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.
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.
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.