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American Festival of Microtonal Music: Ideas

Ives: The Unanswered Question

Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov: Prelude for Strings

Julián Carillo: I Think of You

Partch: Ulysses Departs from the Edge

Harrison: Simfony in Free Style

David Beardsley: Sonic Bloom

: Graphs and Time

Cage: In the Name of the Holocaust

Coates: Lunar Loops


Various performers

Pitch P-200212

This disc collects microtonal rarities and curios, many of them available for the first time. Several were composed before the development of appropriate instruments, performance techniques or notation for the realisation. They were therefore unheard by their composers, and have a correspondingly experimental and hesitant character.


The Prelude for Strings by Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov (nephew of Nikolay Andreyevich) before World War II is very short, and the performance recorded here (from May 2009) is thought to be its first. It uses quartertone harmony, but its idiom remains essentially late-19th century Romantic. Carrillo’s I Think of You (1928) is stranger. Its slightly queasy 16th-tone harmony recalls an acoustic Glenn Branca. Gloria Coates’s Lunar Loops is a later work (1978), but it finds a similar harmonic instability from a pair of strumming guitars through the use of bottlenecks and retuning of the strings.


The recording given here of Ives’s The Unanswered Question replaces the familiar solo trumpet with a cor anglais and, more significantly for the AFMM context, uses a Pythaogeran tuning. This combination further estranges the soloist from the strings and flutes to great effect and gives Ives’s piece a still more radical edge.


In four works by later masters we see a range of experiments with microtonality, together representing a dismantling of musical conventions and the seeking of new foundations. Partch’s Ulysses Departs from the Edge of the World is given in its original, but never performed, instrumentation for trumpet, string bass and three boobams. Lou Harrison also features in a first performance of his Simfony in Free Style (1955), a piece reconstructed from its descriptive score. The Varèse has been extrapolated even more speculatively, by AFMM director Johnny Reinhard, from a single-page sketch in graphic notation. The result exuberantly hurls its eight instrumentalists around their instruments. Cage’s In the name of the Holocaust, one of his earliest prepared piano pieces for Merce Cunningham’s dance company, is much more haunting than many of the Sonatas and Interludes, and any opportunity to hear more of Cage’s prepared piano writing is welcome. Joshua Pierce’s preparations draw out some extremely beautiful resonances from his instrument.


The one recent work is that by David Beardsley. Sonic Bloom (1998) is a halo of soft attacks and microtonal chords. It is inspired by La Monte Young, but its form relies less on drones, more on a continually changing palette of harmonies swaying like slow, decaying windchimes.

Overall, the musical results on this CD are varied, and it is hard to imagine many listeners who would find equal interest or pleasure in everything here. On the other hand, there are enough items of historical and musical value that make it a tempting purchase for anyone interested in the fringe developments of 20th-century music.

The CDs released by the American Festival of Microtonal Music are produced on a shoestring – liner notes are only available online, and by clicking on the individual cover images at http://www.afmm.org/. The recording quality is not perfect; these are live recordings, and occasional street noises may be heard.

But both solutions are acceptable, particularly when the results are of such interest.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson


American Festival of Microtonal Music: Gems
Pitch P-200213


GEMS is a fine compilation of 'four rare works that simply are so iconoclastic, so original, and so peculiar in the works of the composers, that they fit best together'.


Lou Harrison's Canticle No 3 (1941) assembles a delectable collection of rarely heard (and never all together) instruments - all listed on the on-line programme note (click on Read More) - and brought together with a delicacy which eschews sheer volume.


Harry Partch's U S Highball introduces Johnny Reinhard (leading light of the Microtonal Music movement) as singing/narrator, with support including kithara, a Partch-designed instrument with 72 strings, and chromelodeon; in these CDs you can be guaranteed some new sounds.


Mordecai Sandberg (one-time medical doctor, and peripatetic composer, finally to Toronto) has set the entire Book of Psalms. Psalm 51/2 is a plea for spiritual awakening for soprano and large chamber orchestra. It has singer Dorien Verheijden rather overwhelmed by the microtonal band - so you'd better get out your copy to follow the Biblical text...

Reinhard conducts his own piece for 2 sopranos (dangerous !) and ensemble including "regularly polymicrotonal" harpsichord also needs a text if it is meant to be intelligible; but there's plenty else to keep you engaged.


Another from the series welcomed above; a future American Festival of Microtonal Music is to be hoped for, and it would be good to have sponsors to bring Reinhard's core team of enthusiasts across the Ocean to UK & Europe where they'd have a lot to offer.


Peter Grahame Woolf

See also: /american-festival-of-microtonal-music (2007)