Classical, Experimental Music, New Music
Reviewed by Michael Hannan, October 1st, 2014
The use of tuning systems other than the acoustically unnatural division of the octave into 12 equal parts, which has dominated the modern era (both in the classical and contemporary popular music fields), has long been an underground movement in experimental composition, although it is worth saying that in the renaissance and baroque music periods, many different tunings (or “temperaments”) were used. Harry Partch, a 20th century American composer, famously revived the natural/pure tuning systems of earlier times. To facilitate his ideas he built dozens of new instruments that could realise his temperamental vision. Partch’s music can only be played on these specially designed and constructed instruments, a situation which would seem to be detrimental to the dissemination of his music. None the less, the idea of using different tuning systems and creating instruments to enable this sound-world, has been taken up by post-Partchian composers, notably the American, Erv Wilson and the Australian, Greg Schiemer. The latter was based at the University of Wollongong, the sponsor of this Ensemble Offspring project.
The Between the Keys project uses instruments created by Peter Biffin (a bowed string instrument called tarhu), Linsey Pollak (a nest of clarinet-like clarinis) and Kraig Grady (a “centaur” vibraphone and a set of low-pitched “Meru bars”). It consists of works by Arana Li, Philip Glass, Amanda Cole, Damien Ricketson (one of the artistic directors of Ensemble Offspring), Kraig Grady and Terumi Narushimi.
Arana Li’s Mysteries is scored for clarinis and tarhu. For the most part, it features slow expressive melodies over long-held drone notes. The microtonal qualities of the featured scales are effectively highlighted against the various modal centres.
Philip Glass’s Music in Similar Motion (1969), scored mostly for tuned percussion, is typical of the hypnotic textures of early US musical minimalism. The tunings used enhance the work’s gamelan-like ambience.
Amanda Cole’s Hydra also uses minimal techniques, but in a more austere two-part counterpart of clarinos. The third movement is the most engaging of the three-section work because of its contrast of legato and rhythmically energetic sections.
Damien Ricketsons’s Some Shade of Blue is a tarhu solo with centaur vibraphone backing. Although it begins as a response to a modal plainchant melody, it progressively explores expressiveness and expressionism by adopting chromaticism and advanced bowed-stringed instrument techniques.
In contrast Kraig Grady’s Akashic is a consistently gentle piece exploring textures and melodic ideas clearly related to gamelan music. In the program notes, the composer identifies his use of just 11 bars of a “metre with 101 beats”, with bars normally marked off by the striking of a Meru bar, reminiscent of the periodic punctuations of the large gong in Indonesian music. Despite its intricate structure and appealing melodies, the nine-minute piece suffers from a lack of textural and dynamic variety.
This is certainly not the case with Terumi Narushima’s Hidden Sidetracks, which has enchanting melodies, explosive dynamics and dramatic exploitations of the 51 differently-sized intervals contained within the12-note centaur scale.
Ensemble Offspring’s Between the Keys is an excellent introduction to the arcane world of contemporary composition using new and historical tuning systems. It is good to challenge the ear with these organic sounds.