by John Stoehr
The best gadget of the Spoleto Festival must be Michael Harrison's silver comb-like thing. Sounds strange, yes. I'm working on getting a picture so bear with me. Harrison is the composer behind yesterday's performance of Revelations, a work that called for a piano technician to re-tune a Steinway so that to most ears it sounds out of tune. It's not. It's beautiful. But that's for another post.
Meanwhile, the gadget in question is about the length of your arm, as narrow as a two rulers set side-to-side, and it has along each side a series of "teeth" that are of differing lengths. A four moments during the recital, Harrison picked up one of two of these gadgets and set it over the piano keys.
Actually, he set it behind the keys (there's a gap). He pressed down, and while he held the thing in place, he'd hold the middle pedal with his foot (there are three). I was sitting with Ron Wiltrout at the time and we talked a bit about the gadget. And since he's a musician, composer, and current head of the New Music Collective, I'll let him explain:
So, I couldn't get a picture, but the silver things were probably something he built. When using the middle pedal you have to push down the notes you want in there at the same time. Unless you get help you can only do 10 at a time (and over a relatively small range). So he used those silver things to push down a lot of tones at the same time. The different ones probably depressed different combinations (different chords). Good stuff.
I would only add that it's awesome stuff. Harrison, who performed for Spoleto Music in Time series this afternoon, is the innovator of something called "just intonation." That basically means that he's messed with the entire system of Western tonality and brought it more in line with tonal systems found in countries like India and China. Call it West meets East. Add the fact that he probably made these things and you have not just an awesome concept, but a concept made tangible and more awesome. -JS