Choral Music of the Future

1/1 is the unlikely name of a small but important journal published by Other Music, Inc., little known to the public but eagerly awaited and closely read by microtonal musicians. It’s the most significant periodical devoted to the system of pure tuning known as Just Intonation – i.e., the practice of tuning pitches according to whole number ratios. And the current issue offers a cover article by LA microtonalist Bill Alves partly analyzing Toby Twining’s Chrysalid Requiem. What’s rare and exciting about this is that Twining’s choral magnum opus is only three years old, true 21st-century music, and it’s exceedingly rare to get analytical information about music that recent. Plus, Chrysalid Requiem, a revolutionary work in its approach to tuning, represents the choral music of the future.

Perhaps not the immediate future – with everything so conservative these days, and arts funding rolling unidirectionally backward, and the free fall of our culture into corporate fascism and the general ignorance necessary to allow it, Twining’s vision may remain an oddity for decades, possibly even centuries. But fusing as it does a Renaissance choral concept, advanced systems of tuning inherent in Harry Partch’s music, and overtone-singing techiques traditional to Tibet and Tuva and increasingly explored in the west, the time will inevitably come when this kind of music will represent more of a common practice. Like myself, Twining studied with microtonalist Ben Johnston, who, after working with Partch, invented his own incredibly flexible and logical microtonal notation based on extensions of Renaissance practice. In addition to the usual sharps and flats, the notation has pluses and minuses, little “7′”s and upside-down “7′”s, arrows pointing up and down, “13”‘s right-side-up and upside-down, and so on. Twining, working out sequences of harmonic progressions not terribly complex in themselves, nevertheless wanders into harmonies so far afield that the notation ends up as an incredible morass with sometimes more than ten accidentals per note; the mind-boggling examples Alves gives are not even the most complex in the piece. The only way to perform the piece was for Twining to create a synthesizer realization, and for the singers to listen to it over headphones while performing.

If sometimes stark and austere, Chrysalid Requiem is just as often warm and thrilling, and most spine-tingling when it buzzes with overtone-singing techniques (in which the 12 singers each sing more than one pitch at a time). I’d even recomend the piece as thoughtful new music for the Christmas season. There’s a recording on Cantalope that I reviewed in the June 4, 2002, Village Voice, and you can hear several excerpts at Just Intonation Network. Alves’s analysis is only a few pages and far from exhaustive, but it offers a wealth of musical examples, correlated with the audio examples at Just Intonation Network, and gives the basis of Twining’s numerical rhythmic structuring techniques, rich with Christian symbolism, along with the modulation patterns through which he achieves tonal contrasts never before heard. At least in concept, Alves makes this complex work seem simpler than it sounds.

1/1 is selflessly kept in operation by David B. Doty, who would love for you to subscribe at www.justintonation.net. Or write to the Just Intonation Network at 535 Stevenson Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, whence you can also order a T-shirt emblazoned with the 12th root of 2 with a slash through it – a microtonalist’s arcane way of protesting our ubiquitous, out-of-tune, equal tempered tuning. One gets so sick and tired of reading interviews where unimaginative composers and rock stars opine that everything’s been done, there’s nothing new under the sun, and we’re in a postmodern period in which we can only rearrange elements from the past. The fantastic reach of Chrysalid Requiem into one possible future shows how ignorant and superficial all such assertions are.