On July 21, 2019, Ben Johnston passed away. He is most well known for bis pioneering work with microtonality—especially just intonation. Unlike Harry Partch, whom he studied with in the 1950s, Johnston composed music for conventional instruments. One of his greatest achievements is his cycle of 10 string quartets, which have recently all been recorded by the Kepler Quartet. In memory of Johnston, the July 23 episode of XEN RADIO was completely dedicated to his music. It featured his sixth string quartet, selections from his song cycle, The Tavern, the Suite for Microtonal Piano, and his Trio for clarinet, violin, and cello.Continue reading
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.
My march of “madrigals” in just intonation continues into June. This time, the material is loosely organized into three “studies.” And this time however, the pitch material is fixed—e.g., a particular A flat will always vibrate at the same frequency—and the pitch material is in non-repeating octaves—e.g., the different octaves of A flat do not line up as perfect octaves. Some of this material will be developed into a series of short works for re-tuned fender rhodes electric piano.
First things first, I missed April’s madrigal—so I’m sorry that I failed to achieve my goal of a madrigal in just intonation every month this year. That being said, may is based upon material I originally composed for a piece called Fox – Wolf – Hound for harpsichord in 1/4-comma meantone; may is a reimagining of that material in just intonation. Unlike the previous “madrigals” this one is in a faster tempo.
The third of my 12 “madrigals” in just intonation, march, is based upon tones rows that are derived from the partials of the overtone series. The explanation of the tone rows, and how they relate to the kind of just intonation I’m using, is pretty esoteric; so I’ll save that for after the preview text.
The second of my “madrigals” for 2017, february, is similar to last month’s; it explores different chords and sounds based upon the harmonic series. (Of course, all of these works have many different “harmonic series” occurring throughout each piece. In one moment, a chord might be based upon a series derived from a particular E-flat. In another, it could be based upon A.) All my works utilize the G = 1/1 system that Harry Partch used, but I go far beyond 42 notes — which is the great value of computer music. I look forward to composing more of these “madrigals.”
A resolution of mine for 2017 is to compose a set of “madrigals” — 12 short works in just intonation, each one dedicated to a different month of the year. Part of the resolution is to create visualizations for each of the madrigals. The first of these, january, is in the style of past videos such as a mind of winter… and Brooklyn Blues. To some extent, I hope these recall the bizarre mannerists of late Renaissance such as Wilbye, but mostly I hope they present an interesting process (much like my 31 Days from 2014).
The weather here in New York City has been turning for over a month now. For the last few years, the days around Christmas and the end of the year haven’t been terribly cold. I fondly recall walking through Prospect Park on Christmas Day 2014; the afternoon was warm and everyone was out in the park. We all knew that this would be one of the last few days that would be this pleasant. This year has been much cooler, and today winter has officially begun. This “madrigal,” a mind of winter… is based upon another piece I’m currently working on: a choral setting of Wallace Stevens’ 1921 poem, “The Snow Man.” I’ve adapted some of the open material from that work for a small excursion in just intonation. Sounds were rendered using Sibelius 7.5 software, and the animations were done in After Effects.
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.)
For Thanksgiving 2014 I had the opportunity to travel up to Brewster, New York—about an hour north of New York City by train—and spend a few days with friends in their new home. It ended up snowing throughout the day before Thanksgiving and into the holiday morning, and although the snow had quickly melted away in the city, it remained on the ground in Brewster the entire time I was up there (and for awhile afterward I was told). When I was up there I began sketching out ideas for Untwelve’s 2014 Composition Competition, and my submission was inspired by the four days I spent in the snow and alongside friends.
White Thanksgiving is in four sections: Commuter train – Farmhouse blues – Staring at a horse – Ice on the path.
Special thanks to Sabrina & Peter for inviting me up to their home for Thanksgiving, and to Steven N. Severinghaus for the beautiful photo of me and the horse.