I Built It! The Built Environment In American Music

I Built It! The Built Environment In American Music

Instrument “deconstruction”—preparation, retuning, alteration of performance techniques—is as much a part of instrument building as construction is. The great innovator in this realm was Henry Cowell, whose piano pieces The Banshee and The Aeolian Harp required the player to pluck and strum the instrument’s strings. Former Cowell-pupil John Cage embedded bolts and utensils and strips of material into the piano’s strings for such classic prepared-piano pieces as Three Dances and Sonatas And Interludes. Cage’s technique was adopted by Conlon Nancarrow for his Study No. 30. (Nancarrow also modified the two player pianos in his studio to produce more specialized sounds: one percussive, the other more harpsichord-like.) The “timbre piano” was Lucia Dlugoszewski‘s development and she gave ferocious performances playing inside the piano with glass, brushes, rubber, and other implements, not only in her solo Five Radiant Grounds, but also in several ensemble works, including The Suchness Of Nine Concerts. Stephen Scott‘s music, such as The Tears Of Niobe, puts ensembles of musicians to work bowing the piano’s strings. The great keyboard improvisers Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor both recorded duets in which they played the piano’s interior: Taylor with guitarist Derek Bailey on Pleistozaen Mit Wasser and Sun Ra with vibraphonist Walt Dickerson on Visions.

Paper and cardboard tubing and water and other unusual materials have also been used to modify the sound and extend the range of conventional instruments. Such techniques have been employed by composers as different as George Crumb (Night Music I; Music For A Summer Evening) and Donald Martino (B,A,B,B,I,T,T). This availability, however, was felt most keenly by a generation of improvisers. Anne LeBaron recalls Davey Williams “using eggbeaters and electric fish to play his guitar”—and encouraging her to use found-object and paper preparations in her harp playing. John Zorn played an exploded clarinet, honking and chirping through its component sections; he’d also blow duck calls through his saxophone. George Lewis was adept performing on pieces of his trombone. Tom Cora played his amplified cello with toys and wires as well as a bow and his fingers. Saxophonist Jim Sauter, of the noise trio Borbetomagus, has used an extended sound chamber with a rubber hose or neck attached to the mouthpiece. Guitarist Donald Miller has written of himself, Sauter, and saxophonist Donald Dietrich, “For years each of us has struggled individually with extending the sonorities of our instruments into new and further realms of brutality.”

A similar spirit exists in certain scores for massed voices, an attempt to melt down the instrument and fashion something new out of it by multiplying it. The connection is direct with music for ensembles of electric guitars, such as Glenn Branca‘s The Spectacular Commodity and The Ascension; Rhys Chatham‘s Guitar Ring and An Angel Moves Too Fast To See; James Tenney‘s Septet and “Water On The Mountain – Fire In Heaven”; and the multi-tracked Pat Metheny in Steve Reich‘s Electric Counterpoint. It also informs more traditional concert scores. Some are (relatively) intimate, such as Julius Eastman’s The Holy Presence, Joan D’Arc for 10 cellos, or Steve Reich’s Four Organs and Six Pianos. Others are in cinemascope: the 80 trombones of Henry Brant‘s Orbits; the 100 tubas of Anthony Braxton‘s Composition No. 19; the 30 harps of Wendy Mae ChambersThe Grand Harp Event. The music can even be intimate and/or epic, as with Alan Hovhaness‘s Ruins Of Ani for four Bb clarinets or any multiple thereof, or La Monte Young‘s Arabic Numeral (Any Integer) to H.F., for “piano(s) or gong(s) or ensembles of at least 45 instruments of the same timbre, or combinations of the above or orchestra.”

A more literal refashioning of instruments is found, not surprisingly, among those in search of tunings. Erv Wilson designed and Scott Hackleman constructed a clavichord that plays 19 tones to the octave and features a unique two-dimensional keyboard arrangement. Arnold Dreyblatt‘s Orchestra of Excited Strings, along with its justly-tuned keyboards and brass, uses two double bass bodies modified to produce a single fundamental tone and its natural overtones.

There are numerous instances of Harry Partch having retuned conventional instruments to play alongside his own ensemble: clarinet, bass clarinet, and string bass in Oedipus; clarinet, bass clarinet, and cello in The Bewitched; string bass in Revelation In The Courthouse Park; baritone saxophone and alto saxophone/trumpet in Ulysses At The Edge. The retuning of conventional instruments has itself become a convention over the years. Composers who have written scores for instruments in quarter-tone tunings include Charles Ives (Three Quarter-Tone Pieces), Alan Hovhaness (O Lord, Bless Thy Mountains), and Lejaren Hiller (String Quartet No. 5). In Changes, James Tenney retuned a sextet of harps in sixths of a semitone, dividing the equal-tempered octave into 72 pitches: “It provides extremely good approximations of all the important just intervals up through the eleven limit. But it’s practical on a tempered instrument.” Among the composers who have gone straight into just-intonation tunings are Lou Harrison (Strict Songs), former Partch associate Ben Johnston (Sonata For Microtonal Piano, Quintet For Groups, Two Sonnets Of Shakespeare), Terry Riley (The Crow’s Rosary), and James Tenney (Bridge). Before he began working with the harmonic series, Glenn Branca employed “somewhere between seven and ten different tunings” for the guitars in his ensemble. His Harmonic Series Chords is scored for a conventional orchestra—but it sure doesn’t sound like one! Other noteworthy microtonal composers include Easley Blackwood (Fanfare, Suite For Guitar), John Eaton (Microtonal Fantasy), and Johnny Reinhard (Odysseus).

A lot of musics include alternate tunings for coloristic effects, but when improvisers change their instrument from equal temperament to just intonation, they’re rebuilding it:

La Monte Young retuned his piano for The Well-Tuned Piano; Terry Riley retuned his keyboards, electric (The Descending Moonshine Dervishes) and piano (The Harp Of New Albion); Pauline Oliveros had her accordion retuned into just intonation. “It took a while to get used to it and to hear how to use it,” she said, “but it worked for me right away.” The ongoing dedication of these artists to their retuned instruments underscores the value of their having made such a leap.

from I Built It! The Built Environment In American Music
By Nicole V. Gagné
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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