I wrote some more of my Nursery Tunes for Demented Children that I recently mentioned here. They’re silly little pieces, but they serve a serious purpose for me. I’ve been doing a lot of sketches for large works in what I call my 8×8 tuning, which contains potentialities that I need to explore and learn to hear before I can commit myself to basing entire pieces on them. In particular I’ve been trying out, in the second and fourth pieces here, more exotic triads a little higher in the harmonic series, such as 7:9:11, 10:13:15, and 8:11:13, which resolve in both pieces to conventional major (4:5:6) and minor (10:12:15) triads. “Tiger, Tiger” climbs through the 33-pitch scale step by step to control the harmony, just as so much late Romantic music harmonized the charomatic scale. And the final piece moves between major triads on the 5th and 13th harmonics in kind of a super-Neo-Riemannian voice-leading. Anyone capable of the requisite math can quickly see what I mean.
I just love that microtonality enables me to write music with which I can confuse my own ear. And I think it’s fun to occasionally hear conventional musical textures reworked microtonally, as a way of imagining what we might have been doing all these decades had Europe decided not to cut us off above the 5th harmonic. I also realize occasionally that I could have been a passable neoclassicist had I decided to go that route, though that would have seemed like career suicide when I was first starting out. But as it turns out, almost everything interesting is career suicide, microtonality most of all.
I can use these pieces to illustrate a didactic point, though. My 1/1, the reference point of my tuning, is Eb, but that doesn’t mean the pieces are all in that key. The first piece is in G, the last in C13-flat, and the penultimate begins every phrase on D7-flat; the others move around. I tend to avoid Eb, in fact, because that’s where the least exotic intervals are. I say this to confute all those music professors who find it droll to smugly remind us that Harry Partch’s music is all in the key of G. (Partch’s 1/1 is G 392 Hz.) Actually, Partch’s music employs many tonalities, and sometimes none. It would be exactly as accurate to claim that all orchestra music is in the key of A, since that’s the pitch the orchestra tunes to before the performance. I could rename any of my 33 pitches 1/1, but Eb is the reference point that provides the simplest fractions. There’s a precise analogy with a meantone keyboard: in the 17th century, writing in the key of Bb made more of the sharp side of the circle of fifths available, while the key of A major made more of the subdominant side possible, so you chose your key according to the mood you were aiming for. So you could as easily claim that all pre-1800 keyboard music is in the key of C. The attractiveness of having an implicit center is the subtle tension of leaning away from it. Resisting gravity is how artists create a feeling of lightness.