I realized that I only mentioned that I wrote a playlist/blogpost for DRAM (the Directory of Recorded American Music) but I never posted it here. I remembered this when I was asked by them to do another one in October or November. So while I go over there and rifle through all of their recordings trying to figure out what my theme is going to be I have copied and pasted my playlist from June for you to enjoy.
If you do not have the ability to play these files on the DRAM site (i.e. you are not a student/faculty member at a school that has access) then please let me know. You should still check out their news section, where they keep all the playlists. It is very informative, and there is always something new happening there, as they are pretty much still getting started. They could use the traffic! Support new music!
This first selection may be familiar to many listeners. I believe that music has the power to change lives, and this piece, in particular, remains very close to me, as it led me to pursue the study of new music, and cemented my interest in new American music in particular. During my second semester as an undergraduate student at SUNY Fredonia, Continuum, a new music ensemble performed. The final pieces on the program were the 3 Quartertone pieces for 2 pianos by Charles Ives. I sat in awe in the concert hall, hearing sounds that I had never heard before. I still remember that concert every time I listen to this work. Throughout this piece, Ives repeatedly hints at the tune “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” but never quite brings the quote to fruition, thwarting the completion of the familiar melody with cascading jazz-like melodic lines interspersed with more cerebral, “serious” music.
As a guitarist with a strong interest in new music, this piece struck me as particularly intriguing. Blackwood utilizes a new tuning system, but within the form of a Baroque suite, complete with its familiar rhythms and harmonic motion. The resulting work might sound a bit curious, but it remains easily comprehensible, as the swirling arpeggiated passages and steady, strong bass motion make the alternate tuning scheme less foreign to an ear accustomed to standard 12 note, equal temperament tuning. This juxtaposition works quite well, expanding a familiar form with the introduction of a new tuning.
Gosfield offers a different take on composing for guitar than Blackwood. She creates a microtonal tuning for Marco Capelli’s 10-stringed “Extreme Guitar” that centers on the pitches E, D, and C, and the quarter tones that surround them. One can hear this tuning spelled out at around 1:43, and at times, it might sound as though the guitar has been specially prepared, though it has not. The unorthodox sounds are actually due to the fact that Gosfield wrote the piece solely for open strings. This choice, combined with Capelli’s unique tremolos and picking techniques gives the instrument an altogether different sound, as though it has been prepared. Evocations of Eastern instruments abound, which makes the unorthodox tuning seem entirely appropriate to the ear. While the many different effects comprise different sections in the composition, there is always a strong dance-like rhythmic sense. This recording is featured on Mode Record’s album, “EGP: Extreme Guitar Project” which features several different composers and as many approaches to composing for the guitar.
Somewhere in between folk music, Americana, and classical music lies Harry Partch. Far ahead of his time and with extremely idiosyncratic demands, it is a wonder that he was able to get as much of his music recorded and performed as he did. For that matter, it is a wonder how Partch conceived of his music at all. His experiments in alternate tuning systems and his fascination with Greek mythology led him to invent many new instruments necessary for performing a panoply of works unlike any other composer before or after him. This work utilizes three guitars played with some type of slide, a flute that enters and quickly bends its pitch, and a cello that is playing a perpetual glissando that may create a very uneasy feeling in the listener. Throughout the work, Partch displays his strong ability as a dramatic large-scale composer by marking off sections of extreme drama with a fantastic interplay of instruments.
The differences between equal temperament and just intonation can seem slight to modern ears, but this piece makes good use of bringing out the “grind” in the altered tuning. Mr. Polansky utilizes the string quartet in an interesting way here too. Never do the instruments separate as much as one would typically think of in a “string quartet.” Instead, here the four instruments function more as one, creating an amorphous and otherworldly ambient sound sculpture that encapsulates the sonic landscape of the just intonation system, creating a remarkable, solid, unified tone.
Like the Ives piece earlier in this playlist, though with only one piano, here Johnston explores microtones on a piano. Unlike the Ives piece, however, this work is in the 12-tone idiom. This second movement in particular is violent in dynamics and rhythm, with the 12 tone compositional technique adding a degree of dissonance to the already harsh sound of the piano. Live performance of this piece is about as rare as they come, so this recording is truly a gem and a gift. Note the reoccurrence of the Ives quote. It appears in the second movement as well as across the entirety of the work. Also effective is the use of extended techniques (i.e. direct play on the strings) that bring out the full array of sounds possible on the instrument, at times evoking the sound of a Japanese Koto. Again, as in the Gosfield, we hear the parallel drawn between altered tunings and Eastern music.
Here we hear the use of microtones in a full ensemble with a computer used to help with the tuning of various chords, as opposed to the solo microtonal works featured earlier in this playlist. The winds, which make up the majority of the ensemble, are responsible for most of the colorful pitches throughout this work, the microtones from that section of the orchestra heard most clearly. This is the final, fast, movement of Sims’ larger work and I find it simultaneously the most daring use of microtones and the most understated way of incorporating them. It’s daring as it uses an entire orchestra, which is no small feat, yet it remains understated, because this work is not about these “other,” microtonal pitches. Sims simply employs microtones as part of his vocabulary, but not the focus.
This work for electronics is quite different from the others in the list. Similar in effect to the Polansky quartet, this piece has the effect of layers working together to form a single “wall of sound.” The microtones blend in with the total fabric of the work, sometimes causing dissonance and beating against the other layers of sound, and sometimes resulting in a swelled effect pulsating through an ambient space. The resulting timbres feature resonance without any attack preceding it, like the peal of bells, until the lowest octave makes its appearance. In this manner, “Lattice” grows in every dimension throughout its duration, expanding sonically until the end.
It might seem that microtonal composers start almost completely from scratch, casting off anything and everything of their predecessors, right down to the instruments and notes used to create their works. However, here is a prime example to the contrary. One could say that Drummond picks up where Harry Partch left off, further expanding Harry Partch’s original ideas. Here, Drummond actually utilizes some of Partch’s unique, original instruments, but he has also taken the time to create his own instruments to suit his personal compositional needs. The resultant piece is a combination of alien sounds paired with the familiar. Specifically, Drummond relies heavily on strange percussion and instruments with heavy attacks, while having a flute play much of the prime material. The orchestration in this work is quite colorful and shows off his new instruments well.
The grand drama of this orchestral work begins with sustained string harmonics that quickly grow to a forceful dynamic, the strings consistently demanding the listener’s attention through their incredibly slow and controlled glissandi. The effect created is that of “passing microtones.” It is hard to tell where one pitch ends and another begins, and each infinite pitch seems to be held for so long that one gets disoriented attempting to steady himself on a tonal center. The programmatic insinuations in this piece are endless, bringing to mind bombs dropping or planes cutting across the sky. One may also note that the vocals towards the end of the work, mimicking the string’s glissandi.