Notes and Editorial Reviews
Aron Kallay (pn)
MICROFEST 3 (59:00)
Echoes of Nothing.
Alien Warp Etude.
Ostinato Quasi Octatonica.
Mbira (or in Cage with Adams).
All the Pretty Colours of the Rainbow
The subtitle for this disc is
Reinventing the Piano
, and that’s not an overstatement. There are a couple of things to clear up at the beginning before I get to the music, so that the adventurous nature of Kallay’s project is clear.
The first is the instrument and its setup. Kallay plays a digital piano that has excellent tone, all the pitches modeled on real piano sounds (it’s still a little bit flattened timbrally in comparison to the “real thing,” to my ear, but this will only get better with time, and the way things are going that time will probably be short). This keyboard is then interfaced with software called PianoTeq that allows the keyboard to be retuned to any possible tuning system. It can be as many notes to an octave as one wants (the simplest would be the quarter-tone scale, where two octaves of played notes result in a range one octave of sounding pitches). And in addition, every key can have a different tuning that has nothing to do with traditional relations of register (a higher register note can be lower on the keyboard than a lower register one, etc.). If you want to check out a very efficient and fluent TED talk the pianist gives on this system, it’s at: youtube.com/watch?v=efpO9Uq_e-c.
So this leads us to the question, Why? What purpose does this approach to alternative tuning serve? This would lead into a
lengthy review, in fact a tome, so I’ll be as “telegraphic” as I can.
Only since the early to mid-19th century has our piano sounded the way it now does. The tuning that emerged then is called “equal temperament,” and it ensures that every “named” pitch-class (C, C?, D, etc.) is related by a pure octave in every register (a ratio of 2:1 in frequency from one to the next above). Likewise, every adjacent pitch (white to black, except B-C and E-F) is also an equal interval, known as a semitone or half-step. This gives enormous consistency and creates the possibility of equally balanced transitions from one key to another, called modulations in tonal music.
But something is also lot in the process. All the other intervals are compromised, in that they are not the same exact ratios as how they appear in the overtone series (and
is such a big topic that I fear you, dear reader, will have to research it a bit on your own; fortunately there’s plenty of literature online to help). As soon as one tries to get one type of intervals as pure and “perfect” as possible, others go further out. It’s a bit “hall of mirrors meets down the rabbit hole.” But it’s enormously rich and exotic in sound, and it
have its own logic, in fact a very rigorous mathematical basis. To take another analogy, it’s like moving from a 2D world to 3D, or even more dimensions. And in the process, composers who choose to pursue this route (often called “just intonation” for the emphasis on “just” or pure intervals) feel they are moving toward something far more “natural” and essential to the nature of sound itself. Certainly this lines up with the theories of Pythagoras, the great-granddaddy of all intonational theory.
All right, either I’ve lost you now … or not. For those still with me, Kallay has commissioned a series of composers to write pieces in any tuning system they wish to explore. His instrument allows lightning transitions from one to another, so one no longer has the impediment of having to tune a piano by hand to a precise and unfamiliar temperament. (Likewise, one doesn’t need multiple pianos with different tunings.) And this is what’s truly radical about the technology, as the biggest impediment of all has been the double-whammy of instruments designed after the advent of equal temperament with the ears of performers who have gotten used to it. This mix has made it incredibly difficult to write and have performed music that explores this world, relegating it to a fringe existence. The two greatest examples are Harry Partch, who built his own instruments in the face of the musical world’s resounding indifference, and Ben Johnston, his student, who has taken the most courageous path of this era, i.e. developing a system and notation that can actually be realized by committed classical performers (see the work of the Kepler String Quartet on New World, which I’ve reviewed here).
The music itself on this disc is repeatedly successful and diverse, even if one can’t always discern the differences in the systems the composers embrace. Kyle Gann’s
Echoes of Nothing
is in two movements, the first languidly Satie-esque, the second a rapid boogie-woogie of incomparable wit that should be the “C?-Minor Prelude” of just intonation if there were any justice. (The composer, one of our most noted writers on new music, is in fact the creator of what I think is one of the finest bodies of keyboard music around, whether “precisely tuned” or not, and was in fact a student of Johnston.)
Alien Warp Etude
plays with the past, taking fragments of the Chopin “Aeolian Harp” Etude and recasting them into a new realm of tuning, that sounds both archaic and fresh. And since at that time equal temperament wasn’t yet the uniform standard, it evokes a past that we feel we’re peering behind the curtain to see.
Ostinato Quasi Octatonica
has a propulsive rhythmic character that allows its notes to shimmer as they rub against one another. John Schneider (the “guru” of the label) has written in his
a soulful elegy, with rich, quasi-jazz chords and progressions, that’s still wonderfully unclassifiable. Tom Flaherty’s
is the longest and one of the most diverse and substantial works on the program, covering a great range of expressive states and using a subset of Partch’s 43-tone scale.
Mbira (or In Cage with Adams)
uses its tuning to create (as its title suggests) an evocation of non-Western music, both African and Asian, and grounded in minimalist repetition. Jason Heath’s
is striking in that it uses similar thematic materials in three different scales, so that one hears the differences between them clearly. And Brian Shepard’s
All the Pretty Colours of the Rainbow
feels like a rondo, alternating between meditative and highly active/pulsed sections. Its pungent repeated chords are immediately memorable—I’m still hearing them in my head.
This is a remarkable debut. Kallay is a multiple threat: a great pianist, brainy tech wizard, and visionary promoter of a new musical practice. Beyond highly recommended.
FANFARE: Robert Carl
Works on This Recording
Lament, for guitar by John Schneider
Aron Kallay (Piano)
Length: 6 Minutes 57 Secs.
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