Saturday, March 31, 2018

Kyle Gann Tries to Reinvent Tonality

courtesy of Other Minds

A little over a week ago, Other Minds released its latest recording, a two-CD album of Kyle Gann’s seventeen-movement suite Hyperchromatica. On the strength of numbers alone, this marks a significant addition to the ranks of compositions whose creators have chosen to reject equal-tempered tuning in favor of working with natural harmonics. The tuning systems for such efforts are known collectively as just intonation. In such systems all intervals are based on integer ratios, usually with a limit on the number of integers involved.

The movements in Hyperchromatica are based on 13-limit just intonation. Thus, the integers used in forming the ratios range from 1 to 13 along with different combinations arising from multiplication. Put in another way, all of the ratios have numerators and denominators that arise from multiplicative products of the prime numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13.

Those who read my extended essay about listening to integer ratios, written when I was trying to get my head around Lou Harrison’s compositions based on just intonation, may recall that the thirteenth harmonic has rich history. Benjamin Britten singled it out in the horn solo that begins and concludes his Opus 31 serenade, requiring that the horn be played without the use of valves. As might be guessed, that solo involves an abundance of tonic-to-dominant perfect fifths. However, towards the end of the solo, the dominant pitch is approached by stepwise motion from above; but the “step” is neither a semitone or a whole tone. It is somewhere between the two; and the result can be spooky, provocative, or downright disturbing, depending on the personal disposition of the listener. That result is the movement from the thirteenth harmonic to the twelfth (two octaves above the third harmonic, the basis for the so-called “perfect fifth”).

Britten wrote that daring passage in 1943 for Dennis Brain, the leading horn player of his day. Some 75 years have elapsed since then, during which Harrison emerged as only one of several composers bent on turning to just intonation to explore new ways to think about the fundamental foundations of musical composition. Remember, this was a time when many composers were wrestling with how to approach composition after Arnold Schoenberg had “emancipated” the concept of dissonance. Schoenberg himself saw that emancipation as a liberation from harmonic progression, meaning that the primary foundation of his own work was polyphony; but his was a polyphony that was similarly “emancipated” from the strictures of species counterpoint, which had is own rules based on a distinction between consonance and dissonance.

45 years on we now have Gann, who has written in his notes for the booklet accompanying Hyperchromatica, that his goal “is no less than to reinvent tonality.” I have to confess that this quote sticks rather uncomfortably in my craw. I prefer to think that tonality was discovered, rather than “invented.” Making music is a behavior that probably goes back to the earliest practices of prehistoric social groups. During those prehistoric times, there was probably the emergence of a fundamental precept that, if you liked something you did, do it again. Eventually, when our ancestors were not hunting or gathering, they would assemble in a group to tell stories, or sing them, or perhaps even sing them while others provided “instrumental accompaniment.” Not too long thereafter, those “instrumentalists” realized that they could “perform” just as well without “accompanying” the singers!

It probably took many centuries before mind developed to a point where one could consider these practices and recognize them as instances of some systematic infrastructure. Such systematic thinking dates back (at least) to Socrates (or Plato’s documentation of Socrates’ wisdom). However, it was only in the Middle Ages that more extensive efforts at such documentation advanced. Those efforts would eventually work their way into educational curricula. However, for a long time educational practices seemed to lack the ability to recognize the difference between a document that was descriptive and one that was prescriptive. So it was that the confusion between rules to be followed and descriptions of past practices first emerged; and, on the basis of some of Schoenberg’s more caustic writings, it would appear that all too many practitioners are still laboring under that confusion.

I am not sure where Gann stands in the midst of that confusion, but I think that one way to establish a point of view is by going back to the basics behind practices of making music. Put another way, what was Gann actually making in the process of creating each of the seventeen movements of his suite? At the most fundamental level, he was writing MIDI programs for Disklaviers. MIDI, of course, was based on the equal-tempered tuning of twelve semitones, all the same size, to the octave, the usual way in which most pianos are tuned. In order to deal with just intonation Gann had to alter the hardware of his Disklaviers to synthesize pitches they had not been designed to synthesize. Furthermore, to account for a gamut of 33 pitches per octave, he needed three of those Disklaviers to account for all of the pitches. In other words what Gann made was an extensive library of software to run on an array of hardware, which he had made specifically for that software.

All that probably sounds so dry that many readers may wonder, “What does that have to do with making music?” It is therefore to Gann’s credit that I have to say that, if one puts all thoughts of theory aside and just listens to these two CDs, it is not difficult to imagine that Gann was playing at some non-standard keyboard, perhaps even improvising, rather than building a software library. In other words, while his methods were not actually products of the tight coupling between listening and making, he has successfully created the illusion of that coupling.

Having accepted that illusion, what is the listening experience that emerges from these recordings? The overall impression is one of exploration, often involved with establishing some “seed” of content and then playing around with different approaches to expressing that seed. Those who have listened to (and enjoyed) many of the prolonged improvisations that have been recorded of Keith Jarrett’s solo piano work can appreciate this approach to listening; and, for the most part, Gann works on durational scales that are not quite as extended as Jarrett’s.

On the other hand everything we listen to in the present is informed by what we have listened to in the past. One of my first counterpoint teachers (from the days of that “great confusion” between description and prescription) would consistently come down on all of his students for writing what he called “slimy chromaticism.” Gann has a frequent tendency to run through long strings of consecutive “micro-semitones” in his gamut that would escalate my former teacher’s sense of “slimy” to a level he could not have imagined.

However, Gann’s “hyperchromatic” runs may be the tip of a more imposing iceberg. Over the course of these seventeen pieces, there is little sense of hierarchy in what Gann is playing. The durational value of individual notes often serve as a clue to which of his notes are basically embellishments, but it is not always clear just what they are embellishing. As one who continues to have considerable respect for the theoretical writings of Heinrich Schenker, I feel that the absence of a clear distinction between the embellishing and the embellished reduces much of what Gann is doing on these recordings to another term that my counterpoint teacher used to throw at us: noodling.

To be fair, I am sure that Jarrett has any number of critics that would throw that same term at many (all?) of his prolonged improvisations. For that matter, there are any number of reasons to believe that Miles Davis felt the same way when John Coltrane launched into one of his longer improvised takes on whatever tune they happened to be playing. In other words the experience of listening to Hyperchromatica may, for better or worse, simply be similar to that of my recent account of listening to the world premiere of Lera Auerbach’s Labyrinth, in which I cited Henry Miller’s definition of “confusion” as “a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.” Fortunately, a recording provides ample opportunity to eventually home in on an order that is not yet understood!

No comments: