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Piano, Horn and Microtonality

Welcome to Blog 5 exploring some ways of writing microtonal music that includes the piano, with an example from a new song for soprano, horn and piano. 

 Here are there basic ways of including the piano in microtonal music with piano: 

  1. Retune the piano 
  2. Exploit 'beatings' between piano pitches and microtones from other instruments 
  3. Use piano fixed pitches within a larger pitch universe 
1. When retuning a piano, there needs to be time to do so, money for the piano tuner to do the deed and return the piano to 'standard' tuning afterwards, along with logistical management along with other items on the program.
There are many examples of retuning pianos and here is a beaut video on YouTube of Alexei Lubimov, Piano. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Piano. playing the 1st of Charles Ive's Three Quarter-tone Piano Pieces. These are now classics, written in 1925.
There are also many examples of pianos tuned in various forms of Just Intonation, from La Monte Young's Well Tuned Piano and Michael Harrison's Revelation to Ben Johnston's Suite for Microtonal Piano. Here is the 'Blues' movement played by Aron Kallay.
Another possibility is to use an electronic keyboard that is programmable if the pianist is comfortable using such an instrument. 
 
2. In this sonic realm the piano retains its standard 12-equal semitones and other instruments or singers provide microtones that 'beat' producing some gorgeous sounds. I was part of a perfomance of Erkki Veltheim's Seance for Orchestra: Prelude and Coda with the Sydney Syphony Orchestra on October 15, where the oboist had to play 'out-of-tune' with the piano far enough to produce audible pitch beats. My piece Five Tastes for clarinet, cello and piano also uses this musical technique. I was about to include a segment of this here, then discovered I don't have a recording of it even though the trio Charisma has performed it three times. The clarinet and cello provide microtonal variations of some piano pitches. In some musical portions, the ear is deceived and it sometimes seems like the piano is 'bent'.
 
3. In this compositional method the piano retains its standard tuning yet provides some of the pitches in a larger, microtonal universe. In my trio for soprano, horn and piano You Were Never My Country the piano provides harmonics 3, 9, 17 and 19 of fundamentals A and D, which function as chords I and IV. 
The horn and soprano provide harmonics 5, 7, 11, 13 of the same fundamentals and the horn also provides harmonics from B, C sharp, and E flat. 
The A is the reference pitch (tonic). A is also the 14th harmonic of a sharp B (231 cents, ratio 8:7);the 13th harmonic of a flat C sharp (359 cents, ratio 16:13; the 12th harmonic of D (498 cents, ratio 4:3); the 11th harmonic of a flat E (649 cents, ratio 16:11); the 10th harmonic of a slightly sharp F (814 cents, ratio 8:5); and the 8th harmonic of A (0 cents, ratio 1:1). 
Grevillea Ensemble (Wendy Dixon and David Miller) and I perform this work on October 22. I hope to upload a recording in the near future. 

 

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