Staying On Key in a Microtonal World

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

I’ll never forget the utter amazement I experienced the first time I was exposed to the notion of “microtonal music.” I was a high school student at the High School of Music and Art (now consolidated with the High School of Performing Arts into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and the Arts) during the explosion of the “punk rock” movement and was eager to find something, anything, that was just as daring and rebellious in the world of so-called classical music, thinking at the time that anything that was rebellious in pop music couldn’t ultimately be all that rebellious if it was “popular.”

I sought out serial music before I realized that serialism was an established practice in musical academia. I enjoyed the indeterminate music of Cage and his disciples but I wasn’t really willing to go along with its abrogation of ego. (I was a teenager after all.) Then I heard the quartertone music of Alois Haba, Wyschnegradsky and Carrillo, a little later I was exposed to Harry Partch and Just Intonation. It was like a city boy seeing a forest for the first time.

Here was music that was instantly recognizable as different, yet was also mostly accessible despite being completely new. And the numerical theories behind it made concrete physical sense out of mathematical concepts that were previously abstract and arcane. To this day, I wonder why the derivation of equal temperament isn’t taught in math classes when logarithms are first taught or that the circle of fifths isn’t invoked when introducing the Fibonacci series. I still remember grabbing a cello belonging to one of my classmates to explain the harmonic series in my calculus class.

While back in the 1970s, microtonality seemed to be the rebellious road not taken that should have been taken, nowadays it seems that microtonality is everywhere. Most digital keyboards have altered tunings programmed in. Many period instrument groups incorporate an historic approach to temperament along with other aspects of performance. And the use of new intervals, ranging from mere ornamental coloring to a full systemic exploration, seems part of many new music composers’ approaches cutting across every stylistic divide. Microtonal music can be atonal, neo-romantic, minimalistic, indeterminate, jazz, and more. In some cases the use of microtonality has liberated composers from stylistic quagmires.

John Eaton has been exploring microtonality in a highly original yet completely non-dogmatic way for decades. In our lengthy conversation, he spoke about how expanding the range of available intervals offers many new expressive possibilities. Kyle Gann, a leading authority on microtonality as well as a microtonal composer, offers a very personal HyperHistory of tunings that have inspired other American composers. Johnny Reinhard, the founder of the American Festival of Microtonal Music who was responsible for many of my first encounters with microtonality, makes a strong argument for a “polymicrotonal” sensibility, along with comments on preferred tuning systems by Boston-area master improviser Joe Maneri, West Coast theorist Joe Monzo, and composer Lois V Vierk. We would like to know your thoughts on all this as well which we hope you will share in our interactive forum moderated by John Luther Adams, who has also used non-standard tunings in many of his compositions.

An acceptance of the infinite approaches to tuning ultimately leads to a greater understanding and appreciation for the music of all cultures and time periods. Ironically, by putting our accepted scale of 12-tone equal temperament in context, it also shows the riches of an approach to temperament that many of us still take for granted. Ultimately, it offers the opportunity to inspire that utter amazement which hasn’t left me since 11th grade and offers the potential for great discoveries that can only happen when you learn something new.