With some slight hesitation I post a new and rather comical work to the internet. It was supposed to be titled Triskaidekaphonia 2 because it uses the same tuning as my piece Triskaidekaphonia, but it turned out so programmatic that I couldn’t leave it with such an abstract title. So it’s The Aardvarks’ Parade (click to listen, just over ten minutes), in honor of an animal with which I had a childhood fascination. For the first time ever I’ve written a microtonal piece in a scale I’d already used before, and it’s the simplest one I’ve ever used: all the ratios of the whole numbers 1 through 13 multiplied by a fundamental, yielding 29 pitches. The form is AAAA: I was musing about a melody repeated over and over, in simple quarter-notes and 8th-notes, but so intricate in its tuning that several repetitions wouldn’t be enough to make it predictable. If I Am Sitting in a Room is the conceptualist Bolero, maybe this is microtonality’s Bolero. I tend to repeat things four times in my pieces: partly because it’s an American Indian tradition, paying homage to the East, West, North, and South, and partly because my first college composition teacher, Joseph Wood, told me that you could only get away with repeating something three times in a piece, instantly stirring my innate rebelliousness.
It was a luxury not having to spend the first week working out the scale, and also returning to a scale whose properties I’m beginning to know pretty well. The scale’s only limitation is that it tends toward tonal immobility, and I succumbed to a drone in this case, as I did in Triskaidekaphonia. I’ve already started two more pieces on the same scale, though, that move it around to different tonics a little. I’ve fallen in love with a couple of new intervals: one is 13/10 (454 cents), on which a phrase ends unexpectedly at 1:06; another is 13/9 (636), which ends a phrase at 1:15 and almost sounds like a slightly sour dominant; and I’m appreciating the double leading-tone pairs of 13/9 with either 13/7 or 13/12, for a deliciously out-of-tune yet consonant medievalism (heard in the resolution of the opening sonority). Part of the point, after all, is to train myself (and perhaps others) to hear and recognize the whole new color that 13 provides. Perhaps The Aardvarks’ Parade will never be as popular as Bolero became after the movie 10, but when they finally make the movie 13, I’ve got the soundtrack ready.
In retrospect, it’s occurred to me that there was a model for the piece in one of my favorite memories as a music reviewer: One year Skip LaPlante’s microtonal group in New York, Music for Homemade Instruments, played a melody over and over in 13-tone equal temperament, and then at the end everyone sang it, a thrillingly simple yet ungodly weird achievement. Sometimes I feel like my music is a deliberate caricature of new music, all the expected subtleties quantized, pixelated, and translated into quarter-notes and 8th-notes. I like hard, clean lines and bright colors. I hate vagueness and violence, am sick of emotive gesturalism, and only like ambiguity if it’s sharply drawn and unmistakable. I warn my students that subtleties tend to get lost in performance, and that the reason Beethoven was so successful is that there are no subtleties in his music. Thus the naivete is intentional. Composers hate naivete, but most other people like it.