How Could I Forget Microtonality?

As was pointed out to me by a reader regarding my article “A Place at the Table for Post-Tonal Music,” I had forgotten to include microtonality in my brief and highly generalized overview of the American concert music scene.  How could I have forgotten microtonality?  Many of my own electronic pieces employ microtonality.

To make up for it, I invite everyone to listen to a very fine example of microtonal composition.  This is Jamais Vu for reintonated piano by Shane Monds.  Monds is a doctoral student in composition at Rice University, and the piece is performed here by the brilliant Bulgarian pianist Viktor Valkov.

Program Note by the composer:

When I started sketching the ideas for a piano solo, I decided to reclaim territory that has been out of the hands of pianists — that is, of course, the tuning and intonation. Lately, I have been interested in older compositional models and finding my own voice in these genres, such as the piano sonata. The Sonata calls for the piano to be tuned to the natural overtones of C. This creates new consonances in the home key of C, while making wild striking dissonances in areas that are further from C. It is my hope that this new tuning not only creates new resonances but also highlights some of the formal aspects of sonata – namely departure and return from the original “tonic.” The subtitle “Jamais Vu” refers to a phenomenological experience where something already experienced feels unfamiliar or as if one is experiencing it for the first time (which is the opposite of Déjà Vu). For example, hearing one’s own voice on a recording can feel unfamiliar or strangely “off.” The sonata explores this idea through the formal structure, the triadic based primary theme and the experience of listening to an slightly altered piano tuning. The “piano-ness” is not lost but the overall timbre and sonority is changed in a way that hopefully produces the interest and strangeness of “Jamais Vu.” The narrative of sonata form takes place over the course of all three movements which elide almost seamlessly into one another. The first movement is considered the sonata exposition while the second movement “Déjà Entendu” (already heard) acts as the sonata’s development section. The final movement “Presque Vu” (almost seen ) is the sonata’s recapitulation and coda. It frantically searches for a way to achieve a recapitulation that is always on the “tip of the tongue.” Although each movement is part of the larger sonata form, they independently embody different sub-genres of piano literature. The first movement is a rhapsody with a slow introduction. The second movement is modeled after a prelude and fugue. And the final movement is a toccata.
-Robert Gross

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