Archive for April, 2006


I would like to address a couple of bothersome classical music myths. The first one is perfect pitch. As a child, I remember that when listening to song melodies on the radio, I somehow knew what notes that were being played. Later on, with a little practice, I was able to identify by pitch other elements of the music such as bass lines and other musical lines as long as they could be clearly heard. That’s what is referred to as ‘perfect pitch’ – my reference was a piano tuned in equal temperament, and I didn’t know there ever was anything else- it was an unquestionable given. Not until many years later did I discover that pitch is not an absolute concept but a relative one. What’s perfect about having memorized all the pitches of equal temperament and recognizing them? It is only a certain kind of ear training, and when it comes to other tunings and temperaments and even other reference pitches, which I have experienced, the pitch recognition function evolves, but is not as easy as so-called perfect pitch. For instance, when I am tuned to the earth tone (year cycle) my A is approximately 8 cycles below the equal tempered A that we are accustomed to. So relative pitch is actually more useful in these situations that perfect pitch. And what is so perfect about equal temperament, an architectural construction of equal quantities which is actually less than perfect in terms of natural harmony.

And we come to the second myth, the myth of Bach having either created or promoted equal temperament, a fallacy that many scholars still subscribe to, and is still being taught – I even found it in David Lucas Burge’s excellent ear training programs, but again, these training programs are only valid in equal temperament. The confusion may have originated in the Werckmeister V tuning, which is close to equal, but it is documented that Bach used Werckmeister III which is very different from equal.

What is the value of looking beyond the conventional given? Well, it is like going organic. The artificiality of equal temperament is very much like the additives and chemicals that go into processed foods. Artificiality makes things easier but not necessarily better. For those who have ears, natural tunings are like organic food. The difference can be felt, and furthermore, natural harmony has healing properties as well as natural food.

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Johnny Reinhard told me of his research in early civilizations and their music and the natural properties of harmonic tunings:

JR: Over the years I have begun to notice patterns in the spread of human tuning endeavors. While linguists have searched for a basic language underlying human speech, I have been taken by what might be called an ur-music in the sense that original peoples used just intonation intervals as the basis for their music, and that all other advancements are the result of human manipulations by distinct cultures, and often spread by diffusion.

The Capoid peoples, such as the San (Kung!) of southern Africa, utilize the first seven harmonics of the overtone series in their music. They have the oldest DNA on the planet. The Bata Pygmy sing polytonally in just intonation relations, while emphasizing difference tones. They also use a molimo, or giant trumpet which is made of wood and kept in the tree tops of the Congo. It reputes to give a good rich overtone laden blat at the end of a full day. Indian peoples may similarly celebrate the Om. The whole principle of melodic raga is to transverse the distance between overtone-rich tone. This is best characterized by the tambura playing its ostinato of harmonics for hours.

Then there are the Hoomi singers in Tuva, Mongolia, and Tibet. And ancient Greece. And the island of Sardinia, and in other tiny pockets. From this ur-music perspective, the musical aspects of Europe’s Renaissance were only possible due to the reintroduction of just intonation intervals. The just 5/4 major third was introduced by Dutch speaking musicians throughout the Mediterranean and its northern environs. Without it, music would have remained essentially monophonic.

EL: Johnny, the New Yorker called you ‘a just intonation zealot’. I find that a bit surprising: expert would be a better term in this day of dumbing of the culture, someone who is still holding high standards of accuracy! I don’t consider you a fanatic, and I just want to make it clear at this point that I am not a fanatic either! I recognize the superiority of organic foods, but as I am not always able to afford them. I might compromise and eat the food I get at the corner. And that’s why so many of my works are still in equal temperament. I remember, during a production of Orfreo, the violinists objected to a historic tuning such as a Werckmeister or Kirnberger because they said it threw their intonation off (they perform in Broadway shows, which explains the issue). Singers also objected because of the various challenges created by misplaced passagios (except for soprano Meredith Borden who can handle any temperament, tuning, plus rock bands and Gilbert & Sullivan to boot). So what am I to do, when such resistance is encountered? If I had my way, I would tune the instruments much more carefully and creatively.

JR: Where does being a fan and being a fanatic separate? Fanatic implies some kind of loss of adequate mental faculties. Being a fan is more like a supporter, an imbiber, or perhaps a consumer. There is with a fan the ability to say no, for example, free will, and all that. I’m a big fan of listening to Beethoven in Kirnberger when there is a piano, (especially played by Joshua) but would prefer to hear his symphonies in extended sixth-comma meantone. I want to hear J.S. Bach in Werckmeister III tuning, Buxtehude, too. However, this is the result of good information and a developing appetite for rich distinctions in tunings.

EL: I think the reason why people shy away from microtonality is that it tends to become a form unto itself, whereas it should be part of standard musical training. People really don’t know what it’s about and microtonality seems so complicated and strange. I plotted some charts to illustrate how Werckmeister I and III and Kirnberger III differ from equal temperament – but this is where the cents on the value become very important, the conventional value being 100 cents for an equal-tempered semitone. The differentials in just intonation are all under 25 cents – a quarter of a semitone, therefore an eighth of a tone. The only real problem is that most trained musicians do not hear these values. They are very slight colorations, just like the differences in light reflected on an object, with sections that are demonstrably darker or lighter. But it does look more three-dimensional with the lights and shadows that make it come alive. Specific training is needed to clearly reproduce these values, but I believe one can become a better musician by doing this, and have good results. However, as an audience member, one doesn’t need to receive training in order to enjoy the benefits of a good tuning. The effect will be felt, heard and enjoyed – with complete immediacy.

JR: Kirnberger III was a retro return to Werckmeister III, remaining unpublished for many years after Johann Philipp Kirnberger’s death, although it was released to the Bach biographer Forkel in a personal letter by Kirnberger, himself. Only the note A is quite different because it is a full seven cents sharp. However, it is the same sharper A found in Frederick the Great’s extended sixth comma meantone court tuning. While ascertaining that any one composer is in any one tuning might seem impossible, if not a waste of time, there is indeed an 800 pound
gorilla in the room. Somehow, European rep
orters failed to explain the advance of sixth comma meantone, even though deaf-mute Saveur wrote in 1700 Paris that sixth comma meantone was the musician’s tuning. That was news to Andreas Werckmeister, who died in 1706. How did it become the new norm, and more importantly, how long did it last? Up through Mahler?The history of music is also the history of notes. Do they need a lawyer to represent them?

EL: They certainly have you on their side! Now, if you aren’t all bored with this, you can come and experience the mystery of these alternative tunings with old and new material on Saturday, May 6th. Details follow.

The American Festival of Microtonal Music (AFMM, since 1981), under the direction of Johnny Reinhard, presents a New York City Concert on May 6th at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields (located at 487 Hudson Street at Grove Street). The concert begins at 8 PM and general admission is $15, $10 for seniors and students (with ID) at the door. Saturday, May 6th features pianist Joshua Pierce is joined by a host of winds for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s PIANO QUINTET in Eb major, and played by renowned Dutch oboist Bram Kreeftmeijer, clarinetist Hideaki Aomori, bassoonist Johnny Reinhard, and hornist Rheagan Osteen, all in Werckmeister III tuning. Similarly tuned are Franz Josef Haydn’s LONDON TRIO in D major, featuring flutist Yevgeny Faniuk, Mikhail Glinka’s TRIO PATHETIQUE in D minor for clarinet, bassoon, and piano, and Johann Sebastian Bach’s DUETTO No. 2 in F major. The winds blow a cappella for Joel Mandelbaum’s WIND QUINTET No. 2 in 31-tone equal tempered tuning. John Eaton provides us his new TRIO IN X for flute, oboe, and bassoon.

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In Paris, my first piano was a Pleyel upright, regularly visited by a frighteningly blind piano tuner – we used to meet him at the metro and gently lead him to our place. For years, I couldn’t wait to get home to practice scales and the three basic styles my teacher had disclosed for me: Bach, Chopin and Debussy. On one his rare visits, my father, 1963 jazz best-seller, showed me a couple of blues chords and to my family’s utter dismay, unleashed my creativity as a songwriter.

In New York, I played the Fugs’ Farfisa organ for a while, but I had to leave it with a friend because I couldn’t afford the freight to Paris. I gave it to Marty Rev from Suicide and anyone who knows their music can tell the Farfisa was a break-through in their sound.

Back and forth between Paris and New York, I was forced to sell my Pleyel – which I much regretted later, when I found myself without a keyboard. Another friend bought me an electric piano that I kept for about a year but it was stolen. I shaved my hair completely in protest – that was about two years before punk started but it was lonely and truly shocking, even to me.

I played on borrowed instruments for a while which didn’t stop me from composing a tango at the request of my friend, painter Robert Malaval who later shot himself as part of a Kamikaze art concept.

Back in New York, the Farfisa back had become part of the ‘Suicide’ sound, and I obviously couldn’t get it back. Down and out, I was a piano player at the Empire Diner which provided my food three times a week – on the up side, I could grace a pair of size 4 peach-colored jeans.

That’s when I picked up electric guitar, a Telecaster donated by a friend, until Marty Rev made good on an electric piano and later on I was able to buy a Korg. Another burglary in my 5th floor walk-up on Ridge St in the Lower East Side led me to invest in another upright – I thought it would be safe from robbers, as it took four strong men to take it up the stairs. That’s the one I used to compose Piano Works and Concerto for Piano and Orchestral Memory. Local junkies used to hang out on my landing listening to the music – I could see them through the peep hole – but never harmed me in any way.

While at NYU, my student loan was applied to the purchase of a good Yamaha baby grand that inspired Sonate Modale and Sonate Ordinaire, and charmed a nice young architect into proposing – but the reality of looking for a place to live caused innumerable piano problems. I had to store the Yamaha because it wouldn’t fit, rent various uprights including a nice Steinway that was OK, but I still wanted the Yamaha back and had it hoisted through the window of our small one-bedroom in the Village, which cause stress and financial trauma. Then we moved to Jersey City for more space, but to my great disappointment, the beloved Yamaha could not fit in the stair well and I had to switch to a smaller piano thatI didn’t like as much. I then started experimenting with various alternative tunings, with the help of a British tuner who was a mean tone fanatic.

Back in Manhattan a couple of years later I was able to purchase an enormous grand that sounded just like the Steinway B I used to play at Battery Sound Studio with Arthur Russell – it was manufactured by a famous Steinway technician named Wissner. I kept this piano for 10 years, and had it tuned successively to mean-tone, just intonation, Vallotti-Young and Werckmeister III.

As the post-9/11 economic downturn forced me out of my 2nd Street loft, I had to move to a smaller place where the Wissner took most of the space and was way too loud for the room – I still kept it maintained for two years, until I finally gave in and exchanged it for a weird upright, an unusual art deco German number, named Neindorf, refurbished by Russians, and equipped with a mute – so as to not disturb both listeners and myself by vicarious improvs and sketchy renditions.

I haven’t actually performed on the piano since 2001 – I have been using the Korgs mostly. Frank Oteri invited me to be a part of his ’schizoid’ series, according to his own words, “a series featuring two sets of radically different-sounding musical streams from the same composer.”
Here we are, tapping into the remarkably ‘unmarketable’ music with changing sounds and styles.

On April 24, at the Cornelia St Café, (8PM, admission $10) I’ll play keyboards – piano tunes from different times including the lost tango,the unreleased Sonate Modale and a new premiere, Ghost of John Cage, plus excerpts of the Variations on the Orange Cycle and some other tunes from the current Piano Soundtracks CD (4Tay). Later Jonathan Hirschman will join me for a microtonal duet (synth and electric guitar).

Can somebody tell my why I can’t help wondering at each performance whether it is going to be my last?

Note: the colorful portrait on the main page is the work of painter Karen Copham and is part number 171 of her series of 10″x10″s, to be shown later this year.

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Lately I’ve been going over a 10-year old score of mine, completely clean of dynamic markings. I am now compelled to write the dynamics as I am planning to present this piece again, and I know by now that people will most certainly be put off by the nudity of the score, and I am resigned to dressing it up somewhat. But that’s not as easy.

For one, I am tortured by the idea that I am writing the wrong dynamics. The reason why I didn’t want to set the dynamics is that I thought of my music as organic. The original singers who worked on the piece interpreted it perfectly without any interpretive markings, using their natural vocal abilities – some people have certain notes that sound better loud, or certain tessituras that sound better soft. By not stifling their interpretation, I was able to obtain a ‘natural’ rendition of the piece – and that’s what I am using as a cue for the vocal and instrumental dynamics.

I came across another issue while notating dynamics. Do people respond better to contrast? Is the esthetic of stasis unwarranted? And why would that be? Our society is conditioned by the fast-paced image changes of electronic screens from computers, films, DVDs, television. We are so conditioned by the constant onslaught of variety that sameness appears to have little value – except for those who meditate. On the other hand, there are esthetic movements and musical styles that are entirely based on like Indian music, with each raga solidly anchored in one tonal center.

Therefore, when scoring dynamics, what is the underlying model? Even the word ‘dynamics’ suggests movement and change. There is a preconception that music has to change volume in order to get across to an audience. Are we the victims of conventionality once again, when trying to come up with differences in dynamics? What is the value of that difference? Are we entertaining or making a statement? What is so great about contrast? Why is contrast better than no contrast? Has anyone considered the beauty of the old sepiatones where everything is in similar shades of brown? Is the full-color better than the sepiatone? Is it more ‘esthetic’? Maybe there is a certain je-ne-sais-quoi in the sameness, greyness, subtlety within one shade of feeling. How does one notate subtlety?

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I came across Inside Early Music by Bernard D. Sherman, a serious and well-documented book on the various schools of interpretation of medieval, Baroque and early romantic music, through interviews of interpreters such as William Christie, Julianne Baird, and other authorities on the subject. The issue of temperaments and tunings was briefly mentioned by Gustav Leonardt – but not in any detail, which is disappointing, as I consider the issues of reference pitch and temperament absolutely essential to musical interpretation. The recent rendition of the Moonlight Sonata by Joshua Pierce in Kirnberger III tuning (American Festival of Microtonal Music a couple of weeks ago) was a revelation: de-hackneyed, disconnected from routine hearings, the piece took on incredible beauty and power – even for me, not a Beethoven afficionado.

The main issue described in this book, also addressed by Richard Taruskin (Text and Act, 1995, Oxford University Press), is whether early music can/should be interpreted, or I would rather say translated, according to historical data that can be somewhat sketchy and confusing – which ultimately stresses the performers’ attitudes and tastes in choosing their style of interpretation.

This indicates that some dedicated classical performers secretly desire more freedom of interpretation, but they are afraid to take chances and to be criticized for their creativity, for the choices they made in interpreting known material. Could it be that historical perspective is a smokescreen, acting as a conservative device to allow some degree of freedom in interpretation without threatening the tradition?

One would think that the answer to this dilemma lies in doing new material that has no tradition and allows the interpreter greater input in the ultimate shaping of the piece. And yet, there is pressure on contemporary composers to hyper-notate their music so that the performers do not have to get involved and use their imagination – music that is not hyper-notated is likely to be considered ‘unprofessional’ – see Kyle Gann’s article on the subject: The Case Against Over-Notation, http://www.kylegann.com/notation.html

Among the many contradictions of the classical world, this is one that I find most disturbing: classical performers secretly crave the creativity to interpret a piece in their own, unique way, making them stand out from mediocrity. However, they are so fearful of new music that they would rather agonize over the correct ornamentation of a minute detail of Glück’s music than premiering a new work in which they could have control over their expression – and a lot more fun. But who wants to have fun? Classical music is a culture of pleasure denial, a puritanical esthetic of severity and hard work – makes Jack a pretty dull fellow.

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