Microtonality in New York

The venerable Jerry Bowles of Sequenza 21 reminds me that I should be attending to my own PR, and I need the reminder. It never becomes a reflex, for some reason.

But three members of the Da Capo ensemble, joined by myself and my son Bernard, will perform my new piece The Day Revisited this Tuesday, January 24, at 7:30 PM at the Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street. It’s my first NYC gig in a year or two, I guess, and if Stockhausen can perform with his son Markus, I can perform with mine. Flutist Pat Spencer and clarinetist Meighan Stoops had asked me to write them a microtonal piece, and after having their heads examined I complied with a work in a 27-tone, just-intonation scale, for flute, clarinet, two keyboard samplers, and fretless bass, this last played by my son, who’s pretty inured to my tunings by now. Though slow and mellow it’s a damned difficult piece because of the tunings, but I’ll just be sitting there playing chords. Also on the program are works by a bunch of famous people: Eric Moe, Martin Bresnick, Derek Bermel, Michael Gordon, Gene Pritsker, and Philippe Hurel, which I guess means I’m a real composer too. Da Capo’s calling this a world premiere – the only other performance was here at Bard, and we had technical problems then that we’re not going to have this time, knock on wood. Call 212-219-3006 and bother the Knitting Factory about it.

Pianist extraordinaire Sarah Cahill will also play two of my Private Dances at REDCAT in Los Angeles on February 18, but I’ll remind you about that later.

I’ve had a hell of a time with my microtonal music lately. I’ve outgrown the samplers I’ve been using for the last 12 years, and am at the epicenter of a complete technological overhaul. Nowadays everything is software-based, so I’ve acquired Kontakt 2, Max/MSP, and Scala (newly available for the Mac) in an attempt to get better sounds and more feasible playability in my microtonal stuff. For years I’ve taken a lot of crap from people who find my electronic timbres amateurish, which has always seem unfair, since I’m using the most expensive microtonal samplers I can afford. So what if I use the sounds that come with the box? – I make up my own pitches, and everyone else uses the pitches that come with the box, which strikes me as a worse infraction. If I can get Kontakt to work (still touch and go at the moment), I’ll reorchestrate as much of my early music as I can stand to. Suggestions on how to get good sounds with microtonal-friendly software are always welcome. It’s a huge barrier between me and the continuation of my career at the moment. As for The Day Revisited, I usually don’t write microtonal music for acoustic instruments because the performance hurdles are just too great, but I was asked, and they’re working their butts off.

While I’m blowing my own horn here, Christopher DeLaurenti has officially given my book Music Downtown its jaunty first review.


  1. says

    Nice review of your book, Kyle—congratulations! Sorry to hear that you do not like Shostakovich—he’s always been one of my favorite composers, even at the top of my list (although Feldman is neck and neck). Some stuff of his might certainly be considered “mediocre,” as is true with most prolific composers operating under oppressive political systems. But a lot of his music is pretty profound and on occasion even avant-garde for its time (4th symphony, the nose, and a few others). You may want to give some of his stuff another listen.

  2. says

    I gave up synthesizers in frustration back in 1999, and I have yet to return. After reading Genesis of a Music in 2001, I was determined to experiment in JI, but I had no idea how to proceed.

    After trying to build my own instruments (which was a spectacular failure), I resorted to the simplest electronic timbre possible – sine waves. I now actually use Csound to generate sine waves, since I could find no decent software tone generator for free, and I refuse to pay for something as simple as sine waves. I’ve written a couple of simple shell scripts on my Mac to generate sliding tones and masses of sine waves, and I put them together in ProTools (matching the end points, etc.). Still, it is much less satisfying than writing music while playing an instrument, so I continue to write in ET as well.

    I think there needs to be a software synth program writen specifically for composers writing in JI (preferably for the Mac). I found Scala pretty difficult to use, but I haven’t tried it since my Csound adventures. Is anything like that out there? Could something be created using Csound and a decent UI? Anybody know a good programmer?

    Kyle, let us know what you settle on – I would be interested to see how your transition goes.

  3. Jun-Dai Bates-Kobashigawa says

    I suppose you’ve considered recording sounds for yourself that have clearly defined pitches (e.g., bells, piano keys, wine glasses, triangles, tuning forks, wind instruments) and then altering the pitches to suit your needs?

  4. says

    Are the particular timbres you use part of the piece, or part of its realization on a particular recording? I’m ignorant of how the underlying technology works – could someone else use different timbres, for the same set of pitches, and come up with something that you would recognize as a “performance” (right word?) of the piece?
    KG replies: Absolutely. I write the piece and then “orchestrate” it with what I’ve got. When I get a better instrument I’ll orchestrate it again. There just aren’t that many synths that allowed unlimited user tuning.

  5. says

    Hey Kyle, I didn’t realize you were on the Mac now.
    If you want really great support for tuning Kontakt 2, take a look at my Li’l Miss’ Scale Oven. It has very comprehensive support for arbitrarily tuning Kontakt, is compatible with every other tuning format imaginable, has forward thinking features like switching between scales in real time with no glitching, and is super easy to use. It’s the best tuning software around and will remove all headaches associated with tuning Kontakt 2, and a large number of other instruments as well.
    – Jeff