Falling Between the Cracks

For the past year I’ve found myself irresistibly drawn to microtonal music. After being exposed to Ligeti’s violin concerto and Ben Johnston’s string quartets for the first time, I couldn’t continue to compose in the same way, even going so far as to abandon a piano sonata I was in the middle of writing. That’s not to say that I stopped enjoying equal-tempered intervals; I simply lost interest in committing them to paper. After hearing pieces in just intonation and the beauty of 7th, 11th, and yes, even 13th partials, how could I constrain myself to a system that ignores them completely?

Naturally this has created problems for me both as a composer and a performer. My instrument of choice, the guitar, is particularly unsuited for exploring the in-between notes, and refretted (or unfretted) necks are beyond my price range. Also, as a composer of intimidating-looking music, my works will scare off many performers who would otherwise be willing to play them, were they written in a more familiar style. Yet I also realize that, as evidenced by several works played in Brooklyn during last week’s MATA festival, microtonal intervals are gaining more acceptance amongst young composers, and I’ve been lucky enough to find a few musicians who are enthusiastic. Still, being fresh out of college I worry that the in-betweens hurt my chances of establishing more relationships with performers.

On the one hand, I’m unwilling to subvert my own music to an equal-tempered system that I’m philosophically opposed to. Yet, as with any composer, I want to actually hear what I write and have it performed. I’m at a loss as to how to reconcile this dichotomy. This situation can apply to anyone who writes challenging music, whether it be microtonal, polyrhythmic, or just bizarre. Where does one draw the line between practicality and fulfilling one’s own just intentions?

7 thoughts on “Falling Between the Cracks

  1. prentrodgers

    It’s an old problem of microtonality. Some fixed it by building their own instruments and orchestras, like Harry Partch. Today, a solution is available in online synthesis programs, like Csound and a dozen others. Notation has been simplified with the Sagittal font.

    Many composers who make microtonal music share their experiences at the Yahoo Group list Make Micro Music. Join us at http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/MakeMicroMusic/

    We all face the same problem, and have different solutions.

    Reply
  2. Daniel Wolf

    Don’t give up on your guitar — there are several interesting solutions to the problems of fretting, including partial and moveable frets and replaceable fretboards, you could give up frets altogether (Partch followed the example of the Hawai’ian guitar, Lou Harrison made a small masterpiece in his “Scenes from Nek Chand”, others play with fingers on a fretless board), others, from Rhy Chatham to David Dramm, have found microtonal possibilities in keeping the frets in place but effectively using scordaturas, and finally, there is always the possibility of an ensemble of guitars tuned in a complementary tuning arrangement.

    Reply
  3. dalgas

    Then again, they’re not ignored at all; we hear and use them in vurtually every note we play or hear, no matter the fundamental.

    And come to think of it, focusing on exclusively “musical” pitches and tunings no matter the variety, is still quite a constraint, though there’s nothing inherently bad in that. Whether we choose or encounter them we’re never free of limits and constraints, even at our most “free” moment.

    Steve Layton

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  4. THunter

    Notation has been simplified with the Sagittal font.

    Which brings up another interesting problem, the lack of a standardized system for notating these curious little pitches. For the piece I’m writing now, Im using the Johnston notation, which I admire for its precision. However, to most people, its confusing as hell. In fact nearly every microtonal composer Ive talked to has their own style of notation.

    And come to think of it, focusing on exclusively “musical” pitches and tunings no matter the variety, is still quite a constraint, though there’s nothing inherently bad in that.

    In fact, I generally think that the first step of composing something is to establish its constraints. To me, a piece is as much defined by what it doesn’t do as what it does.

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  5. philmusic

    an Idea
    You could try a midi guitar if you don’t mind the electronics. Or you could try a double neck–or –andI like this best—you could have several different prepaired guitars on stands in playing position-and use different sizes too. Small kid guitars are cheap and effective–if you don’t fret about it. Just string along… yikkes Phil

    Reply
  6. kmanlove

    I have been really relieved by how open performers have been to microtones in my music. Once they understand the system, no problems at all… in terms of fear. Now, in terms of practice time to achieve the exact tunings you want, that’s a different story. I’ve learned that if you give them real things to cue off of, though… giving them relationships between the pitches around them, not just asking for some weird muscle memory, things go much more smoothly.

    Oh, and I’ve learned to never say, “It’s just a little sharp here.” “A little sharp” usually means out of control by performance time.

    Reply
  7. Colin Holter

    I was talking last night with Hiroyuki Itoh, a composer whose music is characterized by extensive ET quarter-tones, and he confirmed my suspicions about writing microtonal music (which I’ve been doing for a few years now): Until you work with good players who can actually realize the intervals accurately, it’s impossible to know whether your use of quarter-tones (or whatever) is compositionally successful.

    Reply

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