Six Questions with the Author: Stuart Isacoff on Temperament

Stuart Isacoff
Photo courtesy Alfred A. Knopf
  • Excerpt from Temperament: The Idea That Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle

Stuart M. Isacoff, a recipient of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music, is a pianist, a composer, and the editor in chief of Piano Today magazine. He has contributed to The New Grove Dictionary of American Music and has written for The New York Times. He lives in Bergen County, New Jersey.

Molly Sheridan: To start out, what made you want to write a book on this topic in the first place?

Stuart M. Isacoff: I had come across the topic of ancient keyboard tunings on a number of occasions during the course of my work as a writer and editor of Piano Today. For example, I interviewed composer Lou Harrison for The New York Times when his Piano Concerto was being premiered in New York by Keith Jarrett and The American Composers Orchestra. At the time, Lou spoke a great deal about his affection for a tuning by Kirnberger, a student of J.S. Bach. But every time I looked into the subject I ran headlong into a series of mathematics treatises. I knew that people had fought very heatedly over this subject, but I couldn’t find the source of the heat.

Molly Sheridan: Why all the violence, I wondered—after all, some people went so far as to destroy each other’s instruments and reputations during the course of these tuning disputes—when the issue seemed to rest on a lot of dull minutia about pitch relationships? I knew there had to be a human drama behind the history of this seemingly arcane subject.

Stuart M. Isacoff: As it turned out, the more I looked into it, the more I was drawn into a human saga that embraced art, music, philosophy, religion, science, and more.

Molly Sheridan: Can you talk a bit about the process of writing the book—the research involved, the amount of time, surprise discoveries?

Stuart M. Isacoff: The process involved educating myself thoroughly in many areas I had never pursued before. For example, to learn about the roots of musical consonance, I had to study the theoretical contributions of Pythagoras. But to truly understand Pythagoras (including what motivated him) I had to immerse myself in the ways of ancient Greece. Similarly, to understand the cultural atmosphere in which musical temperaments came to the fore, I had to learn about Renaissance philosophy, the development of perspective in painting, and the changing view of planetary motion in the time of Kepler and Galileo. This process repeated itself throughout the writing of the book, which in the end encompasses a cultural history of the western world from the 6th century B.C.E. to the late 18th century (with a coda covering our current era). It took about four years, and I had to read some 300 books and articles to complete the project.

As for surprises, there is one on nearly every page of the finished product. I am now convinced that art and music developed in exactly the same ways in every period—that musical temperament, for example, is the equivalent of perspective in painting. For me, that was a surprise. I stumbled on connections that amazed me: I found parallels, for example, between the ideas of Pythagoras, the philosophy of Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Church for heresy), and the radical, pro-equal temperament musical ideas of Galileo’s father, Vincenzo. I also learned about Isaac Newton‘s belief that the natural tones of the musical scale match the distances between the colors of a rainbow, and probed his earnest attempt to settle the temperament argument (which ended in failure). I watched Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who managed to extend his anti-authoritarian social theories into the realm of music, gain the support of many eighteenth-century scientists in his fight against Rameau, the greatest advocate of equal temperament in his day. Following the trail of musical temperaments into every corner and side alley was like being on a mind-expanding roller coaster.

Molly Sheridan: Like politics and religion, there seems to have been an intense passion surrounding the temperament argument (enough to write a whole book about) that crossed religious and scientific disciplines. Do you think a musical argument could ever take on that scope today?

Stuart M. Isacoff: I think the closest we come is in the fight between those who write and appreciate 12-tone music and those who don’t. Arnold Schoenberg attempted to eliminate the distinction between consonance and dissonance—concepts that served as the foundation for hundreds of years of western musical composition. Those concepts are based on the idea of “natural law” in music.

Schoenberg felt he could substitute his own will for nature’s. And that philosophical argument very much mirrors the kind of dispute that took place over the introduction of equal temperament.

Molly Sheridan: Who do you expect to read this book? What audience were you writing it for?

Stuart M. Isacoff: I was writing for an audience that likes an intellectual adventure story. Basically, I wrote a book that I would have enjoyed reading if someone else had done it. There were, of course, some underlying messages I wanted to convey, such as my point of view that every facet of life’s experience is connected to every other facet. I think most writing about music fails to take that larger context into account. And I also wanted to get across to as many people as possible the idea that music is so much more than mere entertainment. It is as deep and vast as the universe itself.

Molly Sheridan: Have you played around with various tunings much yourself?

Stuart M. Isacoff: Very little. Only in the course of doing research for the book.

Molly Sheridan: You mention several composers working today using different tunings. What do you think the future holds for piano music using these variations? Would you expect more composers to be exploring this area?

Stuart M. Isacoff: In some ways, the modern piano is designed for equal temperament, and I love the sound of it. But there is plenty of room for experimentation. Michael Harrison is doing some amazing things on his “harmonic piano,” using tunings and temperaments of his own design. Other composers, such as Easley Blackwood, are writing fascinating music for equal temperaments that divide the octave into many more than 12 parts. And I know there are many other musicians working in the area of microtonal tuning. Especially with the proliferation of inventive software, I think there will be even more exploration in this area. Indeed, as the tonal vs. serial fight loses steam, temperament may be the next big thing.