Spoleto 2009 » Choral & Concert Music

Michael Harrison opens doors to exotic sound-worlds of both the past and future

Music in Time series showcases Michael Harrison's work for 'just intonation' piano

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Oh boy. How to capture in mere words an entirely new sound-world when the sum of your musical experience offers few, if any, accessible points of harmonic reference? I've been singing and playing the piano for over 50 years, but it's all been Western music. And that's been bound for the past couple of centuries by the strictures of "tempered" intonation: an artificial harmonic compromise that allows for modern key structure and the tuning requirements of modern instruments.

But Michael Harrison, colleague of new music gurus Philip Glass and La Monte Young, is on a crusade to revive "just," or "pure," intonation. I'll try not to get too technical on you here, but this method of organizing tones, scales, and harmonic relationships is indeed as pure as it gets, because it's true to the immutable laws of physics. Harmonic intervals and sequences are arranged according to whole-number ratios, giving them perfect mathematical proportions.

Not only does Harrison's work open a whole new world of instrumental tuning possibilities (hence the music of tomorrow), but it takes us back to pure intonation's past. The ancient Greeks first figured out the mathematics behind it, and based their music on it, too. But it turns out that this completely "natural" harmonic scheme underlies ancient musical traditions worldwide — like those of Africa, India. and East Asia.

Harrison, as both composer and performer, gave us not only a taste of his labor's fruits, but a full meal of them: We heard his Revelation for just intonation piano: an intense, hour-long, 12-section exploration of his pet sound-world. His piano, of course, had been retuned to Harrison's requirements.

He started off with a basic primer of sorts: a simple series of uncluttered single notes, tonic intervals, scales, chords, triads, and arpeggios that gently "broke us in" to something our ears (and minds) weren't yet equipped to process. From there, the succeeding movements took us in more different directions than I could possibly keep up with.

My first impression was one of simple, mindless progressions and insipid, new-agey flavors, but then I suddenly realized that "real music" — as people like me understand it — wasn't the point here. So I stopped trying to analyze it, sat back, and simply let it all wash over and through me.

Only then did I begin to hear some wonderful things. Of course, it didn't sound quite right to me at first. But the initially sour-sounding harmonies tended to grow on me, as notes and chords piled atop each other, and the whole mishmash gradually took on some sort of comfy harmonic sense. And ah, the lush palette of overtones! Harrison did some amazing things with his piano's damper and sostenuto pedals, allowing notes to linger and blend, producing some far-out overtones that sounded eerily like vocal or organ notes.

I'm still not quite sure what I experienced here. The music of the spheres? Primordial harmonic chaos? All I know is that my tonal and musical horizons are now forever expanded. Proof positive that you can still teach an old critic new tricks.

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