Interview: Anthony Cheung

Yesterday’s post on File Under ? previewed Saturday evening’s concert by the Talea Ensemble at Merkin Hall (details here). Talea’s Artistic Director Anthony Cheung, a composer and pianist, was kind enough to answer some questions about the show and tell us about the ensemble’s upcoming activities.

- For those who aren’t up on the lingo, how would you describe Inharmonic and (X)enharmonic music? Do you think of them as different varieties of microtonal music?

Inharmonicity simply means a sound/timbre whose overtone frequencies aren’t pure whole number multiples of a fundamental, i.e. not a perfectly consonant spectrum. Inharmonicity is a common preoccupation with composers associated with spectral music, as it’s a way to measure degrees of dissonance; if one takes purely harmonic spectra to be consonance, stretching (contracting or expanding) the spectrum can lead towards greater perceived dissonance, eventually crossing the threshold to “noise.”

Xenharmonic music was a term invented by microtonal pioneer Ivor Darreg – a contemporary of Partch – to describe any harmonic system that doesn’t fit the 12-note equal tempered system of tuning that has dominated western music of the last two centuries or so. So it basically applies to everything on the program. And my not-terribly-clever play on the word, putting the parenthesis around the letter “X”, points to the word “enharmonic” embedded within. Enharmonic equivalents (i.e. B# and C ) can be radically different in a non equal-tempered scale, resulting in startling microtonal intervals. These differences were once the subject of much debate, e.g. between theorist-composers such as Rousseau and Rameau.

-How many different tuning systems are represented on the show?

It’s hard to pin down exactly, because there is certainly just intonation within various limits, as well as the more “approximate” use of micro-intervals in classic spectral music (a term which cannot be pinned down by any particular system), and then there are many hybrid systems, like in my piece and Enno Poppe’s. Wyschnegradsky, for instance, uses quarter-tones in his second string quartet, but really views his language not as microtonal, but “ultra-chromatic.”

-Which pieces are premieres?

No world premieres, but two US, my Discrete Infinity (written for the Ensemble Modern earlier this year) and Enno Poppe’s Holz (written for the Klangforum Wien in 2000).

-Does Dean Drummond use the Partch tunings (with non-Partch instruments) for his piece?

He uses various just tunings. He programmed several presets for the Yamaha DX7 synth, and the violin part is also written with mostly pure ratios. It’s interesting to be presenting a piece of Dean’s without Partch instruments or the 31-tone zoomoozophone, which he invented, since they are so associated with his music and the hand he’s had with maintaining Partch’s legacy. But in terms of tuning accuracy, the synthesizer cannot fail, and the sounds themselves are quite otherworldly.

-Are there ways that you can get microtones out of Talea’s pitched percussion instruments?

In terms of the retuned percussion, this really is Dean’s domain. A number of composers are writing now for specially tuned instruments. Earlier this year Rand Steiger wrote us a piece with custom-made vibraphone bars tuned to specific just intervals. Certain pitched percussion instruments have inherently complex, inharmonic timbres, such as almglocken and gongs, and these always blend nicely in the context of microtonal harmonies.

-Is the piano being retuned/detuned at all for the show?

No, unfortunately not. One of the earliest ideas I had was to do either the Ives quartertone pieces for two pianos, or a selection of Wyschnegradsky’s quartertone preludes, also for two pianos. Then logistics and costs got in the way; you wouldn’t imagine how expensive it is to retune a piano. My dream is to one day hear Wyschnegradsky’s Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra for four quarter-tuned pianos, or his works for 3 pianos in sixth-tones. But other instruments will be retuned, such as in my piece.

-What’s coming up for Talea? Any plans to get into the recording studio in 2012?

Lots coming up in the spring. We have a recording project at EMPAC of Romitelli’s music, which will be presented along with a portrait concert. Also, concerts of recent Austrian music, a trio of new string quartets from Japan, residencies planned at Stanford, Cornell, Ithaca College, and a trip to Darmstadt in the summer, where we’ll present two concerts. And we’re in the process of recording some chamber works of mine, which we’ll finish up later next year. So it’ll be a packed few months ahead!

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