The Renaissance practice of ‘intabulations’ was the arrangement of consort music – instrumental or vocal – for keyboard. An intabulation was the making of the impossible possible: a single person could now render a performance only possible by a consort. Late last year I began work on a series of new intabulations in just intonation. Created using notation software and with sampled sounds of classic electric pianos, they are in a some respect the impossible made possible. I recently published the first three of what will be a larger and longer set of works.
Two years ago I completed my 31 Days project: 31 new pieces in just intonation in 31 days; one piece everyday from July 11–August 10, 2014. The process involved experimenting in different styles and exploring a new plethora of sounds. During the process of composing a piece every day, I found my perceptions of sound had changed and my experience of how I perceive and understand pitch had been fundamentally altered. Now, two years later I’ve had the opportunity to listen to many of the pieces again, and to reflect upon that process. As an homage to that month, I composed a new piece that is very much a product of the challenge I took on in 2014. Cold Air is a 31-limit piece for oboe with clarinet quartet (two clarinets and 2 bass bass clarinets). The audio is rendered using samples from NotePerformer and the Sibelius pitch bend function. Like many of my works for just intonation, the piece explores combinations of tones found in the harmonic series. (I recommend viewing either in full screen, or on YouTube.)
On April 7 Paul Simon announced the release of his new album, Stranger to Stranger. Rolling Stone has called the album “genre-bending” and “experimental,” and other websites have used similar descriptors. Stranger to Stranger features collaborations and sounds that are new to Simon’s work: African and Peruvian instruments, synthesizers, gospel quartet, and beats by Italian DJ Clap! Clap! Most notable (for me at least) is Simon’s use of some of Harry Partch’s instruments on the album; the sounds of the Chromelodeon and the Cloud Chamber Bowls (see below) can be heard on the albums opening track, “Insomniac’s Lullaby.”
One year ago today I went on stage in the Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University in New Jersey to perform Barstow by Harry Partch. I was joined on stage by Jonathan Evers, Devon Yasamune Toyotomi, Liam Sheehy, and Mike Deering. Barstow was performed that evening alongside several other works for Harry’s instruments. This was the final performance on the original set of instruments at Montclair before they were moved to University of Washington last November. For many years I had dreamed of performing Harry’s music, and this performance was an amazing opportunity and experience. Although I am glad that the instruments are at a supportive institution, I am sad that I can’t just hop on a train to enjoy their presence. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to perform Barstow and other works by Harry again in the future.
Earlier this week winter storm Juno rolled through the Northeast, and while New England bore the brunt of the storm, New York City did not receive the “historic” snowfall predicted by some. This short work was inspired by a walk I took in my neighborhood at about 03:45 in the morning—during the height of the storm. As I walked around my little corner of Long Island City the snow quickly covered up any trace of the few people out and about, and I eventually found myself at the Dutch Kills Green, a small park near my home. It was completely blanketed with mounds of snow.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day has always seemed strange. Life slows down, people skip work, school is out of session; it’s almost if the days don’t really exist, and the only reason we keep track of the days is so we know when to return to our daily routines. I remember hearing once that the ancient Sumerians celebrated the new year for several days, and that these days were considered neither part of the old year ending or the new year beginning. (Alas, I could find no evidence to support that claim, but I like the way it sounds.) In honor of this time I composed Null Week, a short work in just intonation for sampled electric piano. Null Week is in two-parts and was inspired by Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes.
A few articles back, I gave a brief narrative on how the circumstances of my life that led me to decide to create 31 new works in just intonation over 31 days. Once I decided to take on such a project I had to go about actually composing the works—which dominated my life over the next month. All works in the 31 Days cycle were composed using a G = 1/1 system, in which G (or 1/1) is vibrating at about 392 Hz (or powers thereof).
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.