Ben Johnston – Suite for Microtonal Piano (1977)

Suite for Microtonal Piano (1978) is a suite for specifically microtonally tuned piano(s) by Ben Johnston written in 1977 (see also just intonation). According to Bob Gilmore the piece, “take[s] extended just intonation well beyond the point reached by Harry Partch.”

“The piano is tuned to a selection of overtones from the fifth octave of the harmonic spectrum of C. All octaves are tuned in the same scale….The lowest C (33 Hz.) can be used to tune the scale by ear. In succession, touch the nodes producing the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 11th, 13th, 17th, [and] 19th partials. Then G, D; D, A; E, B; [and] B-flat, F; are just (beatless) fifths.”

Movements

  1. Alarum
  2. Blues
  3. Etude
  4. Song
  5. Toccata

Alarum is a Shakespeare era stage direction indicating “a grand entrance” and an archaic word for a call to arms, so
“Alarum” is a fanfare.

“Blues” and “Song” are both slow movements. “Blues” uses as blue notes the minor seventh (C-B♭) and mediant (in D dorian exactly halfway between E and G). “Song” is in E phrygian.

“Etude” is a study in serial technique and six-against-five polyrhythms in which Johnston indicates “blur with pedal”. This, “clues us in that the linear intricacies are only part of the story here: the amazing swirl of overtones resulting from an atonal application of this tuning are of equal importance.”

“Toccata” features diatonic outer sections and a spikier chromatic middle section.
The piece has been recorded and released on:

Microtonal Piano by Ben Johnston (1997). Phillip Bush, piano. Koch International Classics 3-7369-2.
















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Conlon Nancarrow – Study for Player Piano 3a (1988)

From the album Studies For Player Piano by Conlon Nancarrow, recorded on Conlon Nancarrow’s custom-altered 1927 Ampico reproducing piano at the studio of the composer in Mexico City on January 10 and 12, 1988.

 Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano is a cycle of work unique in many respects, not the least being its seeming indivisibility from itself. As the primary text of the music is a hand-punched piano roll intended to be played on specific, Ampico model player pianos, it does not lead to a wide range of options in terms of interpretation. Studies for Player Piano, stems from master tapes made in Mexico City for release on the 1750 Arch label in the 1970s and ’80s, with Nancarrow´s own specially retrofitted pianos, in Nancarrow´s studio, and with the composer himself picking tempos and working with producer Charles Amirkhanian to achieve ideal results. These recordings were considered state of the art at the time and still sound great, and can certainly be considered definitive; CDs drawing from sources made later represent the music as played back by other machines and operators. While the differences might be slight, they are still significant, particularly in regard to tempo choices, which can either make or break this music, and breaking it isn’t hard to do at all. Hearing them played back on Nancarrow´s pianos also affords an additional layer of articulation missing from many reproductions; one of Nancarrow´s pianos was fitted with metal hammers, resulting a clattery sense of attack, whereas the other had hammers covered with leather strips for a more mellow sound. Make no mistake about it: the Other Minds set truly represents what Nancarrow himself wanted you to hear when it came to his player piano music, and he did have very specific ideas about that. [source]

Conlon Nancarrow – Piano

 

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Conlon Nancarrow – Piece for Ligeti (1988)

If the truth be told, Mr. Nancarrow, born in Texarkana, Ark., but a citizen of Mexico for the last 30 years, has not always been easy to find. He is a gentle and grandfatherly figure; his reputation is that of the mystery man of modern music whose isolation is as much a result of choice as of circumstance. Even now, as acclaim finally descends on him for his pioneering work on the player piano, he remains much better known to his fellow musicians than to the concertgoing public.

The composer and conductor Gyorgy Ligeti, for instance, calls Mr. Nancarrow’s work ”the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives.” Since first coming across some of Mr. Nancarrow’s piano pieces in a Paris record store in 1980, he has vigorously championed Mr. Nancarrow’s jagged and elaborately contrapuntal music, both from the podium and in print.

”His music is so utterly original, enjoyable, constructive and at the same time emotional,” Mr. Ligeti has written. ”For me, it is the best music by any living composer of today.”

Mr. Nancarrow also has acquired, much to his surprise, something of a cult following in the pop music world. The guitarist and composer Frank Zappa, whose own work reflects Mr. Nancarrow’s fondness for dense textures and multiple interweaving melodic lines, says he has been an ardent admirer since 1967, when he was introduced to the composer’s work by Jimi Hendrix’s recording engineer.

Mr. Zappa said that what initially struck him about Mr. Nancarrow’s work was ”that the mechanics of design are often more important than their relation to normal harmonic concepts.” With the passage of time, he added, his appreciation for Mr. Nancarrow’s ”unique spiritual build and expression of character, his willingness to take chances,” has also grown. ”In terms of individualism, I think he ranks up there with Webern, Stravinsky, Varese and Schoenberg,” Mr. Zappa said in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. ”There’s been nothing like him before or after.” [Source]