Tag Archives: ives

The meaning of Quartertonality

I’ve had this blog for a few years now, but only really been seriously writing for it for just under a year. The real beginning was in July 2010 when I began writing for groovemine.com. Mark, the owner of that site, began sending me more music than I had ever heard before. I decided then that I really had an opportunity to fine tune my skills as a listener and as a critic and writer.

I’m trained as a musician. I can read music (obviously) and know a lot about music theory. I read books on music theory for fun because that is what I am interested in. In becoming a “classically trained musician” one studies a lot of “classical” music (though I abhor the term, but that is neither here nor there.) Instead of calling it “classical” music let’s just call it concert music, or serious music if you prefer. The term “classical” is weighed down with so many connotations of time period and it brings to mind dudes in powdered wigs and the idea that that sort of thing is “out of date” or only of interest to people of the upper echelon of society. Anyway, concert music is fine.

In the interest of simplicity let’s just call everything else that isn’t serious music “pop” music. Yes, all of it. Pop music. That doesn’t mean only Top 40 music, it doesn’t mean stuff that is just played on the radio, I mean music that isn’t played in the concert hall, by a string quartet, or by a symphony. Let’s just keep it simple. So there is concert music and there is pop music. We can argue ad infinitum about how to divide up pop music some other day. Let’s just pretend that Lady Gaga and Megadeth are lumped into the same group for now, ok? Ok.

Anyway, when analyzing concert music it’s common to spend a lot of time carefully considering the cultural significance of the work. It’s also appropriate to analyze the functional harmonies, the use of chromaticism, the instrumentation, the orchestration, the tonal scheme etc. etc. There are several ways to go about this: there is Schenkerian analysis, Roman Numeral analysis, one can derive a matrix, find the different uses of tone rows, find uses of hexachordal combinatoriality, tetrachords, modes and on and on.

The thing with concert music is that there is a lot of time wrapped up in it all. The composer is seen as this guy, or gal, that sits hunched over a dimly lit desk, one hand on their head, the other desperately clutching at a pencil as they place each note down onto paper with a purpose. Every single note is wrought with meaning, every second they spend conceiving their “work” and producing it and rehearsing it has a framework of genius at work. When the work is finally completed it is foisted onto the public (which generally doesn’t want it, but that’s another topic entirely) and only after it has survived out there “in the trenches” for 10 years or more, only then does anyone take notice and finally decide, “Hey, this might be something that we might want to look at!” Eventually a musicologist spends several hundred hours hunched over a dimly lit desk, clutching his or her head in one hand and a pencil in the other marking the score, making connections and shouting “Eureka!” to an empty house. Perhaps he wakes the dog. Soon his truly genius writing is published in a journal that is only read by other musicologists, theorists and grad students that are writing papers for the musicologists and theorists.

The general public, goes about their business outside the music hall, unaware that any of this is happening, not that it would change anything if they knew that it did. They listen to people like Sarah Palin that says wonderfully encouraging things like, “arts funding is frivolous”. The general public loves this woman. She’s so much like them.

It truly is great to feel loved outside of ones art. God bless America!

John Adams is one of America’s most successful composers. He has found a niche of sorts writing works about current events. His first opera (yes, people do actually still write operas!) “Nixon in China” premiered in 1987, about Tricky Dick’s visit to China 15 years prior. He also wrote another opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro entitled “The Death of Klinghoffer” in 1991, 7 years after the trajedy. His most recent opera (hey, the guy likes to write operas, and he puts a lot of people in the seats!) “Dr. Atomic” is about the Manhattan Project. The opera premiered in 2005.

These are all great works, and I’m only taking an example from one composer for brevity’s sake. The subject matter that Adams is tackling is a tangled web of complex philosophical questions. His works are almost universally loved and accepted upon their premiere. Most composers are not so lucky, but then again most composers aren’t nearly half as good either. The problem that I see is that these works do take such an extremely long time to produce. Because of this lengthy turnaround it appears that the only things really worth writing about are these really monumental moments in extreme human struggle.

Yes these works are worthwhile, and yes they are worth more analysis and promotion. I believe that everyone should take some time to familiarize themselves with as many great works as they can. It is part of our culture, it’s far more than “entertainment”. That being said, so is pop music.

Before I delve into that I’m going to quickly tell a story about my favorite concert composer, Charles Ives.

He was born in Danbury, Connecticut. A true Yankee New Englander. His father was a musician, in charge of a military band during the Civil War and leader of several community bands in Danbury. Charles, in his compositions, would include the sounds of his childhood whether it was the sound of two marching bands coming down the street in opposite directions, the sound of Central Park at night or the sound of the local hook and ladder company. He was not interested in what many other composers were doing at the time and didn’t actually make his living with his music, nor did he want to. He was an extremely successful insurance salesman who just so happened to be one of the most important American composers of the 20th century. Nobody knew this until after he died when conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski championed his music. Though during his life he did manage to win the Pulitzer Prize in composition for his 3rd Symphony. He declined the award stating simply, “awards are the badges of mediocrity.” Yes, someone that badass wrote serious music. Serious, experimental music.

One of his experiments involved the use of quarter-tones, an idea he got from his father. His father, equally as crazy, was trying to capture the pitches played by the local church bells. He would run outside to hear, and rush back inside to the piano to try and capture the pitches. Back and forth as many times as he could while the bells were still ringing. He was unable to capture the sound of the bells and concluded that the pitches they were sounding were notes that were located “between the keys of the piano”. He heard something that was so far outside of what was normal that he was not even able to reproduce it by normal means. He needed to wander far beyond what was accepted as normal in order to bring to fruition his music. Charles, throughout his works, continued this trend. He worked in near solitude, almost completely unknown by the serious music world and was truly innovative.

His music is truly amazing and I would urge you to check out his works.

To me Ives’ use of quarter-tones is the most identifiable and most unorthodox thing that he ever did. It was certainly the most notable thing he did as far as sound. If you hear his 3 quarter tone pieces for 2 pianos you will immediately notice a difference in sound. Nobody else was doing this at the time. Now there are several composers that work with exotic scales or scales of their own design in order to brand themselves with a unique sound.

What Ives was doing was writing music that was true to him and because of that there was a sense of immediacy. His music is also much studied to this day and much performed as well. Recordings are still being made and his name is firmly in place as one of the great American composers.

The point of this story is that at the time Ives was writing his music the divide of what was serious music and what was pop music was just beginning to be created. It was the time of Tin Pan Alley where songs were being cranked out by writers that were masters of formula, much like today’s mainstream music. A lot of that music has completely disappeared, but that time also gave us the music of George Gershwin, who doesn’t neatly fit into either category. Somewhere around this time it appears that the decision was made that serious music is worth being held up on a pedestal and being preserved through repeated performance and analysis and pop music is not worthy of the time it takes to listen to it.

With my blog I am directly challenging that idea. Pop music deserves better analysis, and serious consideration. The analysis of pop music needs to match the immediacy of the music. One can’t spend 20 years thinking about the implications of a certain album or a certain style of music because by then it is most likely irrelevant. The music deserves to be considered in its own time and it deserves to be considered by people that know what to consider, which is to say that typical blog-style analysis is not good enough for pop music.

I have read too many reviews that describe how an album makes the reviewer “feel”. That analysis is irrelevant to everyone except the reviewer. I want to know exactly why the guitar line is doing what it is doing. Where are things going harmonically and how does that compare to other music that we are currently hearing right now? I want to know where each band is getting their ideas from. I want to know why bands from Toronto sound different than bands from Bushwick. There are answers to all of these questions and the only way that they are going to be found is through repeated listening. Not just listening to one album over and over again, but listening to every album you can get your hands on, because each album is a piece of the puzzle and will help answer all of the questions that you have and bring to light some new ones.

The current state of pop musicology is ill equipped to handle this task. Most of them are still busy pondering the significance of Nirvana while the rest of us have moved far beyond that. Things take far too long in the university world, and by the time any studying is done the significance is completely lost.

Quartertonality is a word that is made up, but the meaning is real. Quartertonality is looking for new ways to do things. It is taking a serious analytical approach to current, worthwhile popular music. It’s the belief that just because something isn’t popular that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth looking into. It’s finding the motivations behind everything, the reason behind things, digging further than anyone else, listening more than anyone else and providing thoughtful, honest analysis that is based less on opinion and more on fact. One has to move quick because the amount of music that comes out every week is staggering. There isn’t enough time to sit on an album for 20 years and then write about its significance because that changes every single day.

Sorry there’s no pictures in this post.

DRAM playlist from June

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!


1.)  Charles Ives – “Three Quarter-tone Pieces: III. Chorale” From – The Unknown Ives, Vol. 2NWR80618

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.

2.)  Easley Blackwood – “Suite for Guitar in 15-note Equal Tuning, Op. 33: IV. Gigue (Vivo) From – Blackwood: Microtonal CompositionsCDR018

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.

3.)  Annie Gosfield – “Marked by a Hat” From – EGP: Extreme Guitar Project MO157

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.

4.)  Harry Partch – “San Francisco II” From – Enclosure Two: Harry Partch IN401

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.

5.)  Larry Polansky – “Movement for Andrea Smith (My Funny Valentine for Just String Quartet) From – Larry Polansky – Simple Harmonic Motion ART1011

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.

6.)  Ben Johnston – “Sonata for Microtonal Piano: Movement II” From – Sound Forms for Piano NWR80203

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.

7.)  Ezra Sims – “Concert Piece: Excited” From – Microtonal Music of Ezra Sims CR643

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.

8.)  Carter Scholz – “Lattice” From – Carter Scholz – 8 Pieces FP009

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.

9.)  Dean Drummond – “Before the Last Laugh” From – Newband Partch and Drummond IN561

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.

10.)  Gloria Coates – “Fragment from Leonardo’s Notebooks, “Fonte di Rimini” From – Gloria Coates NWR80599

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.