Michael Harrison’s Revelations



Michael Harrison
Photo by Junghee Choi, courtesy Michael Harrison

When composer Michael Harrison sits down at his piano and begins to play, the sound is distinctive. Listen for a minute and you may pick up on the fact that his normal-looking grand piano has been tampered with—Harrison has customized its tuning and in doing so has opened up a whole new plane of possibilities for piano composition.

Harrison has created his own musical style combining his early classical and jazz piano lessons, compositional study at the University of Oregon and The Juilliard School, and his interest in North Indian classical singing. His education led him to experiment with the pitch and form of piano music and to bridge North Indian and Western classical music traditions.


Revelation: Music for the ‘Harmonically Tuned’ Piano
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Michael Harrison, piano

Mentored by musicians such as master Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley, Harrison has spent the last 20 years developing this area of piano technique; studying, teaching, and performing throughout the Unites States and India. His latest project is a work which he calls Revelation, a major composition for the “harmonically tuned” piano based on his newly created “revelation” tuning (which divides the octave into twelve unequal notes per octave, all of which are tuned to overtones of a fundamental low F). Revelation: Music for the ‘Harmonically Tuned’ Piano, a recording of the work’s U.S. premiere given at Lincoln Center, will be released in early December.


Revelation: Music for the ‘Harmonically Tuned’ Piano
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Michael Harrison, piano

In his program notes for the performance, Harrison explains: ” As I experimented with the “revelation” tuning, I discovered that it possessed unique capabilities that I had never heard or encountered before. These sounds are difficult to describe in words. However, by combining carefully selected pitch relationships with various performance techniques, this tuning creates undulating waves of shimmering and pulsating sounds, with what sound like “phase shifting” and “note bending” effects and other acoustical phenomena. Sometimes the overtones are so audible it sounds as if many different acoustic and electronic instruments are resonating from the piano. The tuning has so many beautiful and exotic sounds latent within it, that for the first few months every time I played it, I discovered new harmonic regions and felt like an explorer in vast unexplored and distant realms.”

Harrison talked with NewMusicBox about taking the piano to the next level:

Molly Sheridan: What first led you to experiment with just intonation tunings at the piano?

Michael Harrison: My initial fascination with pure tunings stems from my interest in North Indian classical music, which I began singing and studying in 1978 with one of India’s master vocalists, Pandit Pran Nath, and his earliest American disciples, La Monte Young and Terry Riley. Singing Indian ragas while accompanying myself on the tamboura, a resonant Indian string instrument, awakened my ears to the beautiful resonances of pure tunings. As I became more familiar with the intonation of the Indian ragas, the compromises of equal temperament sounded increasingly “out of tune” and became disturbing to my newly sensitive hearing. As I began exploring the application of just intonation to the piano these two musical worlds came together for me and opened the door to a new musical universe latent with potentials waiting to be discovered.

Molly Sheridan: What exactly is the “harmonically tuned” piano?

Michael Harrison: The “harmonically tuned” piano is my modern microtonal approach to the ancient principles of just intonation tuning based on non-tempered harmonic resonances or overtones. The foundation for this work was laid by Pythagoras and other Greek philosophers and mathematicians who worked out a theory of whole numbers as they relate to musical consonances. This concept of universal order links music, mathematics, architecture, and philosophy in a system of balance and proportion that was referred to as “the music of the spheres.” Just intonation is found not only in the music of ancient Greece, but also in that of India, Persia, China, and Japan, and the “a cappella” music of the West.

Molly Sheridan: How does it feel to play a piano tuned in this manner?

Michael Harrison: It can be a wonderful and profound experience! Many times I experience a euphoric state in which I get completely absorbed in the luminous tone clouds and tidal waves of resonance that carry me and I feel like I’m immersed in sound. I feel like I’m discovering the lost realms of tone colors that evoke a deep and powerful emotional response. Other times, when I’m playing some of the more sparse or melodic passages, I revel in the simple but profound beauty of the purely tuned intervals and the myriad combinations of colors that they create.

Molly Sheridan: What is it like then when you switch and sit down at a conventionally tuned modern piano?

Michael Harrison: The conventionally tuned piano seems very bland and colorless to me in comparison. I have to say that I have lost any keen interest in composing music that compromises the very foundation of harmony. Once you become accustomed to tones that are true to the natural principles of resonance, it’s very hard to return to a compromised or “tempered” version of them.

In his recent book, “Temperament,” Stuart Isacoff writes that playing a piano that is not tuned using equal temperament is “like playing a game of chess in which the rules change from moment to moment.” Would you agree?

It’s interesting that you ask that question… because this is a metaphor that I have been using for years. I probably mentioned this to Stuart when he interviewed me for his book. It’s very much like playing a game of chess because unlike equal temperament where every note has an identical set of relationships that can be transposed equally to every key, in just intonation each note has a very different set of relationships in every key. In just intonation all of the notes are “not created equal.” It is more analogous to a hierarchy of tones than to a democracy. In a game of chess there are different rules that govern the movements of the different pieces and each piece has a different value. It is precisely this complexity that makes working with just intonation so challenging and rewarding at the same time.

Molly Sheridan: Can you explain a little of the science behind these tuning adjustments? What’s this about the “emancipation of the comma”?

Michael Harrison: The “emancipation of the comma” is an extension of Schoenberg‘s concept of the “emancipation of dissonance” which ultimately led to the free use of any interval combination in equal temperament. I propose that this evolution is still in progress, and that its next stage is the free use of various combinations of precisely tuned and harmonically related frequency ratios including their extremely minute and dissonant byproducts called commas. These commas exist only outside the confines of the twelve tones of equal temperament. In fact, tempered tunings were developed over the past four hundred years precisely to avoid the commas which are heard whenever music with moderately complex harmonies is played in just intonation.

I have discovered that incorporating the commas into the harmonic fabric of my music frees it from the need for tempered tunings and opens up a new approach to tonality. My newest major work, Revelation, introduces for the first time in modern tuning, the extensive use of simultaneously sounding commas. Revelation incorporates three sets of adjacently tuned “septimal” commas (a 64:63 harmonic relationship) into the harmonic fabric of the tuning. When these commas sound simultaneously or in rapid succession, they open up limitless possibilities of never before heard combinations of modes, harmonies, and acoustical phenomenon. The comma is freed from its restricted status as an untamed “out-of-tune” dissonance that until recently has remained disguised, avoided or obliterated by tempered tunings, compositional styles, performance practices and instrument designs. This “emancipation of the comma” represents the next step in the evolution of music towards freer use of more minute and complex intervals.

Molly Sheridan: Changing the tuning of the piano (generally considered a static part of the instrument these days) opens up whole other worlds when it comes to composition. How do you approach the compositional process?

Michael Harrison: There are a few different compositional processes that I work with. But I almost always start by improvising until I come up with something that really inspires me. Then I either begin developing the ideas by memory or I write them down and develop them through a combination of notation and performance. With the resonant “tone cloud” sections I improvise for long periods of time letting myself be carried by my inspiration and creating a kind of feedback loop where I’m responding to what I’m hearing. As I hear certain luminous overtones ringing from the piano, or special types of sonorities or acoustical effects, I adjust the notes I’m playing to discover new sonorities and to obtain an optimal effect. After I’ve created a number of different sections of the work, I start piecing them together with transitions that result in its fluid and organic progression and development.

Molly Sheridan: How does it differ for composing for a traditionally tuned piano?

Michael Harrison: Even though all of the black keys sound completely different from what we are used to hearing, I still use the same notation that a traditional pianist will be accustomed to reading. This makes the score easier to read even though the resulting sound will be completely different. However, I do use diamond shaped note heads to indicate notes of a radically different tuning and I have a set of instructions that give the performer a true idea of what to expect. Also, in the resonant “tone cloud” sections, structured improvisation plays a critical role, as it is necessary to play continually shifting sequences of very fast patterns that may vary according to the resonances of the instrument. These resonances will be different according to the piano, the subtle variations of the tuning, and the resonances of the room or performance hall.

Molly Sheridan: What do you think the future holds for piano music using tuning variations?

Michael Harrison: I firmly believe that a future of this music for the piano is undeniable. Look at it this way—there are as many different notes as there are integers. Every different set of integers corresponds to a different set of musical intervals. My music uses a large variety of intervals from simple combinations like 3:2 and 7:4, to more complex relationships such as 64:63, 243:128, and 567:512. So you can imagine how many possibilities there are! I can’t understand why so many composers are still composing music for the piano in this bland, homogenized system of equal temperament that has already been run into the ground.

Actually I do understand—we are in a rut and the whole cultural establishment reinforces that rut. And so it is very hard and impractical to break free from it. Who would play our music? And who would even have the basis for understanding it? Besides, we invested our entire lives and careers into learning one system, so it can be threatening to accept that there is a far more immense system with which we are not familiar. As musicians we have trained our entire lives with one musical vocabulary, so it is pathetically understandable that we are reluctant to give validity to an entirely different vocabulary that we know very little about. Instead we usually choose to simply ignore it. As a result there are very few places or musicians we can go to for learning this new unspoken language. Fortunately, in the past few years this inertia is starting to give a little. But we still need to ask ourselves the question: “Is it still possible to compose truly meaningful and innovative music in equal temperament—music that is not derivative?”

For me, equal temperament is dead. I consider it to be a “historical” tuning. Most of the best music that was composed in equal temperament was written decades ago. Beginning with La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, we entered a new era, and with time, piano music will never be the same again. The possibilities are infinite. However, we must be willing to take a new approach. Working in just intonation demands a completely different set of rules. You can’t just use the same harmonic material that has worked for us in the past—it just doesn’t work. It took me years to find an approach that worked in just intonation that wasn’t based on our previous models. My intensive study and practice of classical North Indian music and my work with La Monte Young were very helpful in learning different models for making music and breaking free from the mold of the past. We have been stuck in one paradigm while there is a whole new paradigm that is just beyond the veil of our ignorance. Now is the time to peer through the rainbow of tone colors and open the door to a whole new universe of sound.

Molly Sheridan: Would you expect more composers to be exploring this area?

Michael Harrison: ABSOLUTELY! It’s inevitable…I strongly believe that in the generations and centuries to come hundreds and thousands of composers will explore new tunings at the piano, and that the instrument itself will be redesigned to accommodate this revolutionary new approach. Tuners will also learn these new tunings. But the composers need to be the sound explorers that lead the way—then the instrument makers, tuners, and performers will follow.

Molly Sheridan: Do you have a goal in this area of music, anything you’re working towards?

Michael Harrison: My goal is to firmly establish a new paradigm in music. This paradigm will transform the principles of the ancients, such as Pythagoras, into a completely new and modern approach. More immediately, I am in the process of completing the score for “Revelation” so that other pianists can play it. I also intend to compose a third major work for the “harmonically tuned” piano that further develops the ideas that I began with my first major work, From Ancient Worlds, and in Revelation. I will also develop instructions to guide the tuning and performance techniques used in these works.

Besides the scores, I feel that the most appropriate way to pass on this music is the same way that I learned it—through apprenticeship. In my case, this was with La Monte Young, and master Indian vocalist, Pandit Pran Nath. La Monte never let me play the piano until I mastered the tuning, and even then I was only allowed to practice the sections of his work that I had specifically watched him develop. I learned by osmosis; by sitting next to him whenever he composed or performed at the piano. With Pandit Pran Nath, I had a very traditional guru-disciple relationship. It’s like you drink the notes that are poured from the cup of the master and in turn they become the elixir that flows through your blood. Both of these relationships gave me the foundation from which to create something new that still embodies a long tradition. I imagine that at some point I will have one or two students who will learn my works in a similar manner and then develop their own music that continues beyond what I have begun.