Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Early Pursuits in Just Intonation on Bridge

from the Amazon.com Web page for the album being discussed

In the course of my pursuing opportunities to listen to music composed to be performed by instruments based on just intonation tuning, my interest in the PARTCH ensemble, founded by guitarist John Schneider, has led me to a much earlier release by Bridge Records entitled Just West Coast, which was released at the end of October of 1993. The title is clearly a pun but a useful one, indicating that the compositions performed are all by composers closely associated with the West Coast. Lou Harrison frames the entire album with the opening and closing selections. Between him one encounters La Monte Young, Harry Partch, and John Cage. Cage is the one composer that did not explicitly work with just intonation; but, in his earliest piano compositions, he explored the expressiveness of a limited gamut, using tones that readily lent themselves to integer-based interval ratios, rather than equal-tempered tuning. (Schneider clearly enjoys the pun of the title, since he has more recently performed on the MicroFest albums Just Strings and Just National Guitar.)

On the earlier album “Just Strings” is the name of the performing duo of Schneider and harpist Amy Shulman. All but two of the selections were arranged by performance by Schneider, and those two selections are the two solo performances on the album. Shulman’s selection is Cage’s “In a Landscape,” which is listed in the Edition Peters catalog under both “Piano” and “Harp.” Cage explicitly stated that the piano dampers be raised for the entire performance of about eight minutes, since that performance “depends on the sustaining of resonances.” The vibrations of the harp strings, on the other hand, are naturally sustained unless explicitly damped by the performer; but the resonances that Cage required arise more “naturally” through the integer ratios of just intonation tuning.

Schneider’s solo provided the first recording of the original version of “Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California.” Partch performed the vocal line of this piece (both spoken and sung), accompanying himself on a guitar he adapted with frets that would enable intervals based on just intonation. This piece was subsequently given a variety of different versions, some of which required instruments of Partch’s own invention; but it is important to recognize that it began as something Partch could perform on his own. This makes Just West Coast a valuable resource for those interested in the chronological path leading to Partch’s more elaborate compositions.

Two other selections received their first recording on this album. One of these is the final composition, a collection of six single-movement sonatas that Harrison composed for piano or cembalo, meaning that the strings could be either struck or plucked. Schneider opts for the latter, arranging four of them for guitar and harp and the other two for solo guitar. The single-movement structure recalls the harpsichord sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, a connection that Harrison himself acknowledges; and, for the most part, he follows the same two-section structure that one encounters in the Scarlatti sonatas.

The other first recording is of Schneider’s just-intonation arrangement of Young’s “Sarabande,” originally written as an exercise for solo piano in 1959. This predated the composer’s interest in just intonation, which would eventually emerge in his marathon The Well-Tuned Piano, which was given its world premiere performance in Rome in 1974. Nevertheless, the score for “Sarabande” lends itself to integer ratios, which were then explicitly realized through Schneider’s arrangement.

The opening selection is the other Harrison composition on the album. The title “Suite No. 2” is a bit deceptive. Harrison used the title “suite” frequently; and one has only to peruse the index of the biography by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell to appreciate that sorting out all of those instances is no easy matter. Indeed, the title would show up again in 2008 on the Mode Records release POR GITARO: Suites for Tuned Guitars, also of performances by Schneider and Just Strings. However, the movements on the Bridge recording seem to resurface on the Mode album in two numbered suites and possibly also the “Suite for National Steel Guitar.” Thus, those who know their Harrison through more recent recordings will probably find themselves on familiar ground on the Bridge album, in which the Just Strings duo is extended to include percussionist Gene Sterling.

Most interesting where sonority is concerned is probably the set of two Partch studies based on his research into Ancient Greek music. The first of these uses the pentatonic scale formed by so-called “5-limit” just intonation. More fascinating, however, is the second study based on a scale formed by the enharmonic tetrachords. No one is quite sure of just what the enharmonic intervals are other than their being smaller than a semitone. Wikipedia cites Ptolemy’s account of Archytas as specifying the very small integer ratios of 28:27 and 36:35, and Partch cites Archytas in the title of his study. The ear will quickly pick up on just how narrow these intervals are.

Far more conducive to attentive listening is Schneider’s arrangement of Cage’s “Dream,” the composer’s earliest cataloged composition for solo piano. Like “In a Landscape,” this was composed to be played with the dampers raised, again in the interest of sustaining natural resonances. Here, again, those resonances are reinforced with a performance based on integer ratios.

Those who have followed this site for a while may recall that, almost exactly two years ago, I wrote an extended “think piece” about the nature of listening to integer ratios. Since that time, my experience with such listening has grown more prodigiously that I would have anticipated. Nevertheless, to paraphrase Roger Sessions, I think I can look back on what I wrote at that time without blushing. Perhaps I would have been better informed had I already been exposed to Just West Coast; but I was working in Singapore at the time of its release, which was not the best place to try to keep up with recordings of adventurous approaches to making music. Apparently, I am still in the process of making up for my own Proustian “temps perdu” (lost time)!

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