For solo piano in just intonation
Ever since the death of my mentor, Morton Feldman, I’ve wanted to compose something in his memory – in honor of his work as a composer, and in gratitude for what he taught me.
In a sense, I could have tacked a dedication onto any of my works. He communicated to me a level of artistic awareness and a sensitivity to sound the formed the core of everything I do as a musician. But it wasn’t until the Danish pianist, Erik Skjoldan, asked me to write him a long solo piano piece, which I felt I had found the appropriate vehicle.
I first met Erik in 1980, in Buffalo, NYwhere I was studying with Feldman. Erik had come there as a Fulbright Fellow to study contemporary American piano music. He was intrigued by Feldman’s work, and carried his interest back to Copenhagen where he perform, among other compositions, the European premiere of For Bunita Marcus, a long solo piano piece from Feldman’s late period.
Over the years, Erik has also commissioned a number of works from me: Voir for soprano and piano; Palongawhoya, a chamber concerto for piano; Just Piano for piano solo; and Nierika for violin and piano.
When I last visited Erik, in 1991, he had recently performed For Bunita Marcus. The extended concentration required to perform an hour long solo piece proved to be a deeply satisfying challenge for Erik. Given Feldman’s influence on both Erik and me, it seemed especially fitting that the next piece Erik asked me to write for him would be a long solo work.
From the start, I knew that this was the piece I would dedicate to Feldman’s memory, and in fact, I Imagined it as a wordless requiem. But a few years passed before I could begin work on it, and the scope of the original idea began to change. As the end of the millennium approached, I became increasingly preoccupied with the general condition of the human spirit. Gradually I began to see Feldman’s requiem in a larger context, and it became in my mind a sort of requiem for the 20th century as well.
Like others of my generation, 25 years ago I was consumed by ideals that I imagined would have the power to transform the world. Inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, I was convinced that the human race was capable of global compassion and that by the year 200 we would have largely fulfilled that dream by the inescapable force of insight. It seemed obvious to me that violence and contempt were not ultimately in anyone’s best interest. Who then would intentionally pursue a course of perennial self destruction?
Of course as it turns out, genocidal wars are still being waged, white supremacy is out of the closet again, and in many less blatant ways, and we continue to be as petty and brutal as ever.
Yet strangely, I am neither disillusioned, repulsed, nor even disappointed. Perhaps we do have global compassion – it just happens to co-exist with global contempt. In any case, despite everything, the experience of being alive remains absolutely astonishing, exquisite and entirely inconceivable.
As this all took root in my mind, I eventually found that I was no longer in the mood to write a requiem. To be sure, the title, Tangible Midnight, refers to the palpable darkness of spirit which seems to pervade the final years of the millennium. But to wail in grief or what, for all we know, may be our permanent condition seems itself a bit petty. And though I might mourn the loss of a brilliant mentor, death itself doesn’t seem to inspire me to pessimism or despair.
Tangible Midnight therefore became not so much a requiem, as a nocturne for the vigil I found myself keeping in the waning moments of the millennium. And from my watch, such as it is, it would appear that the dawn of the new millennium will amount to no more than business as usual – which is to say we’ll have more than adequate supply of both the sublime and the horrible.
As satisfying as it has always been to rage against the horror, or to yearn for the sublime, for the time being at least, neither of these occupations seems to be able to hold my attention. Apparently, I’m too dumbfounded from watching my few strands of life weave their way endlessly through the exquisite counterpoint of the whole fantastic mess.
Feldman taught me to hear music as an abstract tapestry, and a Tangible Midnight is a catalogue of the handful of threads I’ve been able to grasp.
Part I is a suite of two-part inventions joined by a common rhythmic structure. This rhythmic scheme is a two tiered hierarchy: each of the 7 sections is 45 measures long with phrase lengths of 9,5,6,7,4,5 and 9 measures; these relative lengths are maintained between sections by means of proportional tempo changes (longer sections have slower tempos; shorter sections have faster tempos).
Each invention develops its own distinctive melodic material until the final section, where material from each of the preceding sections is presented in order and with its corresponding phrase length. This recapitulation emphasizes the contrasts between the various segments of material, as the contrasts themselves serve to highlight the proportions of the phrase structure, now in its seventh occurrence.
Part II is structurally similar to part I with 6 sections each divided into 6 phrases (42 measures divided 7,5,6,9,8,7) but with the addition of tempo changes within the sections as well as between them.
Recapitulation occurs in the penultimate rather than the final position in part II. Each section restates it’s material in the 5th phrase, and the 5th section restates material from each of the preceding sections and then introduces the material of the 6th section.
Like part I, part II is a suite of two-part inventions, but with a focus on rhythmic rather than melodic counterpoint. Loosely patterned on the Central African polyrhythmic principles, the rhythmic cells played by either hand separately are relatively simple. However, when the two parts combine, the resulting polyrhythms are substantially more complex.
Part III is a suite of canons and voice exchanges. The phrase structure is therefore determined by the inherent periodicity of these forms of imitative counterpoint. In the 3 part canons, the last voice to enter always initiates the next canon, creative a texture that seamlessly thickens and thins as it migrates from low to high and high to low.
Part IV is suite of six passacaglias where the 5th section restates material from the previous four sections, and the 6th section weaves material from parts I, II, and III over a bass line derived from the opening measures of part I. The phrase structure is determined by the periodicity of the recurring bass lines.
I explored three very different approaches to rhythm in Tangible Midnight. Parts I and IV are both somewhat “feldmanesque” in that most of the rhythmic patterns were created simply as successions of varying durations with little or no reference to accent, beat or meter. Melodic/rhythmic material floats across the beat rather than being driven by it.
In part II however, reference to the beat is the glue that holds together the disparate polyrhythmic cells. Even as the accents shift and the tempo changes, the ear searches for a pulse against which it can measure the complexity.
Part III explores the traditional western understanding of rhythm in which patterns refer clearly to the beat, and the beats clearly combine in recurring metrical patterns. Because of this close association of rhythm and meter, patterns with off-beat accents have a syncopated feel. The rhythmic character of part III is therefore very different from that of part II, in which there are no metrical expectations to contradict, and consequently, the shifting accents only refer to each other and are thus not felt to be syncopated.
Notes on Just Intonation
Seduced by its exceptional beauty, clarity and cohesion, I have been working exclusively in just intonation since 1980. From the outset it was clear to me that the quality and richness of these harmonies, drawn untempered from the overtone series, would demand their own language and syntax.
I had heart pieces, for instance, where the pitches were based on Partch’s system, yet every other element of the style resembled serial music. To me it simple sounded like Boulez being played out of tune. Yet the minimalist approach to just intonation – playing scale patterns over well tuned drones – tended to put me to sleep.
I couldn’t get excited about trying to graft a new harmonic language onto any existing stylistic model, so I began to develop a style that unfolds from the intervals themselves and the way they relate to each other. Rhythms, melodies, phrase structures, etc. were all derived from the same proportions as the harmonies.
After several years of working this way, the “feel” of these relationships has sunk in to the extent that the language has a life of its own, and I’m free to be completely poetic and intuitive within its framework.
I typically work with 19 tones to the octave, although I occasionally venture as far as 32. My primary scale is the 8th through the 16th partials of an overtone series with “C” as the fundamental. I also work with modal variations of the primary scale built on the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th partials of that series.
Part of the appeal for me in working with just intonation, is the opportunity to move on. The 20th Century is almost over. What we think of as New Music is in fact getting kind of old. Perhaps it’s time to do something else. Just intonation has provided me a relatively clean slate on which I hope to sketch out an aesthetic that looks to the new millennium.