capacity to be what they want to be (not what they are told to be). If we use pitch, we should consider what pitches are, and can be. In that respect, as composers we should do what we can to contribute to the history and present of an unencumbered, ever-fecund world (universe) of musical pitch.
Giacomo: Before I answer that, let me say I’m not a fan of the term—maybe because it reminds me of microbes, or perhaps because it sounds overly fastidious. From a technical standpoint, much of the music Larry and I will play at T@MS is not microtonal—meaning it doesn’t necessarily feature tiny intervals. I prefer to think of it in terms of *tuning* music—music born out of concern about how we relate one note to the other. What I find compelling about that is manifold—I like how it puts me in touch with more rudimental aspects of music-making, forcing me to consider pitch (and its relationship to timbre) in a more attentive way. I also like how it questions commonly-held musical “givens”—that an octave should be divided into twelve equal parts, for example, or that every octave should feature the same pitches. Ultimately, though, I enjoy this music on a sensual and sensory level; I love the way it sounds, how it makes me marvel, and how it opens windows onto unforeseen musical worlds.
Tickets for the March 14 concert are available at http://tuesdaysatmonkspace.org/shows/microfest-presents/<./em>
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.
Following the Accordant Commons in this 2016 season of Microfest is the Isaura String Quartet, with “Slightly Irregular Tuning: Another adventure in microtonal music offered as part of this quintessential Los Angeles festival.” The theme of this program was Just intonation. Today, the trending intonation is equal temperament, in which every step is exactly the same distance as the next. Microtonality, in brief, means using the areas around and between those spaces. Just Intonation stems from the overtone series, the sounds you get blowing progressively harder over a coke bottle (or the opening of Thus spake Zarathustra). It is the grandfather of our modern tuning, and so does not sound foreign but a keen ear will notice the difference. The Isaura String Quartet promotes both traditional and contemporary chamber music through live performance, workshops, and collaborative projects with composers and interdisciplinary artists. If any quartet is the perfect team to tackle alternate intonation, it’s these fantastic four ladies.
The evening kicked off with Kraig Grady’s Chippewayan Echoes. He explains in the program notes that he has not attempted to reproduce an authentic historical rendition of Chippewan songs, but rather has sought an emphasis on their melodic qualities of vocal song, translated onto strings. The effect was striking. It began like wailing, in canon, at a carefully measured tempo. The tempo never swayed, and the notes marched forward at quarter and eighth note speeds. The notes wandered and explored the space, never dissonant but always just missing each other. Some sections sounded like Ralph Vaughn-Williams, others like your archetypical Western showdown, and everything in between. After several meditative minutes, the four instruments finally converged and greeted each other, and the piece concluded on a single, pure high note.
Tread Softly by Andrew McIntosh was written as a gift for the ISQ mere months ago. What started out as a chorale became a song with speech-like rhythms as if reciting the W.B. Yeats poem from which the phrase originates. The first ten seconds of the work hint at the chorale beginnings, and quickly melted into the song. The instruments swell together and fall apart, and chords sink and bend away from each other. The middle was call and answer in whispering strings, like kids at a slumber party pretending to be asleep. That faded away like a waking dream, and two lines appeared: the see-sawing cello and viola and the piping sustaining and bending violins. If listening to the music somehow failed to transport you to a secret garden, the extravagant bowing of the performers would hypnotize you instead. These evocations and metaphors of dreams and sleep are no accidents; the poem suggests that, having no worldly rugs to line the floor, he provides his dreams instead, a sentiment any artist and composer (or strapped graduate student) will understand.
John Luther Adams, the environmentally conscious composer, is becoming a household composer name, not to be confused with John Adams the minimalist composer (nor the second POTUS). His The Wind in High Places is a homage to his friend Gordon Wright, who loved Alaska and music as much as Adams. Inspired by Aeolian harps, instruments that draw their musical directly from the wind, the performers may not stop the strings on their instruments; everything is natural harmonics, the quintessential Just Intonation. Three movements unfolded gently rolling and steadily pulsing music. The first movement was a calm ocean, the second was a summer zephyr, and the third was Sisyphus pushing his stone and reaching a little higher every time but never reaching the zenith. Other flowery metaphors I came up with included: lying on a sailboat in summer, watching a sunset on a hill, drifting on a loose flower petal. I hold John Luther Adams’ music in high esteem, and this performance from Isaura confirmed that.
Following a short intermission, the audience geared themselves up for the final piece of the night. Gloria Coates’s String Quartet No. 9 premiered in Germany almost exactly nine years ago. This was the most technically challenging piece of the night, implementing extended techniques like col legno, bowing behind the bridge, and drumming on the body of the instrument. The first movement is a mirror canon, separated by a glissando canon that comes across as a quasi-shepherd tone (the aural illusion that a sound is constantly rising or falling, likened to a barbershop pole stripe). The second movement was, as Coates describes, the more experimental one. It too has elements of the mirror canon, taking a motive and turning it backwards or upside down. The performers had to throw themselves into the music to keep up with the composer’s demanding technical challenges, and the audience was utterly spellbound.
And thus concluded my whirling introduction the Isaura String Quartet. As the 2016 season comes to an end, I look forward to what both MicroFest and Isaura will bring us in the future.
Now in its twentieth year of celebrating microtonality and non-standard tunings, MicroFest takes place sprinkled throughout Los Angeles over the course of multiple weekends. The fourth of seven concerts featured LA-based Accordant Commons, a contemporary vocal chamber music group dedicated to performance and collaboration founded by Stephanie Aston and Argenta Walther, joined by Marja Liisa Kay and Tany Ling for a concert featuring four composers, five pieces, and a heck of a lot more than just twelve notes.
Squeezing into the teeny venue tucked into the Chung King Court in Chinatown, the concertgoers immediately saw that the wall wa covered with pieces of sheet music. Lo and behold, it’s two of the works about to be performed, and they showcase two hugely different approaches to achieving and notating microtonal music. There’s the traditional notation + method, or the graphic score. It’s up to the composer to decide how best to communicate their artistic ideas. If you haven’t seen a graphic score before, just look it up in google images for top notch examples. That’s what new music musicians often deal with, including Accordant Commons.
The show opened with Three in, ad abundantiam by American composer Evan Johnson, for a trio of singers. The music was exquisitely gentle, reminiscent of hearing a church choir practicing from the next hill over while the wind snatches the sound away sporadically. A sustained note grounded the other two voices like a tonal gravity, but the other voices never quite managed to meet it, instead dancing around on either side of it, fitting the fragments of text from Petrarch: “Alone and pensive…my life, which is hidden from others…with me, and me with it.” Johnson never jars the listener, but instead makes the notes rub up against your ears like an overly friendly cat with overly long claws. The threads of music mingle to create brief islands of tonality in the ocean of microtonal possibility.
The second piece was less singing and more vocalizing and other bodily sounds (don’t get too excited, I just mean claps and snaps), plus kazoos and slide whistles. Stanford-based Leah Reid’s Single Fish is an aphoristic composition for three sopranos and hand percussion, in which the phonemes from Gertrude Stein’s eponymous poem are repeated, segmented, shuffled and turned upside down to explore timbre more so than pitch. In this piece, there is no single fish or timbre, but a whole school of them, weaving in and out of each other, shimmering and fluctuating, in a great celebration of the sounds three humans can make together.
Nomi Epstein is a Chicago-based composer and professor, and her song Four Voices features microtonal glissandi in a notation she has been developing for several years which resembles a graph that allows pitch to freely but measuredly move about the pitch space. The four voices move in pairs and sometimes meet together. The form of the piece is dictated by the combinations of singers at a given time. Not unlike Johnson’s first piece on the program, the vocal lines are spotty, like steam venting from cracks in the earth to resist a great eruption. The conductor moves the voices forward with stop and go motions, a musical game of red-light-green-light, and thus the motion atemporal as time has nothing to do with the timing. By the end, all four singers sounded like ghosts, whispering and coughing and holding low moans that rose and fell by a barely perceptible dozen cents (~1/8 of a pitch) at a time, microscopically shifting the tonality. They all ended together on a downward lilt, reaching for heaven and missing only to land back on earth.
The fourth piece brought us back to Evan Johnson, this time for A general interrupter of ongoing activity. The name does not lie. It began with the sound one makes when holding back a laugh, and then progressed into air leaking from a tire, evolving into purrs, clicks, chirps and slurps. Like Reid, she explores the human airways on a timbral odyssey, but unlike Reid she does not use the vocal chords as much. In the middle I was struck by how much it started to remind me of trips to the dentist, and occasionally of radio static. I had no idea a single person could make such convincing and provoking sounds, and I applaud Johnson for this compelling journey.
Fifth and finally, Space-time by LA-based Daniel Corral and commissioned by Accordant Commons was a rollicking jam of minimalist grooves a la Philip Glass. It was accompanied by recorded drums and marimbas and the text from +|’me’S-pace by Christine Wertheim, projected on the wall behind the singers. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Wertheim during the concert (and of borrowing her pen), and she is exactly the kind of darkly draped, elegant woman you would expect to write a poetic exploration of space time. The mood set for meditation and rhythmic swaying and shifting, the singers clapped and recited and sang and slurred and whooped. The words philosophize about reading and comprehending, and shift tiny elements to change entire meanings, like changing “time” to “+ime,” and shifting that to “ta ta ta ta ta ta I’m me,” atomizing the language and investigating the relationships of its components. The music plays along, going upside down and backwards when necessary, and implements La Monte Young’s Well Tuned Piano tuning system. The result reframes consonance and dissonance, making the audience rethink on the fly what they think is pleasant and what clashes. What is usually instinctive to our ears here required conscious thought, fitting the space journey of +|’me’S-pace. The beat was constant but the meter shifts, making the steady time feel like it was swaying in the wind. Between the sonority and the flux of time, it is all the listener can do to hang on and enjoy the ride. The recapitulation at the end brings the roller coaster to a conclusion and returns the audience back to reality, whatever that may be.
The concert was a triumph for Accordant Commons and for the future of microtonality and non-standard tuning. LA is one of the best places to find new techniques and new music, and MicroFest is the concert series to explore rarer tonalities in gamelans, pianos, and more. Three concerts remain in the 2016 series. The next is Saturday, May 14th at Boston Court in Pasadena, featuring The Isaura String Quartet. Need some more of Accordant Commons’ exquisite singing in your life? Check their website for concert dates and recordings: accordantcommons.com.
Dedicated readers may remember pianist, composer, teacher, and concert organizer Aron Kallay’s interview about his Beyond 12 project. If not…well, that was a link, and here’s a picture of him with a toy piano:
In any case, he’s released a CD of works by composers who have drastically retuned and reorganized the piano. And it rocks. It’s out now on Microfest records. Composers include Isaac Schankler, Kyle Gann, Tom Flaherty, Brian Shepard (with the standout All The Pretty Colour of The Rainbow) and others. It’s absolutely fascinating listening. Available via Mircofest Records’ store at microfestrecords.com/store, iTunes at itunes.apple.com/us/album/beyond-12/id707673261, and pretty much all the other big ones.