Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

For Johnny Reinhard, life beyond the standard 12 tones began as a young bassoonist in the park, playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” a quarter-tone sharp, then a quarter-tone flat.

Then there was the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, whose recordings can be heard in every Middle-Eastern falafel shop. Reinhard found singing beautifully in the tonal cracks that none of his classical friends seemed to hear.

So just as he realized the limitations of a solo bassoon career, Reinhard took up the microtonal cause.

“Microtones are not a style,” says Reinhard, who founded his American Festival of Microtonal Music in 1981 to explore the world of alternative tunings. “Look in the New Grove and you find microtones in World Music, Early Music, New Music…Everything, in fact, except the 19th Century European Romantic era and part of the Classical.”

The microtonal world was even big enough, he discovered, to let a composer with no formal training like himself for instance, play in the same sandbox.

Right from their introductory concert at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, the “recipe” as Reinhard calls it, required six or seven works of divergent styles, from new works to Renaissance pieces, to convey an epic journey.

More than 150 concerts later that journey has premiered works by La Monte Young, Edgard Varèse, Terry Riley, Harry Partch and Reinhard himself as well as Reinhard’s realization of Charles Ives’ legendary Universe Symphony which the AFMM premiered at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Festival symposia have featured such noted microtonalists as Larry Polansky, La Monte Young and Ben Johnston. Performers and groups that the Festival has presented include Odetta, Teo Macero, John Zorn and the Harmonic Choir.

The 35-member AFMM Ensemble, formed in 1985 from New York’s freelance community, has performed at The Kitchen, Roulette, The Knitting Factory and La Mama. Their recording Between the Keys was released in 1992 on Newport Classics.

Reinhard been able to focus his efforts a bit over the years as other organizations have emerged. The World Music Institute in New York covers a broad spectrum of traditional music in other tunings. After Dean Drummond and Newband inherited the Harry Partch instruments, Reinhard saw no need to continue to program Partch except for the most obscure works. And after Mitsuko Uchida recorded Mozart in 18th century tuning, Reinhard felt comfortable letting that go, too.

As a bit of extra comfort, the Village Voice, which once refused to cover AFMM concerts “because there wasn’t a microtonal section at Tower Records,” now does so because the critic, Kyle Gann, is a microtonal composer himself.

“There is still an incredible lack of tuning knowledge in the classical world,” he says. “It’s beyond the grasp even of some professional musicians that there is such a world. What we’re doing is training the musicians of tomorrow.”

From Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles
by Ken Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox