What is your favorite tuning system? Why? Joe Maneri, Composer and Saxophonist

Joe Maneri
Joe Maneri
Photo courtesy of Joe Maneri

I was always interested in microtonal music. Over 40 years ago I started playing Turkish and Albanian music which includes quartertones and other intervals as many folk musics do. And then, in 1972, I was moved to write a microtonal piece. I had a cousin who was unable to speak all he could do was make different sounds. I had to be dutiful to God because I didn’t believe in God, so I made a piece that was microtonal. I had some India Pale Ale. I saw it broke down my defenses. I bought a six-pack and had three of them, and I wrote the piece!

I started to make my own system because I had no choice. I lived on Speen Street which was named after an American Indian so I was inspired to use a variety of arrows to show the different intervals. A man came to visit me one day named Ezra Sims. I didn’t understand anything he said, so I said, “Can you talk to me on my level?” But when I finally learned from him, I immediately wrote a book on microtones.

I’m sorry for all you just people, but I’m un-just. I use equal-tempered intervals. My mind doesn’t understand all that mathematical stuff. And I don’t use specific scales.

When my son Matt was 9, he was on the computer and showed me all these buttons and said, “They could be used for microtones. We oughta make an instrument.” I was playing at a wedding and I had to get an accordion because the piano didn’t work. (All these churches have pianos that don’t work!) One side of an accordion has a keyboard, but the other side has all these buttons. So I thought if we put a lot of buttons on here, we can reach all the notes. So we made a plan. We called Wang and Schmang and all these other companies and they said, send us what you want and send us the money and we’ll make it. But, fortunately, in good old Brooklyn (I live near Boston but I’m from Brooklyn), we walked by a brownstone and found a guy who said “Sure I can make that!” It plays 72 notes to the scale, five octaves of it.

But five years ago I gave it up. I wanted to sing.

I went to Salzburg and saw all these things that people were doing, but I didn’t hear any melodies that knocked me off my feet! I had no papers to give out. I improvised with my saxophone and I sang. With all your machines, you forgot mankind. It’s not a human thing from the heart, from the brain, from the blood and from the spit! I have it in my voice and my heart. I just wrote a new piece that’s an hour long called Holy Land, Part 1, it’s a double saxophone concerto about Cain and Abel and it’s all microtonal. Everybody sings. Even the orchestra’s going to be singing while they’re playing…

Microtones can give us melodies, new melodies. Microtones are going to take over. We’re all going to be singing again. I believe that we are in a new Renaissance and the Renaissance is here in America.