MicroFEST musicians explore sound spectrum

by John Adamian

| @adamianjohn

If you know what microtonal music is and can confidently explain it to a lay person, then chances are you’re a musician or a music nerd, or maybe an acoustic scientist. You will be among like-minded people when MicroFEST Winston-Salem unfolds for three nights of free forward-looking (and in some cases backward-looking) microtonal music this weekend. If you have no idea what microtonal music is but have a keen sense of curiosity and an appetite for frontiers of sound, well, there’s probably no better place in the area to get an intensive immersion experience in the subject.

The American Festival of Microtonal Music (AFMM) presents this event, with three nights of concerts around town Thursday, Sept. 24 through Saturday, Sept. 26, with each concert starting at 7:30 p.m. Some of the music is by noted microtonal pioneer and maverick American composer and instrument maker Harry Partch, who famously devised his own tuning systems and scales. Pieces by John Cage, Olivier Messiaen and Igor Stravinsky will also be performed. (In the case of the latter two composers, the pieces have been adapted for just intonation; the Cage piece uses a “prepared piano,” which involves inserting material into the piano strings, thereby creating microtonal variations on the traditional instrument.) There will also be microtonal music played on new instruments “” one which uses a rubber glove and a cylinder of water “” and performances of music by contemporary composers, including work by bassoonist and festival director Johnny Reinhard, of the AFMM, and pieces by Winston-Salem-based multi-instrumentalist, composer and educator Aaron Bachelder, the co-producer of the festival.

This is the first iteration of the festival below the Mason-Dixon line. Affiliated concerts and events have been happening in New York, Los Angeles and Boston and as far afield as Croatia.

Bachelder became interested in the subject when he was an undergraduate music student at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He met Reinhard through a magazine ad.

“I had gotten curious about microtonality in the late ’80s.

And there weren’t a lot of resources that I was aware of,” says Bachelder. “I responded to an ad for a seminar on microtonality that was being given by Johnny Reinhard, the director of AFMM, that was advertised in a now-defunct but wonderful new-music magazine called Ear Magazine. So I went up to New York and I took this couple-day seminar. I ended up being the only student who didn’t cancel, so it ended up being just me and Johnny, one on one, for hours and days, and it was fantastic.”

Viewed one way, microtonal music is a tiny and sometimes arcane subset of music. If you shift your perspective though, the case could be made that almost all music is microtonal, or at least it was for most of history. But what exactly is microtonal music? It’s a little tricky to explain to non-musicians, but think of the way that a piano divides an octave into 12 fixed pitches (start at Middle C and play every note “” black and white “” in ascending order until you hit the next C, and you’ll hear them all). Microtonal music is music that employs intervals that are smaller than those half steps between adjacent notes on the piano.

Pick your handy organizational system or technological innovation “” Microsoft Windows, the metric system, the QWERTY keyboard, the automatic transmission, say “” and you’ll find people, really smart people, who will tell you that there are better, more deeply meaningful, or more efficient ways of using a computer, making measurements, typing, driving or whatever it might be. The dominant systems “” these genius naysayers will insist “” start to intrude on the way we think, colonizing our minds, making us incapable of conceiving of other ways of doing things, limiting our connection with the world, rather than enhancing it. And so efforts to break free from these pragmatic systems emerge as alternate modes of working. For many, making microtonal music presents the same liberating possibility.

Avant-garde-leaning bands like Sonic Youth and Radiohead have explored microtonality in their work.

With microtonal music, access to all possible tone colors naturally presents more melodic options. Imagine a visual artist going from painting with only the unadulterated eight colors of the rainbow to then using all possible gradations and combinations of those colors through mixing; the expansion of possibilities is enormous. Or imagine a carpenter who only built furniture using pieces of wood that were measured in exact complete inches “” no half inches, no quarter inches, no shaving off a hair for the perfect fit. That expanded tone palette is one reason why composers and musicians gravitate to the idea of microtonality. Many genres of music “” like Indian classical music, African-American styles like the blues, jazz and gospel, Indonesian gamelan and many others “” have microtonal modes or ornaments built into the tradition. What’s more, from a harmonic perspective, the intervals of microtonal music have the potential of being more mathematically just or true, of corresponding more closely to the physical proportions from which our notations and sense of tonality are derived.

Among many composers and musicians drawn to microtonality “there is a very strong interest in the overtone series “” in utilizing it directly or approximating it,” says Bachelder. The overtone series is the physical series of other, less pronounced, tones made when a single tone is made using a vibrating string, or a resonating chamber, with prominent overtones mapping out, and beyond, the intervals that make up the major chord in Western music. It all gets fairly complex and egghead-y. But, as with physics, you don’t need to be Isaac Newton to have a real, practical, working relationship with gravity, and you don’t need to fully grasp microtonal theory to connect with the music. Something as simple as pulling a slide over a guitar string is an exercise in microtonal smears, a colorful slur that demonstrates the expressive possibilities of a full tonal spectrum.

“I don’t think that any composer or performer in this music has a strong feeling that it’s very important for the listener to latch too much onto the [theory],” says Bachelder.

For the analytically inclined, the theory and science behind microtonal music can present an engrossing calculus-exam-level challenge. Beyond the numbers, there are those who believe that 12-tone equal temperament, the tuning system that which steadily became the dominant system in Western music in the 18th century following J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, is impure, and even bad for one’s health, and there are those who see conspiracies behind its spread.

Numerous paths point listeners, musicians and composers toward microtonality.

“There are folks that are more interested in mathematically pure intervals, in other words the intervals that 12-tone equal temperament literally tempers in order to make them fit into a modulatory pitch system,” says Bachelder. “There are people who are very interested in historic and ethnic tunings as well as tunings that predate 12-tone equal temperament.”

All camps “” just-intonation partisans, overtone theorists, textural experimentalists, and more “” will likely find points of entry in the festival’s offerings. The Thursday night concert, at the New Winston Museum, at 713 South Marshall St., will feature works by Partch, Stravinsky, Romanian composer Violeta Dinescu and more, as well as new instruments like the “udderbot,” on which a player adjusts pitch using a plastic glove filled with water. The Friday night concert takes place at Green Street Church, at 639 Green St., and features more Partch, Stravinsky, Cage, Messiaen, solo compositions by Johnny Reinhard and a piece by instrument builder Skip LaPlante. Saturday’s concert will be held at Brendle Hall on the campus of Wake Forest University, featuring more Cage and Partch, a solo bassoon piece by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas written for Reinhard’s own 128-note tuning system, and more.

“I can pretty confidently guarantee everybody’s going to hear sounds they have never heard before,” says Bachelder. !


MicroFEST Winston-Salem runs September 24-26 with each show starting at 7:30 p.m | 9/24 at the New Winston Museum, 713 S. Marshall Street | 9/25 at Green Street Church, 639 S. Green Street | 9/26 at Brendle Recital Hall, Wake Forest University, Scales Fine Arts Center, Second Floor. All shows are free to attend.