Slumming with the Pitch-Benders

The alternate tuning world is abuzz with the news that John Adams has gone microtonal. (Well, OK – that means Joe Pehrson put a notice on the tuning@yahoogroups list and a couple of people responded. But there aren’t many of us, and we’re pretty easy to get buzzed up.) Adams’ new orchestral work The Dharma at Big Sur, being premiered October 23 or 24 depending on whether you believe Adams’ web page or the Boosey and Hawkes press release (I couldn’t find the info listed on the LA Philharmonic site), is reportedly written in a system of pure tuning known as just intonation, with more pitches to the octave and more resonant chords than you’ll find on the piano. (If you’re curious, I have a crash course in just intonation on my web site.) It’s the first large piece opening the new Frank Gehry-designed Disney Center, and the piece features a solo for a six-string violin (the bottom two strings being C and F), played by Tracy Silverman.

For Adams, currently our most successful orchestra composer, to embrace just intonation is sort of like, if Madonna made a political video endorsing Dennis Kucinich – it brings a level of publicity that we long-time advocates couldn’t possibly generate on our own. But it raises a lot of questions, too. Just intonation takes some getting used to, and requires a lot of theorizing. How long has Adams been experimenting in this area? Is he simply tuning fifths pure for Pythagorean tuning, or has he ventured up the harmonic series for more exotic overtones? He’s certainly been close to the musics of Lou Harrison and Terry Riley, two of the most prominent JI composers, but generally when people are used to only the standard 12 pitches for decades, their first attempt to engage a completely different harmonic system is pretty rickety. From the other side, just intonation harmonies are notoriously difficult for orchestra. Most string players hate having to relinquish the precise left-hand finger positions that they’ve worked so hard to perfect. Brass players can easily switch to the harmonic series of their instrument as long as that’s all they’re called on to do, but the more idiosyncratic woodwinds have to deal with all kinds of different fingerings, which can even vary from one clarinet to another. It’s why there’s very little orchestral music written in JI, more often reserved for adventurous string quartets, retuned pianos and harpsichords, homemade instruments (like Harry Partch’s), and tunable synthesizers.

Does Adams know what he’s doing? Can the LA Phil pull it off? Will just intonation suddenly become a household word in orchestral circles? Will every hot-shot orchestra composer now write his token, inept JI piece while those of us who’ve been doing it our entire lives remain on the sidelines? Or – hell, I can be optimistic just for a moment – will this lead to the breakthrough we’ve been waiting for, and a new era of appreciation for, and experimentation with, all the myriad ways music can be tuned? Adams’ music has grown so conservative in recent years that the circles I’m in greet most news of his premieres with yawns, but there will be plenty of extra reason to keep a close ear on this one – not least of which is, that the sonorities of just intonation are really gorgeous, and that’s why we make so many ridiculous sacrifices to achieve them.