Daniel Stearns: Golden Town on Spectropol (CD Review)

Daniel Stearns
Golden Town
Spectropol CD

Spectropol Records is a small outfit dedicated to short runs of adventurous music, including xenharmonic (microtonal) composers, electroacoustic experimenters, avant improv performers, ‘out’ instrument builders, and those specializing in field recordings.

Where can one reasonably locate Daniel Stearns?  On Golden Town, his latest full length release, he readily fits most of the categories above. Combined with distressed soundscape recordings – bleak windswept places seem to be a frequent environment – are brittle whiffs of guitar drones, tendrils of electronics, edgings of psych-tinged noise, and deep rumbling bass. Stearns calls these “waking dreams,” but I’m not sure one would describe the visions unleashed alongside his potently dystopian pieces to be anything short of spooky nightmares. Still, while you may want to bring a flashlight along, “just in case,” Stearns’s Golden Town is a weirdly appealing, often engrossing, sonic experience.

GOLDEN TOWN by daniel stearns

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.

Ekmeles performs Randy Gibson on 11/18

Ekmeles at the Italian Academy

Last month at Columbia University’s Italian Academy, I was formidably impressed by an evening of madrigals old and new performed by the vocal ensemble Ekmeles. One of the revelations of the evening began with an idea ofensemble director Jeff Gavett. He thought that the madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo might benefit from Nichola Vicentino’s 31-tone equal tempered scale, most famously employed in the tuning of an instrument of his design, the archicembalo.

While, as Gavett admitted in the concert’s program notes, there is not direct evidence that they were ever performed this way in the presence of Gesualdo, there is some documentary evidence that Vicentino’s writings and an archicembalo were available to the composer. But here, the proof was in the singing. Gesualdo’s music sounds glorious in 31-TET. Indeed some of its idiosyncratic cross-relations and chordal voicings glisten: equally, wonderfully, strange, but somehow refocused.

Ekmeles contains several youngish singers with winsome voices: Gavett, soprano Mary Mackenzie, and countertenor Eric Brenner are notable standouts. Their interpretative maturity and skill in preparing the challenging works on the program bely the freshness of Ekmeles’ sound. The group also brought in a “ringer of ringers” for the second act. New music superstar soprano Lucy Shelton joined Ekmeles for a spirited rendition of Elliott Carter’s late Ashbery setting Mad Regales.

The program also featured several deconstructions of the madrigal aesthetic. Peter Ablinger’s Studien der Natur,in which sounds of nature and commerce alike are recreated using only voices, was a rather charming one-upping of Josquin’s El Grillo. Johannes Schöllhorn and Carl Bettendorf took the madrigal into postmodern, often craggy, territory. Martin Iddon’s hamadryads required the group to play water-filled glasses and employ headsets to grok its very expanded Pythagorean tuning,  notated down to 100ths of a cent! Incredibly challenging to perform. But then, Ekmeles revels to be challenged.


This Thursday, composer Randy Gibson’s work will be in full force on the Music at First series. The concert features the world premiere of Gibson’s Circular Trance Surrounding the Second Pillar with The Highest Seventh Primal Cirrus, The Utmost Fundamental, and The Ekmeles Ending from Apparitions of The Four Pillars (fit that title on a postcard!), a concert length work in just intonation for sine wave drones and seven voices. Also on the bill is a set from Canadian harpsichordist Katelyn Clark.

    Performance details

Date: Friday, November 18th 2011
Time: 7:30pm
City: Brooklyn, NY
Venue: First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn
Address: 124 Henry Street
Admission: $10

This Thursday, loadbang performs ‘Notes in the Cracks’

If you’re in New York on Thursday and happen to be free, come hear my first composition written in 72 EDO tuning: that’s equal temperament with 72 notes per octave!


Notes in the Cracksloadbang performs a concert of microtonal music, featuring 3 new premieres, a trio for the horns, and a solo turn for baritone Jeff Gavett. Music by Aaron Cassidy, Christian Carey, Heather Frasch, Tim McCormack, & Julia Werntz

Greenwich House - November 10th, 2011 8PM
46 Barrow Street, Manhattan
Admission: $15 general; $10 students and seniors’;
tickets at the door; no advance sales

strong>Alejandro Acierto – bass clarinet

Jeff Gavett – baritone

Andy Kozar — trumpet

William Lang – trombone

Justly Blissed (CD Review)

Randy Gibson
Aqua Madora
Gibson, piano and sine wave drones
Avant Media CD

Composer Randy Gibson’s 50 minute long Aqua Madora, for sine wave drones and piano tuned in just intonation, is an exquisitely lovely piece. Gibson uses his studies of tuning systems, composition, and singing with LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela as a jumping off point – even going so far as to tuning some of the intervals (particularly seventh scale degrees) in homage to these masters of early minimalism.

As touching as this tribute is, especially at a time in which the importance of Young’s work is not nearly as widely known as it should be, Aqua Madora is not just about expressing gratitude for knowledge transmitted between teacher and student. In collaboration with Ana Baer-Carrillo and Dani Beauchamp, Gibson spent a long time refining this piece as a multimedia work containing film and dance.

One needn’t have these visual elements to enjoy the suppleness and subtleties of Aqua Madora’s music. Gibson’s play with intervals that sound “out of tune” to those accustomed to equal temperament is particularly sensitive. He allows the tangy appearances of these notes to color the drift of harmonic progressions and provide fascinating variants that add a tinge of the unexpected to scalar passages.


An aside: I wasn’t the only one in the house to be floored by the piece. Our tabby cat, Happy, comes running every time I put it on, and blisses out between the speakers. While I’m not trying to make a partisan statement in the temperament wars using inappropriate anthropomorphism, it’s worth noting that she seldom gets this excited by music in equal temperament!

Spectrapol Records shares Xenharmonic sampler

Spectrapol's Bruce Hamilton: a xenharmonic composer

“Xenharmonic is a term coined by Ivor Darreg used to describe tuning systems, or music using those systems, which does not conform to or closely approximate the common 12-tone equal temperament.”

Possible Worlds, liner notes