Ellen Tweiten, piano; Kurt Carpenter, microtonal keyboard
“The synthesizer uses a piano patch and is detuned by 40 cents.” You know, when you encounter tid-bits like this in the booklet notes, you are talking about a different kind of animal altogether, in whose habits, care and feeding I do not claim to be familiar. So, I’ll be very brief before exhausting my knowledge on the subject. It seems that microtones are intervals of less than an equally spaced semitone. In Western music, which is based on 12 equal intervals to the octave, microtones have been of negligable importance (not so in music of the non-western world from Africa to Bali, where considerable use is made of them). Contemporary interest in semitones has been spurred by real-time computer music performance systems in both electronic and rock music. Beyond that, there seem to be literally hundreds of possible microtonal keyboard designs, which may vary considerably in the way they take and modify information from another source, such as a traditional keyboard instrument.
Alabama Places is a set of twelve duets for piano and microtonal keyboard, which composer Monroe Golden describes as “the fruit of an introspective four-year journey.” Each duet is connected in some way to a place that has either a strong personal association for the composer or some regional or historic significance. While we aren’t given specific information as to the type of microtonal keyboard employed here, Golden does inform us that these pieces were conceived as studies in the tradition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, only in overtone-based harmony rather than key relationships. “The keyboard is detuned by an interval between 4 and 48 cents, in 4-cent increments, for each of the twelve pieces,” says the composer. “Thus, the entire set explores twelve different 24-note scales made up of two asymmetrical 12-note equal-tempered scales. Available pitches at a given moment correspond to overtone relationships from fundamental frequencies that also shift in 4-cent increments.”
Confused? I must admit I don’t follow the theory involved, so I’ll focus on the affective side of the music. Other critics have spoken of the “beauty and elegance” of these microtonal duets, finding them “delightfully disorienting” and “sumptuous, yet arcane.” Since my own ears have not been sufficiently “detuned” or “re-tuned,” I must confess there seems to be more than a little family resemblance among them, or, as Lewis Carroll’s dormouse would have put it, “much of a muchness.” The effect on the listener can be described as “mesmerizing,” if one is inclined to like what he hears, or “stupefying,” if one isn’t.
There is a kind of calming, soothing effect, perhaps even pensiveness or nostalgia, in the simplicity of Golden’s writing for the piano, which goes along well with the evocation of place names like “Iron Road,” “Natchez Trace,” “North Shelby,” and “Pell City.” The music in each duet did not always strike me as a perfect correlative for the place name. There are two duets with notable water-associations: “Tensaw,” inspired by a canoe trip down the Tensaw River, is described by Golden as “slow moving, lyrical, effortless, and buzzy” like the river itself (“Buzzy”? Maybe that’s the sound made by cicadas on the riverbanks on a hot summer’s day?.) “Coosa Basin” is more energetic, with cadences allegedly inspired by the hydroelectric plants in the area. Other correspondences are not as obvious, however: “Demopolis,” in a region of the state that time seems to have forgotten, is characterized by music not so very different from that used for “Montevallo,” Golden’s tribute to his alma mater, the liberal arts university where he studied in the early 80’s and where he fell in love with his first Moog synthesizer. Switch the name plates, and we might be none the wiser. There is, however, something for just about everyone to like in Alabama Places, whether you are a microtonal buff or not.