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Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I read this (admiring) description by Kyle Gann of a piece of contemporary music recently - a string quartet written in 1984 by Ben Johnston, which has never been played due to the almost insurmountable difficulties of performing it - here's a description of it:

If you know much about Ben's Third Quartet, you know it works its way measure by measure through a 53-note microtonal scale. The finale of the Seventh is built on a similar plan, but the structural tone row consists of 176 pitches - all different, 176 pitches within one octave, heard in the viola on each successive downbeat. Many other notes are heard in the other instruments whose harmonies link each note to the next, and Tim tells me that altogether there are more than 1200 discrete pitches in the movement - more than one per cent, five times as many as most people can perceive.

Mr. Gann goes on to describe how one Timothy Ernest Johnson of Roosevelt U. (the Tim referred to in the previous quote), had written his doctoral thesis on this quartet and delivered a paper on the subject to a Microtonal Conference. Here's a description of part of the paper:

Tim demonstrated how the players are supposed to proceed from the opening C to the subsequent D7bv-, a pitch ratio of 896/891. The violist is tasked to move upward from this C and come back down on a pitch 9.7 cents higher - just under one tenth of a half-step - than she started on. At the downbeat of the next measure, the violist lands on Dbb--, pitch ratio 2048/2025 - another ten cents higher. And so on for another 175 measures until the viola ends up traversing the octave and ends at C again. A good half of Tim's paper was spent talking us through the performance challenges of the first two measures.

So, a piece that can't be played, and even if it could be played most people couldn't perceive the pitches. Sounds like a great night out doesn't it? Yet despite the fact that it can't be played and most people can't hear it, guys do doctoral theses on it and deliver papers to others similarly interested. What is the point of this music? It certainly isn't written for the same reason most music is written - to be performed and listened to, by people who don't have a PhD..................

Contemporary composed music has long been accused of this kind of thing - composers writing music for each other and in order to fulfill some kind self-perpetuating composing/academic paper delivering world - for a long time. I'm very wary of this kind of accusation until I've heard the music, but in this case since it's not possible to hear the music I have to ask - WHY!? These guys really are writing for each other and nobody else


  1. When someone first asks "why?" about something, my immediate reaction is usually "why not?".
    Even if this piece is unplayable by humans (at the moment), the idea of pushing the boundaries of what is conceivable and constructible in music through theory-based conception is something that can be very positive for the world of music. Nancarrow immediately jumps to mind. If someone is able to do something no one ever thought of before, who are we to censor it and say, "this is useless in any practical way." Even in the article you cite Gann admits hearing a MIDI version had a profound and immediate effect on him:

    "Best of all, he played a MIDI version of the movement's opening 30 measures. It was, indeed, breath-taking: consonances slid into slightly new consonances in recurring patterns, but with no sense of a background fixed pitch grid whatever. (Tim promised to send me the MIDI file, so I'll post it as soon as it comes.) I think I can truly claim that never, in the history of the world's music, has such deeply-layered complexity sounded so translucent."

    Having Johnston's idea exist in the world can only liberate, push and drive on others who are exploring what is possible in music, while this example may not be technically possible, it will certainly influence others who are creating music in more 'performable' vain.


  2. Nancarrow is a good example - and a good point. But whatever about writing music that can't be played - writing music that can't be heard!?

    And I think there's another issue here - the sheer amount of money that is spent on this kind of thing. In this claustrophobic world of musical academia, research grants, doctorates etc. etc. have (relatively speaking) vast amounts of money spent on them while much other creative music, that doesn't have the intellectual cachet of this kind of thing, lives on crumbs. This is so often music as a purely intellectual pursuit - the ultimate goal being to have done something nobody else has done before, regardless of the resultant music. To have done something new is the prize - the music comes a poor second. And I really do believe that so many of these composers are just writing for each other - an arid intellectual club divorced from music's sensuality.

    I'm not necessarily levelling that accusation at Kyle Gann's music (because I don't know it) but I do think when people start lauding compositions that can neither be played or properly heard, then we are definitely in the music as purely intellectual/academic pursuit zone.

    Steve Reich talked about the fact that when he studied composition each class was taken up with either huge analysis of a piece, or huge arguments about a piece - everyone talking about music. Then at night he would go to the Half Note, see Coltrane come in off the street, play this incredible music and leave without saying a word. The comparison between the two worlds - all talk on the one hand, no talk and all music on the other - had a profound effect on him. Maybe the over-analysis of compositions in Reich's class, prompting him to take a direction that lead him to become one of the more important composers of the 20th century, is one of the few examples where the navel-gazing academic music world actually did some good!

  3. I think Kyle clarified the point in response to a similar comment on his blog. It's not a piece about hearing minute gradations of pitch, but rather hearing minute gradations of intonation, which are indeed perceptible. In other words, we may have difficulty hearing the difference between one pitch and another only a few cents away in isolation - but played together as an interval, those few cents become very audible. No PhD needed.

    And besides, we make much greater demands on people's auditory perceptions in very conventional music. Can someone really distinctly hear (let alone process) all the subtle voice leading in a Bach fugue on first hearing? Or the distinct voicings of chords in Le Sacre? Among us jazz musicians, we've all done difficult transcriptions - and must admit that there's a lot going on that is just beyond our ability to hear actually it. We don't ask the question of perception when dealing with a mass of sounds in complicated music, but two quiet tones suddenly seem to beg the question.

    I'd love to hear this piece. I admit that I'd not have the patience to write this kind of music, but I'm thankful that there are people in the world who do. I think the biggest "problem" with Johnston's work is that standard western notation is not practical for getting the information across. The "human" playability issues come in because of convention, not physical limitations. Violinists are conventionally trained to play with their fingers, wrists etc. in certain positions, and have years worth of muscle memory which is worse than useless for this kind of playing - not to mention the ingrained ear-mind-tactile connection to "correct" pitch according to western intonation practices.

  4. Thanks for the post Russell - lots of good points and stuff to chew on

  5. "These guys really are writing for each other and nobody else"
    Sure, and there is nothing wrong with that, and I'm sure there is a small but thriving group of microtonalists who find this music fascinating.

    *But* : as you describe it this seems like mostly an exercise in elementary, if tedious arithmetic. That music schools hire and promote people who do compose and/or and reverse-engineer algorithmic stuff like this while mostly ignoring real musical intellectual heavyweights outside the European tradition is pathetic. In my crotchety opinion it reflects the insecurity music academics have with math and science, and so overvalue stuff like this. You might take a look at music theory in academia if you want to find an easy target.

  6. I'd rather see a freeing up of funding by cutting back on endless re-runs of "La Boheme", Strauss Waltzes and Beethoven's fifth, rather than cutting back on music that encourages stimulating discussions such as this.

  7. That's very true - couldn't agree more.

  8. Well, unfortunately some of these comments have it backwards. Just Intonation is not some concocted mathematical formula for justifying one's position in academia. It's physics, it the overtone series, it's the natural order. And it doesn't exist in bizarrely minute gradations of melody, but in the pure intervals formed by two or more notes, even when they are used in a compositionally sophisticated way-- that is what is quite easy to hear, not esoteric at all. The 12-tone tempered scale is the man-made carpetbagger in this movie, a johnny-come-lately. I would urge listening in an open-minded fashion to the world of nuanced expression that opens up with just intonation- and as you say, not talk about the music first. The proof is in the pudding... inquiring minds want to know...
    {insert your own cliche here]

  9. Very true Eric - or how about Arabic music with its use of quarter tones? Arabic musicians can talk about how that works if you ask them, but otherwise they don't talk, just play.............

  10. Just an interesting couple of remarks - not really that interesting I suspect but it's just that I was just enjoying reading the remarks.

    1) Arabic music and quarter tones is a long story and an unresolved one really. Interestingly enough in the conference of 1932 in Cairo the world of Arabic Classical music came together to discuss why the music was not progressing in modern times (they didn't come to any conclusions). One of the discussions was about agreeing/deciding on pitches and intervals. Oddly enough they could only agree on a few pitches (relatively). If I remember correctly from my studies I think they all agreed on the root, 4th & 5th of a scale (maybe a couple more, but I can't remember now, however they were 'perfect' intervals) - using a lute/oud as a pitch reference. On the other hand, interestingly enough, they almost all differed on the 'relative' pitch when concerning the 1/4 tones involved, and I think even maybe the major third of a scale.

    2) I seem to remember a quote (I hope he did say it) from Ornette Coleman asking a simple question as to 440 hz and who said 'that's in tune'. And in a way he has a point as to why we're all obliged to hear the same pitches. Even in languages (different countries), people hear differently in terms of range of frequencies. Apparently Arabic & Portuguese speakers (two examples) have and use (and so hear) quite a large range of frequencies in their languages. Other languages/countries have and use a smaller range of frequencies, which of course means they don't develop their hearing in the same way.
    Anyhow all that to say I like the idea that Ornette asks the simple question 'what is in tune anyway?'