Years ago when I was still an undergrad I was introduced to the music of Harry Partch. After hearing Barstow and attending a lecture on his instruments and tuning system, I wanted to learn more about just intonation. The idea of it fascinated me, despite that I really had no idea what it sounded like.
About a year later I acquired a small, banged up harpsichord and purchased a book by Alain Daniélou, Tableau Comparatif des Intervalles Musicaux. Using the book and a guitar tuner that displayed cents, I tuned an octave of the harpsichord according to the numbers in Daniélou’s book. When I pressed down C, E, and G on the keyboard, I heard something I had never noticed before: a just major triad.
At that point my ears were still woefully indiscriminate about sound, but I could distinguish one quality from the sound I heard. It seemed that the three notes of the chord sounded as a unit—a blended sound. I liked what I heard, but the experience was not terribly compelling.
About a year later as I was completing my bachelor’s degree I was on YouTube watching videos of barbershop quartets. I had just started to develop an interest in the style and I was hungry to hear some good quartets. As I watched a video from the final round of the 2006 International Quartet Competition of the quartet OC Times singing a medley of “Hey Good Looking” and “Honey Open That Door,” something amazing happened: when OC Times hit that final chord—a loud, high, and obnoxiously in-tune major chord—I felt something I never felt before.
The sound of the chord ringing in tune with overtones screaming had me hooked. I knew at that moment how a major chord should sound like. From that point on I was changed as a person and musician.
The next several years of my life saw me getting involved in barbershop and learning more about just intonation intellectually. My experience with barbershop was teaching me the difference between how just intonation and equal temperament actually sounded, but were only in the context of barbershop and a cappella vocal ensembles; so I reached out into the literature of composers from the European/American tradition. It was there that I reacquainted myself with Harry Partch and learned about the music of Ben Johnston. For some reason the raw sonorities and comical, yet visceral subject matters of Harry’s music was more attractive than Johnston’s refined and abstract style. I enjoy Johnston’s music, just not as much as Harry’s.
I also reached into the existing academic literature on the subject of just intonation. Reading tuning articles, essays, and explanations of sound. The experience was disappointing to say the least. All I could find was this obsession with the mathematics of tuning and virtually no discussion of the sounds created by the application of the math. I once found an article in which the author argued that the 7th partial (7/4) was actually an augmented 6th rather than a minor seventh. The author proceeded to explain this via an extremely complicated and involved mathematical process. As a barbershopper I found this ridiculous because I hear and sing that 7:4 relationship all the time, and it sure sounds like a seventh. So what do I believe: my ear and personal experience, or an article that uses an abstract and complicated method to prove a point? Any reasonable person would trust their own senses.
Despite that article, and the overwhelming body of literature on tuning theory, the allure of pure chords kept my interest. “They can do what they want, and I’ll do what I want,” I thought to myself and I began exploring other avenues to compose music in just intonation.
It wasn’t an easy proposition. Most ensembles that might be interested in performing my music had no interest in working in alternate timings, and trying to find ways to do it on my own were either inaccessible or too expensive. Still however, I waited and knew that eventually I’d get a chance to do soon real work outside of the barbershop realm.
About a year ago I moved across the country from Southern California to New York City. When I moved out here I quickly became acquainted with the original Harry Partch instruments that were in residence at Montclair, New Jersey. I even had the to opportunity to perform the lead part in Barstow. I had come full circle from almost ten years prior when I heard that piece for the first time.
The most rewarding relationship to come from that experience was meeting Charles Corey, the curator of Harry’s instruments and a composer of microtonal music. He showed me how to create microtonal music using sibelius notation software and gave me a powerful new to create music with—music I had been dreaming of making for nearly a decade.
After using this method to compose a few works in just intonation, I needed to do something drastic to immerse myself in this new sound world. Taking inspiration from the “Song A Day Challenge” and most importantly Paul Olgiun’s 100 days: 100 tags, I decided to compose a new work in just intonation every day for the next 31 days.
to be continued…