Thursday, January 12, 2006


This is a sample from a recent etude for solo keyboard instrument, American Trees & How To Climb Them. It was written under a considerable set of constraints, chosen to force myself to work against habits. This section uses a row, the row was selected by chance operations, and the whole piece is in a rather unusual tuning, with 15 tones to the octave (notated pragmatically as c c# db d d#=eb e f f# gb g g#=ab a a# bb b).

There's nothing less fashionable these days then 12-tone or serial techniques, and the 15-tone technique used here owes more to the eternally unfashionable Hauer than to the frequently unfashionable Schoenberg. (I was once attacked online with some brutality for being a "serialist"; I happen to have defended the rights of serial composers to do their thing although at the time I had never myself done anything even remotely serial, so inventing something this lyrical under these particular constraints has been an especially satisfying experience.)

One passing thought about serial technique: Isn't it ironic that the current digital technology is nearly ideal for realising total serial pieces? Any composer can have a RCA synthesizer equivalent in their bedroom (or wherever) , but composing serially is just about the last thing that anyone wants to do these days. (To be slightly evil and paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld: "You make music with the instruments you have, not the instruments you want".)

The 15-tone equal division of the octave is strange, but offers some interesting features -- usable triads and seventh chords, a familiar augmented triad, a semi-familiar anhemitonic pentatonic, and some surprising modulation potential. I like it that the best fifth is the (octave reduced) sum of three 640 cent "tritones" and that it's melodically quite clunky with a small semitone and two sizes of whole tone, one closer to 3/4 tone, the other wide like slendro.


Hugh Sung said...

Thank you for the quick lesson on Hauer serialism - is that the primary difference between him and Schoenberg, the additional 3 tones? (please forgive my ignorance!)
I'd love to take a look at the full score of your etude sometime. From what i can see of the page sample it sounds lovely!
Personally, i'd love to hear some serial/12-tone (or 15-tone, for that matter!) jazz. Wouldn't that be cool? I believe there have been some modest attempts, but nothing of significance that i'm aware of...
Thanks for your enlightening posts!

Jim Allan said...

Bilinear music notation is good for microtonal music. I'm not sure how well it works for other equal divisions of the octave.