I’m putting up a new version of my microtonal work Solitaire:
It’s been sound-produced by M.C. Maguire, whom I consider the best Canadian composer of my generation, and in fact the most original figure in Canadian music since R. Murray Schafer (and I do follow Canadian music). My electronic/microtonal works are scored and notated, but I don’t have the electronic chops to realize them in a sophisticated way, and Mike is my software creative genius go-to guy for putting them together. He takes my template recording and retains the timbres I composed, but enriches them and blends them better and adds effects that make the overall sound texture more dynamic. I think he’s done a fabulous job here. In short, I compose the pieces in every detail, and he performs them. The situation makes perfect sense to me, but it renders my music neither-fish-nor-fowl where the electronic composers are concerned. I don’t care. Coloring within the lines never appealed to me. I got sick of writing new chord progressions no one had ever heard before and having people react, “Ew, I can’t stand those timbres!” and dismiss the music. I’m making a push to get my microtonal works out on CD.
I recently mentioned that my Orbital Resonance was the kind of piece composers would be impressed by, and I suspect Solitaire is the kind of piece of mine that makes them shake their heads over me. I have always supported the position that, for many people, words can help people understand music better (otherwise I have wasted much of my life), and so at the risk of raising arguments where none were intended, I’m going to mount a defense of Solitaire against imagined objections.
Like much of my music, the piece doesn’t wear its strangeness on the surface. On the surface are the normal elements of music: melody, harmony, meter, even a slight retro pop sensibility. It seems naïve (or did before Mike got ahold of it, anyway). Its surface naivete is a carefully calculated construction. It is almost cartoon-like, and I’ve always admired cartoons (in fact, at age twelve before I became a composer I wanted to be a cartoonist) for their clean, hard lines, their indifference to realism, their personality-expressing, deliberately pixelated approximation of reality. The strange part – the microtonal connection of chords via intervals based on the 11th and 13th harmonics – is backgrounded, and is so modestly finessed that a casual listener might not even notice it. In fact, I laced this microtonal piece with normal iv-V-vi chords in the key of Eb, so there are passages in which the ear is lulled into thinking there is nothing unusual at all. In its notes, it’s a piece that could have been written seventy years ago – if the preceding two centuries had been very different.
I have sometimes thought of myself as the anti-John Zorn. He tried to make everything as fast and discontinuous and disconcerting as possible, and I sometimes try to make everything sound as normal as possible – EXCEPT THAT…. And that except that is the piece. It’s my philosophical link with my favorite living composer Mikel Rouse, whose music also sometimes sounds so normal that people miss the weird ironies in the background. I’ve been reading Philip K. Dick recently, and of course always knew him by reputation, and there may be a Dick-ish quality to it: a suburban house, kid playing in the backyard, everything is normal except that it’s an alternate reality and these are androids who live their lives backward, or something else from an alternate universe.
Also Solitaire‘s form is, I think, one of my finest achievements. It’s written postminimalistically in rhythmic modules, and the challenge I set myself was to create, via the melody, a subjective and spontaneous sense of form within a simple framework that provided only a method, not a structure. At one point the melody goes into steady quarter-notes for awhile (my old friend Doug Skinner’s favorite rhythm), later it falls into a kind of ecstatic dance in 5/4, then plays note-fragments meditatively, and ends by repeating a three-note motive every six beats, even though the meter and harmony are changing irregularly underneath it – an effect I don’t think I’ve ever heard in any other music. Overall, I wanted the piece (inspired by a Robert Ashley comment and dedicated to him) to sound so normal that people uninterested in new composition would find it appealing and easy to follow, while new-music experts would hear chord progressions and microtonal voice-leadings they’d never heard before. It’s the opposite of what I think of new music as a genre generally represents: crazy stuff that doesn’t even strike the uninitiated as music, but whose elements are quickly recognized and understood by aficionados. As someone who has spent his life defining and classifying new music, it is understandable that as a composer I sometimes have an impulse to get far away from it, with the result that it seems to other composers that I’m not even trying to be original, when in reality my irony has brought me around 360 degrees.
I don’t think Solitaire is my best piece, because it is far from being the most ambitious, but among my microtonal works of several years ago I do think it achieved an optimal point of crystallization for the ideas I had at the time. As with everything else you may listen to it and not like it and that can’t be helped. But now you are at least assured that I composed out of some sense of artistic necessity, and that the piece’s refusal to cooperate with the modernist project is deliberate.
Stefan Hetzel says
@Kyle: I like “Solitaire”. For me, it symbolizes the kind of eccentricity and “stubbornness” I was always fond of. Perhaps you’re interested to listen to some microtonal piano work by me:
(It’s a blend of Skrjabin and La Monte Young.)
All the best from snowy Germany
KG replies: It does sound like a microtonal reworking of an earlier conception of music. I think we’re going to need a lot of that before microtonality starts to sound attractive to most people.
Stefan Hetzel says
@Kyle: Well, it actually IS a point-to-point microtonal re-rendering of Skrjabin’s last opus (sorry, I didn’t tell that explicitly). Therefore it is of course, not “genuinely” microtonal music (as is yours), but a conceptual composition working with microtonality.
KG replies: I replied before reading the explanation. All the better: I think Scriabin was held back by the tuning he inherited, and I’ve long connected him with La Monte via Dane Rudhyar.
Doug Skinner says
Pretty tasty, with some nice microtonal surprises. The “retro pop sensibility” is fun; I can imagine Barry White creeping into the mix.
KG replies: Don’t know the name, but I can imagine.
Allan J. Cronin says
I don’t know enough about microtonality nor am I familiar with a great deal of microtonal music outside of Harry Partch, La Monte Young and their ilk but Solitaire did seem to me to have captured some of the displaced and anachronistic feel of Philip K. Dick’s work.
Might I recommend, “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said”? Also one of my favorite of his short stories that happens to be about music, “The Preserving Machine”.
KG replies: Yes, I’m reading that next after I finish Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. My son wanted me to read Ubik first.