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.