I’ve been in one of my manic microtonal phases again. Not composing, I’ve never really found the means and motivation to try to compose any microtonal music; but thinking about and listening. What I’ve been thinking isn’t ready for prime time yet (and may never be — I just found out one of the things I’d come up with was published about 750 years ago; I didn’t expect it to be original, but I didn’t think I’d be that far out of the loop), but what I’ve been listening to certainly is.
Microtonal music, for those just tuning in, is music based on scales with more than twelve notes to the octave. Pretty much by definition it’s usually alien-sounding, though perhaps the most surprising thing about it is that even music based on a 13-note equal tempered scale can have familiar features to it.
I finally bought a copy of Easley Blackwood’s Microtonal. I had his “Twelve Microtonal Etudes” on vinyl in the 1980s; here they are back again, on CD, along with a synthesized fanfare and a guitar suite, all in microtonal equal temperaments. (Blackwood’s name may look familiar if you’re a bridge player — but you’re thinking of the composer’s father.) The “Etudes” were a pleasant shock to me 20 years (!) ago — and to many other people, too, including Blackwood himself, apparently — with their embedding of a very conservative diatonicism into thoroughly alien systems of tuning. Some of them sound like something Bach would have written, if Bach had gotten thinking about microtones. There’s one etude for each equal temperament from 13 to 24 notes to the octave.
(24 notes to the octave, the notorious quarter tone music experimented with by Charles Ives and others early in the 20th century, turns out to be one of the least musically interesting scales. It’s perhaps the easiest generalization of 12-equal tuning you can think of, but has few to no theoretical benefits.)
I also just recently heard from Ralph Jarzombek, who had some microtonal music on mp3.com that I admired. Since the demise of that service his music’s been homeless, but now it’s back — in fact there’s more of it — at http://www.freewebs.com/ralphjarzombek/. Funky!
And I just discovered Prent Rodgers, who I also found on mp3.com, has apparently changed his web site and is now at http://prodgers13.home.comcast.net/. Rodgers composes music based on Harry Partch’s tonality diamond, and evidently is having a lot of fun with it.
OK then. Go stretch those ears! If nothing else this is Music to Drive Annoying People Away With — unless it’s me who’s annoying you, of course.