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!

Talea plays Zorn at Miller, Microtones at Merkin

Talea Ensemble performs Zorn at Miller Theatre. Photo: Matt Murphy

My article about John Zorn’s Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre is now up on Musical America’s website. While I had some reservations about the ADHD pacing of some of the piece’s on the program, I had no reservations about the performances, which were superb. Talea is an excellent group with a wide reach.

Amply demonstrating this, their next concert on 12/17 at Merkin Hall is devoted to Inharmonic/(X)enharmonic compositions. The program includes works by Tristan Murail, Enno Poppe, and Talea’s Artistic Director Anthony Cheung.

Owen Pallett on tour (video)

Indie songwriter/violinist Owen Pallett is an excellent example of an artist who blends pop and classical styles. Judging by his record sales, Pallett, at least initially, came at things starting from the pop vantage point. But his career is increasingly intersecting with venues and artists from the classical side of the ledger. For instance, his music was recently featured on the Ecstatic Music Series at Merkin Concert Hall, a festival that celebrated crossover and dialogue between indie and post-classical concert music.

This spring, he’s touring in support of his 2010 CD Heartland (Domino), his first recording with full orchestra (dates below). Among the performances are a full orchestral presentation of Heartland at the Barbican (London), a special performance at the String Theory Music Festival featuring Nat Baldwin of Dirty Projectors (Minneapolis), and a performance at the MusicNow Festival (Cincinnati).

He’s also released a video for album track “The Great Elsewhere,” directed by Yuula Benivolski and Geoffrey Pugen.


15th April, USA, Minneapolis, History Theatre (String Theory Music Festival)
20th April, GERMANY, Erlangen, Markgrafentheater
21st April, GERMANY, Berlin, Berghain (Friction Festival)
23rd April, POLAND, Gdansk, Centrum Stocznia Gdanska
25th April, SWITZERLAND, St. Gallen, Palace
26th April, SWITZERLAND, Fribourg, Fri-son
28th April, AUSTRIA, Krems, Halle 1 (Donau Festival)
30th April, DENMARK, Aarhus, Voxhall (Pop Revo Festival)
1st May, MALTA, Hamrun, Gejtau Band Club
4th May, SPAIN, Barcelona, Bikini
8th May, UK, London, Barbican Hall (Reverberations: The Influence of Steve Reich)
14th May, USA, Cincinnati, Memorial Hall (MusicNOW Festival)

McCright’s Minnesotans invade Merkin!

Matthew McCright

Second Childhood

Innova CD 739

Pianist Matthew McCright’s recital disc on the Innova imprint has been given a cute but apt ‘in house’ descriptor: “Kinderszenen aus Northfield.” Indeed, the Carleton College professor and new music advocate has assembled a disc of new works which simultaneously channel and elevate the “music for childhood/music about childhood” genre.

For those who’ve slaved through dull character pieces and rhythmically inert etudes during childhood piano lessons, several of the pieces on Misplaced Childhood will no doubt repair these memories. Indeed, the disc replaces them with the type of fare one wishes was in the folders – and practice routines – of more students today. Namely, the composers featured here are able to evoke childhood and, often, to write with student performers in mind, while never ‘writing down’ to young musicians. One is particularly charmed by the dance compositions of Daniel Nas and Laura Caviani; both have written suites filled with jazzy character pieces which seem readymade for the student recital stage. John Halle’s “Lullaby” and “Misplaced Childhood” are both lithely evocative standouts as well.

McCright’s detailed and engaging renditions amply demonstrate that pieces for intermediate  performers, as well as those for advanced pianists who are channeling memories of childhood, can still make for interesting listening and prove themselves of considerable substance.

The pianist is visiting NY this weekend, presenting the works of six Minnesota composers at Merkin Hall (details below).


Matthew McCright in Recital

New Works by Minnesota Composers from the American Composers Forum

September 25, 2010 8PM – Merkin Hall

Works include James Marentic’s “Rothko”; Justin Rubin’s “Waltz through Vapor”; Adam Wernick’s “Dream Play”; Paul Cantrell’s “Disembodied Dance”; Kirsten Broberg’s “echoes” and Daniel Nass’ “quatre etudes de fromage:” all are New York premieres.

Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center, 129 West 67th Street in Manhattan.

General admission tickets are $20 and can be purchased at or by calling 212.501.3303.

$15 student tickets are available at the door only.

New Music in New York

Upcoming Concerts in NYC



Wednesday January 28, 2009 @ 8 PM

Merkin Concert Hall

Kurtag: Kafka Fragments

Tony Arnold, soprano

Movses Pogossian, violin



Saturday, January 31, 2009 @ 8 PM

Riverside Church

An Evening of Contemporary Chamber Music with the Locrian Chamber Players

Works by Milton Babbitt, Earle Brown, Nils Vigeland, and David Dzubay




Sunday, February 15, 2009 @ 3 PM

Christ and St. Stephen’s Church

Recital by pianist Lisa Weiss

Includes works by Bruce Mahin and James Caldwell

FREE (donations accepted)

Musically Speaking at Merkin Hall: Elliott Carter – The First Hundred Years

Sunday evening, Merkin celebrates Elliott Carter’s impending 100th Birthday with  a concert including most of the composer’s wind music, as well as performances of piano music by Ursula Oppens. Frank O’Teri will be interviewing the composer at 7 PM, and a study guide for the event was penned by yours truly. Hope to see some of you there!


Listing: Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center presents

Elliott Carter’s First Hundred Years
Elliott Carter / New York Woodwind Quintet / Ursula Oppens
Sunday, November 23, 2008 at 8:00pm
129 West 67th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam)
Tickets at 212 501 3330 or
Single tickets are $25 (members $20)