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.