Listening in Technicolor

4 Dec

by Aron Kallay

Remember in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy opens the door of her house after being thrown about by a tornado, and all of the sudden, everything is in color.  Not just color, but hyper-realistic technicolor.  Well, I had the musical equivalent of this experience a few years back, and it has colored (sorry…), just about every decision I’ve made in my career since.

While in conservatory, I had an aural skills teacher tell me to think of a minor second (the distance between adjacent keys on a piano) as the smallest distance between two pitches… so tiny that it’s impossible to squeeze more notes between them.  I was skeptical.  I knew that the octave (the distance from, say, C to C on a piano) is divided into twelve equal steps, which is why we call the tuning equal-temperament.  But, why twelve?  Why not thirteen, fifty-three, or even eighty-eight!!?  And, why do the steps have to be equal; could there possibly be any benefit to having steps of different sizes?

Of course, the answer is yes.  Not only is it possible, non-keyboard instruments do it all the time.  When a string quartet plays in tune with itself, each player is actually making micro-adjustments in pitch related to the other players (which is one of the reasons why it is so difficult for string quartets to play with piano).  And, the pitches that they choose turn out to be vibrating in small whole number ratios.  For example, if one player makes his string vibrate 440 times per second, another player may make her string vibrate 660 times per second; a 3/2 ratio.  This is the basis of what is called just intonation.  Not surprisingly, it’s been around for thousands of years.

So, what’s the big deal, and why should anyone care?  Well, composers (beginning with Harry Partch in the 1920s) have been using basic mathematics, such as ratios, to come up with different “flavors” of the same interval, making it possible to have dozens of closely, and not so closely, related pitches per octave.  Just imagine the panoply of emotional expression that becomes available to the composer using just intonation.  And, the pitches all fit together to create amazing consonances and clangorous dissonances.  Think tonality on steroids… uber-tonality.

Which brings me to the point.  The first time I heard American composer Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4, composed in 1973, I knew nothing about just intonation.  Twelve equal steps was good enough for me.  Then, like Dorothy, I was thrown into a world I never knew existed.  [click here for an excerpt] The quartet, a set of variations based on the hymn Amazing Grace, takes us from 14th century Pythagorean tuning all the way to an experimental form of extended just intonation, where pitch relationships are so obtuse as to be, well… gritty.  But, the grit is never out of place, it happens exactly where and when it needs to in the context of the piece.  And, at the end of the piece, when the hymn comes back, stated simply as in the beginning… there is nothing quite like it in the repertoire.  Sometimes, when I need to recharge my spirit, this is the piece I listen to.  In comparison, equal-temperament sounds drab and lifeless.

In the Wizard of Oz, I think Dorothy got it wrong.  Despite the shortcomings of Oz–i.e., witches and evil flying monkeys–it is so much more satisfying than dreary old black and white.  Equal-temperament was a good thing.  We wouldn’t have a lot of the music we do today without it.  But, given my druthers, I’d much rather live in Ben Johnston’s world, in technicolor.

[Click here to listen to me play New Aunts, a piece in just intonation by Kyle Gann]

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