The 18th-century theorists who devised the well-tempered system of tuning instruments meant merely to improve music. This is the mathematical way to fiddle with the size of intervals between notes so that fixed-pitch instruments, particularly keyboards, can play in all 12 keys without retuning. This has been the tuning system of Western music in all its manifestations ever since. However ill-tempered, the civilized world is, for the most part, musically well-tempered.
Why not purify the musical ecosystem by eliminating microtones, the notes between the cracks in the piano, just as we might like to cleanse our oceans of micro-plastics? One answer is that implacable Mother Nature likes that which we call out of tune. When the weather is hot and humid, it’s time to call your piano tuner. Leave a Stradivarius out in the rain and see what it sounds like. Wave your hand in front of a Theremin and try to get electrons in the air to settle on a specific pitch instead of randomly flit about, as is their nature, on infinite other paths.
Beginning the middle of the last century (and in a few instances before), maverick composers in America, and some abroad, have found microtonal music a lot more interesting than our commonplace vanilla temperament. But might microtones be something more, something actually good for the environment? Let’s take this a step further: Might we even turn to microtones to help address climate change?
Last Saturday night, the Santa Monica new music series Jacaranda began its 15th season at First Presbyterian Church, two blocks from the palisades, which rising sea levels could conceivably submerge within the lifetime of today’s young composers. The concert was titled “Micro Climates,” and it included works by two of the most captivating American microtonalists, Ben Johnston and the late Lou Harrison. It began with a conversation between Robert Lempert, a climate scientist at nearby Rand Corp., who was part of a team that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, and Culver City Vice Mayor and new music philanthropist (you read that right) Thomas Small. They talked about the environmental and economic threats to Santa Monica as the Earth warms.
We first need to learn to think differently so that we can do business differently. Nor should we expect the same solutions for every environment. For instance, climate-change deniers in states like Wyoming aren’t necessarily stupid, Lempert said, rather they just see no options when their survival is entirely dependent on the fossil fuel industry.
This was also Harrison’s argument against the “industrial gray” of using the same tunings for every piece. He liked to move around, between styles, between centuries and between cultures. In his alluring “Varied Quintet,” for violin, harp, harpsichord and percussion, Harrison let bells ring the way bells like to ring in all their sonic complexity. Harp and harpsichord had Baroque-era tunings and provided extra perfume to his most delicious melodies, such as the one for violin sensuously played by Shalini Vijayan in a movement honoring Fragonard.
Pairing Johnston’s Ninth String Quartet and Philip Glass’ String Quintet provided a compelling example of how microtones alter perception. After a while what first seems out of tune eventually starts to sound right. This can be compared to what happens when you don spectacles that turn everything upside down. After a while your brain adjusts and when you take the glasses off everything is upside down.
Johnston’s 1988 quartet, illuminatingly played by the Lyris Quartet, is a small masterpiece of altered reality, its every unamplified chord taking on the quality of amplification, of righting a topsy-turvy world. Glass’ sextet (played by an enhanced Lyris, with extra violist and cellist) is a reduction of his Third Symphony meant to presumably cut through the sonic haze of the original orchestration for 19 strings. But it also loses in the process a richness, making me wonder what might have happened were it played in a more acoustically natural equal temperament.
Sometimes tuning is everything, sometimes not. The watery effects of Karen Tanaka’s “Jardin des Herbes” for micro-tuned harpsichord, performed by Gloria Cheng, suggests the sound of nature in her natural state. Steven Stucky’s “Two Holy Sonnets of John Donne” performed in memory of the composer who died last year, are conventionally tuned, but the musky mezzo-soprano of Peabody Southwell filled in earthy nuance.
Three nights later at REDCAT, French composer Pascale Criton made her first visit to the U.S. She revealed an approach to microtones as seemingly different from the American music heard at Jacaranda as our two countries’ official attitudes toward global warming. The fact that violinist Silvia Tarozzi, cellist Deborah Walker and violist Eyvind Kang tuned their instruments to a 1/16th of a tone instead of 1/12th surely created special effects. But the short solos, duos and trios were more about the fragility of sound.
Strings and wood were scraped by bows, tapped and plucked by fingers. The music moved through micro-changes in harmony and touch as well as microtones. This gave the uneasy impression of the Earth speaking to us in a language yet to be deciphered, to say nothing of our fear of what it may tell us.