Bent or Broken

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.”

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15 Responses to Bent or Broken

  1. georgek says:

    Cogulu is a good find!

  2. metaclown says:

    • midiguru says:

      Either brilliant or frightening, and probably both. Thanks for the link! When I heard the Mozart theme I was thinking, “Oh, God. How rigid. How uninspired.” But then the variations, and I’m crapping in my pants. (Possibly it’s not clear that that’s a compliment. It’s intended to be. This is wonderful music!) At least 53 notes per octave, at a guess. Probably PianoTeq, although it could be a sampled piano. Certainly not performed live, unless there were at least three pianists. Reminds me of both Conlon Nancarrow and Scriabin.

  3. Shane says:

    Why limit oneself to just hotdogs when one can have hamburgers as well? Incredibly close-minded post, representing the usual, jaded responses to non-formulaic music that I always see from those who are culturally programmed to only consume and enjoy the repetitive aural vanilla of pop and “classical” music, whatever that is.

    I don’t think it can be said better than Marion Bauer:

    “The untutored listener responds to obvious rhythms (a foot-listener), the banality of which annoys the trained musician who seeks his satisfaction in melodic and harmonic complexities…sounds which were painful, when once accepted and organized by the brain, may become pleasurable.” ~ Marion Bauer, Twentieth Century Music: How it Developed; How to Listen to it, pg. 9.

    • midiguru says:

      Referring to me as an “untutored listener” is good for a chuckle, Shane. I have an extremely wide-ranging knowledge of music. Precisely for that reason, I have a reasonably good grasp of what makes music enjoyable to listeners. The central question, I think, is this: What do you mean by “formulaic”? If music that has a comprehensible structure is, to you, formulaic, then you and I can only agree to disagree. To me, perceptible formulae of some sort are essential. Music that attempts to avoid all formulae is bullshit.

      Also, I’ll confess that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to appreciate beauty more. Life is too short to indulge in ugliness. Beethoven’s music was sometimes angry, but the anger was never ugly.

      • Shane says:

        I didn’t refer to you as untutored…Marion Bauer said that. What I wrote had nothing to do with your level of musical education, of which I have no knowledge or concern; I’ll take your word for it, but education starts and ends where the learner chooses. I think she was expressing back in the 1930s and 40s what I feel now when I read pieces like yours that are critical of modern music, in part or whole because that music doesn’t sound like what you’ve accepted as good or “beautiful.” Untutored doesn’t mean you’re not intimately acquainted with the familiar structures, progressions, harmonies, theory, and rules of western 12-tone music that doesn’t stray too far from what’s considered “the norm”–what I called the formulaic. I like a lot of that sort of music too, but I don’t close myself off to different sounds and have learned to appreciate some of the music you find distasteful, mainly because I didn’t dismiss it by immediately comparing it to the familiar or the consonant or the “sounds like brand X.” Formulas are used to construct what we consider non-offensive music: jazz, country, rock, whatever; I don’t believe there’s any denying that fact. For example, “no parallel 5ths!” is an oft cited rule not to be broken in music schools. And this sort of rigidity is one reason why modern composers rebelled. Jazz is guilty now too, and that’s sad because it peaked with a modern, adventurous bent, challenging listeners to come to it (not the other way around) and devolved into muzak-like “soft jazz”–garbage that the typical person thinks is jazz. I have a friend who went through the jazz program at UT under Jerry Coker, and the core of that program is almost a phrase-by-phrase breakdown of how you can copy Parker, Davis, and all the greats–the formulaic approach appears again. In the traditional western genres, it’s hard to play something that hasn’t already been played; like it or not, we consciously and unconsciously regurgitate bits and pieces of what we’ve already heard. I think modern music can get us away from this somewhat incestuous manner of making and consuming music.

        Appreciate beauty more? Forgive the cliché, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And a lot of the music you’re dismissing as ugly probably has more structure to it than you’re perceiving, and a lot of that will be due to your bias and prejudice that’s preventing a deeper listen and appreciation. Yes, you’re correct–we will have to agree to disagree. Peace.

      • midiguru says:

        Shane said: “I have a friend who went through the jazz program at UT under Jerry Coker, and the core of that program is almost a phrase-by-phrase breakdown of how you can copy Parker, Davis, and all the greats–the formulaic approach appears again. In the traditional western genres, it’s hard to play something that hasn’t already been played; like it or not, we consciously and unconsciously regurgitate bits and pieces of what we’ve already heard.”

        But what on Earth is wrong with playing something that has already been played? Where’s the problem?

        My own view of this is that originality is both inevitable and impossible. We live in a musical culture. NONE of the music we make is original, because it ALL derives, one way or another, from musical experiences we’d had in the past. Yet inevitably, we always put those influences together in new ways. We can’t help it!

        The idea that doing something new is somehow important, or noble, or stellar — that idea doesn’t interest me. It’s a fantasy, or so it seems to me: a fantasy that somehow if we can just be original enough, or fresh enough, or creative enough, people will love us more.

        Don’t mess with it. Just make whatever music you want to make, and don’t worry about whether it’s unique, or whether it’s in the style of Charlie Parker. Worrying about that is a trap.

  4. danstearns says:

    A song for my Grandmother
    – Daniel Stearns

    I never studied music, but by the time I was in grade school I was collecting snakes and frogs and toads and tadpoles and salamanders and turtles and spiders and other bugs and such. I was also spending long summer weeks at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire with my Aunt Rose going somewhere past the tiny sand-crab and starfish and periwinkle catcher’s bright red, blue, and yellow plastic pails, shovels and sieves. And there, alone in the deeper waters and the rougher tide pools, I learned how to catch lobsters at the pressure point where their claws meet their carapace so they couldn’t reach you, very much the same way I had with my feet and hands and snakes and that pivot-point they have at the top-back of their skull on my Grandmother’s farm before that.

    Somewhere in there, a bit back, I kissed the first girl that wasn’t related to me, and I found a box turtle one day in the woods behind Proctor Elementary School in Northborough, Massachusetts and the very same playground I had chased that poor girl down and tried to kiss her cheek, or something absurd and awkward like that… and for reasons I can’t quite recall, I named the box turtle after that girl, Pamela Doyle.

    Box Turtles or any other wood turtles of any sort are not likely to be found these days by other intrepid grade-schooler in any Northborough or even any Massachusetts any more. Their tribe, like so many before them and many more since, passed the place where they could co-exist with us and our things.

    My grandmother was probably the single biggest influence I ever had as both a composer and a man, and she showed me most all of it by simply living her life as she did, and very much being comfortable with who she was just the way that she was. But one day when I probably wasn’t yet ten, she took the time to tell me something very specific, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten. I wish I could remember what had prompted her to tell me this in the first place, as I’m sure it was very important, but I can’t seem to remember the conversation before or after this one bit of crystal-clear memory.

    What she had told me was that one night while driving home she had accidently hit a raccoon with her pickup truck. Now, my grandmother was what is often referred to as an animal lover, but when I say this I mean it in the sense that she was truly devout, and took it to extremes most simply would not having had abandoned monkeys and hedgehogs and skunks and broken birds and stream-caught fish in the bathtub and on and on, and all this on a farm with farm animals and farm work and all manner of strays and free-range friends such as the predatory coyotes and hawks and her neighbors, friends, and families disposable household pet-experiments.

    She was special in this way, and everyone who knew her knew it too. In any event, having been my grandmother—or as my oldest son Bryan once said, “Daddy’s friend Nana”—she pulled over and went to see if the raccoon was still there in the road, or if it had perhaps run off into the woods. She found the raccoon alive at the side of the road, but its stomach had come apart from its body, and in what I’m sure was a very painful moment of clarity, she took a rock and killed the raccoon to put it out of its horror.

    My grandmother died of lung cancer from a lifelong bad habit with cigarettes—a drug society had rubber stamped for her with its legal status and she had picked up while still quite young. At her funeral service the church director talked to me for a moment in private about how my grandmother had found God, and how she had become a financial supporter of that church or something else entirely inappropriate that I couldn’t quite hear right at the time… and while I’m not entirely sure why, nor whether it was a ultimately a good idea or not, I nevertheless told this man the story of my grandmother and that raccoon, and what I thought it was to be a real “man”, like my grandmother was.

    I suppose I have since found God as well, of this I have no doubt. Yet, it is the woods and the waters and the fields and the extraterrestrial carapace of the infinite Heavens that are my only, true church… and when I am well and on top of my business, my music and art are simply honest, living extensions and extrapolations of these ideals within mediums that are too often misunderstood for something else entirely that you study with a teacher or learn in a school. That musicians and their teachers and their teacher’s teachers repeatedly run the same story the priest tried on me by other honest innocents in the arts is no less a societal norm than the cigarettes that killed my grandmother.

    It is my firm belief that Charles Ives is the only famous art music composer in the history of this world that I know of who had this all sorted out on the level where music *is* life… the transcendentalist in him was fostered by profoundly influential pioneers of that intellectual strain who were actually around and active at the time, but he also had an innate understanding on his own terms of the concept of the Buddha Fa, and how this applies to art as life. Ives, of course, was incredibly blessed to have had the wind firmly set in his sails by a true, genius-level father who really understood some of the heaviest and hardest life facts on an abstract level most folks will never ever touch because the rules have to be learned the hardest of hard ways with the dirt of it under your fingernails on the fly with a plan that has the elbowroom for potentially unlimited growth.

    Now Ives, of course, was, and continues to be rather famously misunderstood on about a billion different levels by other human beings of some standing and intellect…and this happens time and time again. Why? Well who had the ears-to-brain machinery for this kind of parallax world-view? Certainly not musicians who play instruments, I’ll tell you that much with absolute certainty! But outside of the transcendentalist and George Ives and his heroically brave son who carried his own father’s ghost on up a steep hill and single-handedly plowed unimagined fields for the rest us… well, in that place it would take some real thinking out at the edges of an intellectual battle that is quite difficult to define with anything like the certainty of an orthodox science. Sigurd Olson knew for sure, but he was a canoe trip outfitter and a conservationist….Everett Ruess, Christopher McCandles? See where I’m going?

    That’s the right spirit for sure, but let’s be damn honest here: No one, or at least no one in the arts and the Ivory Towers seemed to have had even the inclining of a clue as to what that was all about…well, for Ives, much as it was for myself as a young child, the real of it came by way of Nature Mysticism—as it is detailed with clinical precision by William James in his groundbreaking work, The Variety of Religious Experiences. That was Olson’s great, “Nature as a stepping-stone for cosmic understanding” given a corporeal lease on life that even a genius like Harry Partch never considered.

    So while Ives high-standing in history is indeed firmly established here off in his not so far-flung future, it is my contention that we ignored his true example almost entirely as artists and people….and that perhaps there are even fewer people today who even can understand who and what he and his music was, as we’ve simply evolved as a culture and a people in a diametrically opposite direction at an amazingly fast clip in that short a period of time.

  5. danstearns says:

    BTW, my name is Daniel Stearns, and I am the microtonalist Jim Aikin’s has ammended his article to not include my name. The title of the piece he has taken exception to here is a composition of mine for 7-limit acoustic guitar, titled, Ephriam. I have responded by way of a story, a POV and an analogy to better express myself in light of the (unfair IMO) charecterization I’ve been given here by Jim. That Jim kept it there as it is, is in my opinion to his credit and speaks to his heart, if not his bedside manner on public forums and his Blog. I respect Jim Aikin for that, and I just want that to be known for anyone else who comes to this not knowing the difference between me and other microtonalist, or me and Jim Aikin.
    Sincerly, Daniel Anthony Stearns, 09/26/2013

  6. Cameron Bobro says:

    The AFMM and the UnTwelve organization are better described as “institutional hysterical fear of microtonalism” than as representative of “the microtonal world”.

  7. Cameron Bobro says:

    A cruise through the numerous *non-prize-winning* submissions to the UnTwelve competition will reveal a fair enough sampling of the variety of styles of “microtonal” music. Though this sampling does not even approach a comprehensive picture, it does demonstrate a stark truth about “microtonal” music: it is in no way a “style” or “school”. The diversity of music which qualifies technically as “microtonal” is so great that it is difficult to assign a meaningful, well, meaning to the word.

    So why are the winners of the UnTwelve contest, as you describe, so easily generalized as “modern music”? Do you think it’s just some coincidence that “the best” pieces in the estimation of the judges were stereotypically academic in style?

    I don’t think so. Nor is it likely the case that all the judges prefer academic works. Their own work as far as I know is not of that bent at all, and at least one has been nearly as vociferous in speaking out against “modern music” as you have.

    So what’s going on? Why do stereotypically academic works dominate? Perhaps the organization hopes to ape “real” (that is, substantially funded) musical organizations for pleasure or in hope of profit. But no- there are exceptions among the prize
    winners. The most recent 1st prize for example if of a hobbyist “quirky/fun” nature and not academic in the least.

    “Modern Music”, now a vintage phenomenon as familiar as an old t-shirt, is a convenient place to put things where they won’t hurt anybody. “Quirky/fun/kooky” is another such drawer.

    This is why you were hearing poorly done academic works, not because microtonalists are for the most part skreeching noise mongers or serialists or whatever. Quite the opposite: the microtonal world is almost certainly dominated by what would be called in the old days “regressive tonalists”.

    The key is this: the winning works are non-threatening. The function of the institution is to diminish and disarm microtonal music, to demonstrate that it is no threat to established hegemonies. Don’t take my word for it- check out the non-winners.

    There is also distinctly “academic” music in there, but done very well (a skilled musician should be able to tell the difference regardless of their tastes, if only on the level of brute instrumental skill). Acadamic music is generally speaking categorically non-threatening, but “microtonal” has to be shown as timid and wanting even in that neighborhood.

    (This is not about “taste”. I happen to like “Modern” and “academic” music very much when it is well done, which, like in anything else, isn’t too often. I also like the occaisional quirky/fun/kooky kind of thing. That’s not relevant here.)

  8. Cameron Bobro says:

    You’re welcom, Jim Aikin, and thank you for the thought-provoking blog! I think we share many interests, and I’m sure we disagree on many things as well which is always fun.

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