Tonight, at a party, I found myself commenting to a friend that most of the people who are making microtonal music just aren’t very good. In many cases, they seem to have latched onto microtonal composing as a handy cover for the fact that they have only very marginal ideas about what musical expression and creativity are, or can be.
Am I being too brutal? Maybe. But again and again, as I listen to the hideous thrashing noises that have been uploaded by this or that microtonalist, I find myself imagining, with something akin to embarrassment, the scene in which the guy is hunched over his equipment recording this stuff while his girlfriend, standing behind him, rolls her eyes in pained and stricken disbelief, clearly wondering, “What am I doing hooked up with this loser?”
There are happy exceptions. One is Prent Rodgers. He’s doing provocative and spicy things with alternate tunings, and he’s using the tunings to enhance compositions that would stand up and be listenable (though in some cases quite different and less effective) if they were in standard tuning.
In what follows, perhaps it would be well to bear in mind that my taste in music is far more conservative than my taste in politics. I love Bach, Haydn, Beethoven (well, some of Beethoven), Schubert, and Brahms. I find Shostakovich and Prokofiev challenging but rewarding. I have no use whatever for Babbitt, Cage, or Stockhausen. The entire school of 20th century composition that attempted to demolish the ideas of melody, harmony, and regular rhythmic pulse I regard as a swarm of arrogant poseurs and con men, not as artists.
Having said that….
The website of the American Festival of Microtonal Music is a complete failure. Not because the site design is graphically awful — that would be easy to forgive if the music were good. Some of the videos of performances require a special plug-in, but I didn’t bother to download it, because after I went to the page of YouTube videos on their site, I could see no reason to burden my hard drive or browser with another plug-in. The audio in the YouTube video of a trio (flute, oboe, bassoon) was badly recorded, the piece was in a harsh and uninteresting modern idiom, and the use of microtonality was … well, it just sounded like occasional intonation problems. Other YouTube videos on the same page didn’t play at all.
The winners of the 2010 UnTwelve Competition are well worth listening to, though I can’t help feeling that somebody ought to have taken the time to explain to these composers that it’s really okay if you use melodies and coherent phrases rather than bludgeoning your listeners with sharp-edged objects that have fallen off the sonic dump truck. Midway through Donald Craig’s “Study in 31” an oboe-like tone pops up, playing a pitched line that seems as if it might actually qualify as a melody. But one’s fond hope soon fades. The oboe melody is so dull rhythmically and intervallically that Bach would have summarily rejected it if one of his teenage sons had brought it to him written out on manuscript paper.
The winner of the 2011 Competition, Joel David Hickman’s “like the automatic couplings of railway carriages,” is an episodic piece for acoustic guitar. It certainly has a lot of microtones in it, and a lot of variety, but it wasn’t as well played as it might have been, and it never engaged my emotions. The second place winner, Jian Shi’s “Lady Peony and the Ghost Opera,” was another sonic dump truck production, with added Asian yodeling. I forced myself to listen to half of Angus Barnacle’s ten-minute “Prelude for Rhythmicon,” though I wanted to stop sooner. This piece bears more than a passing resemblance to the sound of a glass jar full of nuts and bolts being endlessly shaken — at least if we pretend that nuts and bolts can sometimes produce sustained pitches.
There’s a lot more music on the Competition page, and I plan to return to it and listen to more pieces tomorrow. Based on my preliminary sampling, though, I see no reason to revise the unflattering assessment with which I opened this little essay. There’s something deeply wrong with a lot of this music, and I think I can put my finger on it. The composers almost never write melodies or sensibly shaped phrases, they seldom engage the listener’s emotions, and they seem entirely uninterested in providing listeners with a pleasurable experience.
There was a school of thought in university-based composition in the 20th century that held that if you wrote anything pretty — anything enjoyable, engaging, or satisfying — you weren’t doing your duty to advance the Noble Cause of Modern Music. You were a sell-out. I’m afraid that school of thought is still very much with us today, and it’s a damn shame.
Over on YouTube, I checked out a guitar solo (I have redacted the artist’s name, as he has voiced some strong feelings about my opinions) in 7-limit just intonation. Now, seven-limit JI gives you a lot of harmonic resources to play with. It’s not a single tuning, in fact, it’s a whole constellation of them. Be that as it may, this player’s attempt to share the wonders of seven-limit JI with us — well, let’s just say it falls well short of being pleasant or enjoyable to listen to. Arhythmic and pretty much atonal, this graceless, astringent piece consists almost entirely of two-note hammer-ons and pull-offs, with a brief first note and the second note sustaining. Sort of like a shamisen player having a bad acid trip.
“Microtonal No. 1,” by Fernando Mattos is not quite up to that standard. It’s an improvisation, for starters, and opens with a lot of free sliding with a bottleneck. The piece stumbles around without rhythm or melody, but with a fair amount of banging on the extra bass strings. And this is what passes for serious musical creativity in the microtonal world.
But let’s take our leave of microtonal acoustic guitar by noting some fine work from Tolgahan Cogulu. He has built a guitar with movable frets, and he knows how to play real music on it. I would buy a CD by this guy. (In fact, there’s an mp3 download “CD” for sale on Amazon, and it’s now in my shopping cart.)
Footnote: Perhaps it’s not surprising that this post has stirred up a wee bit of controversy. For some thoughts on the nature and implications of that controversy, see “Jelly Side Down.”