I have not written about MicroFest Records since the first round of releases came out in the final quarter of 2015. However, as result of my recent interest in Lou Harrison’s interest in the use of just intonation and recent appearance of the Partch ensemble on the album Color Theory released by the PRISM Quartet, I have been seeking out listening experiences involving intervals based on integer ratios. My quest took me to another early MicroFest release entitled Just Strings, which couples several of Harrison’s pieces with two works by John Luther Adams. Harrison sat on a jury that gave Adams a composition award in 1973, the year in which he graduated from the California Institute of the Arts; and Harrison would subsequently become both role model and friend to Adams.
The album is named after a trio of members of Partch. These are guitarist John Schneider, who founded Partch, harpist Alison Bjorkedal, and percussionist T.J. Troy. The name (clearly) does not refer to all members playing string instruments. Instead, it refers to the group playing music written in just intonation with all strings tuned to provide intervals based on integer ratios.
The Adams selections are two suites of five dances each, based on songs in two of the indigenous languages of North America, Athabaskan and Yup’ik. In both of these collections, Adams uses the simplest approach to tuning that involves more than the octave: All intervals involve ratios of integers constructed from multiples of 2 and 3. Such an approach is sometimes called Pythagorean tuning.
The Harrison pieces, on the other hand, are far more diverse in both tuning and styles. Much of the album is devoted to his two harp suites, neither of which were initially conceived as such. The first suite is a collection of pieces composed between 1952 and 1977, and the second consists of works composed between 1951 and 1992. The album also includes “Lyric Phrases,” composed in 1972, and “In Honor of the Divine Mr. Handel,” composed in 1991.
A significant percentage of the tracks on this album were recorded for the very first time. That includes the entirety of the two Adams collections. Two of the tracks, one movement from the second harp suite and the Handel homage, also involve accompaniment by the Harvey Mudd College American Gamelan.
In contrast to the Adams selections, every one of the Harrison tracks involves a different tuning system. (These are all enumerated with all of the corresponding interval ratios in the booklet essay provided by Bill Alves.) It is thus no surprise that, when Meredith Clark played Harrison’s music in the second concert of the Other Minds 22 festival entitled Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison, she played only one solo selection on a diatonic harp, the “Threnody to the Memory of Oliver Daniel,” which was included in the second suite.
Why should there be such diversity in tuning? While Alves’ booklet notes focus the attention on “the sweet harmonies that result” from integer-based tuning, my guess is that both Harrison and Adams were as interested in departures from our expectations as they were in having consonances that were … more consonant. As was previously observed, such a departure was most evident when Britten explicitly called for the thirteenth harmonic in the solo horn fanfare that begins his Opus 31 serenade. In Adams’ system, which is based on C, the initial semitone to C-sharp is clearly audible as different from the equal-tempered semitone. Similar differences are also evident in some of Harrison’s favorite ratios, including 5:4 (the major third) and 7:4 (the minor seventh). (There is some argument over whether 7:4 is the “blue” seventh, which supposedly originated in the Mississippi Delta and found its way into jazz. I am not knowledgeable enough to offer a considered opinion; but I am pretty confident that, when I am listening to recordings of Bessie Smith, she is not singing equal-tempered intervals, regardless of what her pianist may be doing!)
Both Harrison and Adams seem to have come to their interest in using integer ratios from a common source, the recognition that, when we consider cultures other than our own and think, instead, in terms of “world music,” there is nothing “sacred” about equal-tempered tuning. This is not to imply that Western music is some sort of “outlier” in its use of equal temperament. Harrison’s interest in Indonesian music led him to the slendro, a pentatonic scale in which all of the intervals were very close to identical. In 1960 he followed up on that discovery by writing a “Concerto in Slendro,” scored for violin, two tack pianos, celesta, and percussion. In addition Harrison realized that music he wrote on commission would inevitably involve performers whose listening was biased in favor of equal temperament.
Thus, the Harrison selections on this album reflect pieces he wrote to satisfy his own interests. For example, “Music for Bill and Me,” which is in the first harp suite, was written in such a way that he and William Colvig, his life partner, could play it as a duet on diatonic harps. The Adams collections, on the other hand, can probably be taken as the results of “field studies,” similar to those conducted by Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók in Eastern Europe. The value of this album is that, through the wide diversity of its relatively short tracks, it acclimates the “mind behind the ear” to accept these “unconventional” intervals as just another approach to “being natural.” Those willing to approach those tracks with attentive listening may find themselves listening to more “traditional” equal-tempered compositions with a new perspective.