Spirituality and Just Tuning in American Experimental Music

Spirituality and Just Tuning in American Experimental Music

That irresponsible shootings-off at the mouth are my specialty will come as no surprise to regular NewMusicBox readers. In fact, before I wrote the post you’re about to read, I’d put down a completely unwarranted excoriation of a noted conductor for his characterization of lively Beethoven tempi (in accordance with the master’s metronome markings) as “dangerous.” When it was pointed out to me by Founding Editor Frank J. Oteri that this very conductor was among the first scholars to reexamine the ramifications of Beethoven’s metronome markings, it was clear that slamming him on the historicity of his conductorial decisions was a no-go. Instead, I agreed—grudgingly—to talk about a subject I actually know a little about.

I spent the last few years working, on and off, on a short history of spirituality and just tuning in American Experimental music. (You can download it here.) If you’ve spent much time in the American new music community, you’ve probably encountered a stock JI enthusiast: Wild-eyed, emitting an eerie Plateau-of-Leng-type intensity, happy to expostulate at length about the merits of 13-limit scales versus 11-limit. Their unique fusion of post-Helmholtzian mad science and bright-burning conviction can be intimidating at first, but they have a passion for their craft that’s genuinely admirable—and truly rare in today’s cynical contemporary music scene. And even if you’ve never met one of these fellows personally, you’re probably familiar with the striking sound of JI music, a sensation that has, on occasion, prompted me to reevaluate some of my deepest aesthetic beliefs. Talking about pieces by the likes of Harry Partch, Ben Johnston, and La Monte Young—the three central figures in my article—does their music no justice at all; even more than most music, it has to be heard to be grasped. And what’s more striking yet (and, for someone trying to write coherently about it, more discouraging) is that, just as these composers seem sometimes to be hinting, the sound of just intervals threatens to obviate anything you could write about it. If you believe in JI even a little bit, it relegates plodding, workaday scholarship like mine to irrelevance.

My research took me in some unanticipated directions: For instance, I had to hunt around a bit for information about the USS Augusta, onetime presidential flagship, and I was called upon to investigate the circumstances of Christian missionaries in China during the early days of the 20th century. But the real joy of working on a project like this one is the opportunity to confront a concept of what music should do that differs pretty radically from my own, one whose complex and meticulous chemistry invites you into a kind of seductive utopian hallucination. Take a look at my article if you want, but whether or not you read about this branch of American music, you owe it to yourself to experience some firsthand. Maybe you’ll believe in it, or maybe you’ll just wish you could—but in either case, you’ll be richer for it.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

2 thoughts on “Spirituality and Just Tuning in American Experimental Music

  1. pgblu

    Despite Colin’s modesty, I second the recommendation that people read this article. I find the ‘angle’ on JI and the tone of your post very thought-provoking — you don’t talk about liking the music, but more about believing in it.

    What exactly does that mean? Can one disbelieve in a piece of music? What leap of ‘faith’ does JI demand of its listener?

    From a perspective of pragmatism, JI certainly requires a leap of faith, that is, one must be convinced enough that JI is worthwhile to take the extra step of e.g., moving all the frets on one’s guitar, learning a new and not-yet-standardized notational scheme, learning to hear strange new pitches and intone them correctly, or even going so far as to build new instruments.

    But from a JI enthusiasts perspective, it’s equal temperament that requires a leap of faith, namely faith that a third that’s 400 cents wide will be heard as a just major third even though it’s too big, or as a great major third even though it’s waaay too small.

    When 11th- to 15th-century types talked about the inherent, ineradicable imperfections of tuning, they too explicitly gave it a spiritual dimension, didn’t they? That’s the basis for distinguishing between musica mundana and musica celestialis and similar dichotomies. The “wolf” is analogous to original sin, and equal temperament is the unspeakably profane attempt to sweep that wolf under the carpet.

    Pardon the mixed metaphor, eh?

  2. danvisconti

    Great article, Colin! I’ll echo pgblu’s comments, especially in that you succeeded in really making me understand something of what it feels like to be a JI enthusiast. That’s an element I’ve found lacking in the (admittedly) small amount of literature I’ve encountered on the subject.


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