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The Living Earth Show: Adventures In Quartertones

January 21, 2012

Percussionist Andrew Meyerson and guitarist Travis Andrews of The Living Earth Show, a chamber music ensemble based in San Francisco, have embarked upon an unusual project -- to build quartertone instruments in order to play a piece by the composer Brian Ferneyhough. In today's guest blog post on 'lies like truth,' Myerson writes about his inspiration and process...

When Travis Andrews and I learned that one of our favorite composers,
Brian Ferneyhough, had composed a piece for our instrumentation –
percussion and guitar – we immediately decided that our ensemble, The
Living Earth Show, was going to perform it. Only upon receipt of the
score did we discover that Renvoi/Shards was actually scored for
quartertone-guitar and quartertone-vibraphone: instruments capable of
sounding twenty-four notes to an octave, as opposed to the standard
western classical equal-tempered twelve-tone scale. The fact that
the piece required instruments that need to be custom built gave us
about an afternoon’s worth of hesitation. The more thought and
discussion we gave to the project, however, the more excited we became
to build these instruments and become an ensemble capable of
performing microtonal music.

As a percussionist, my forays into microtonality have been few and far
between. Apart from keyboard percussion, the overwhelming majority of
the solo percussion repertoire eschews “tonality” in every sense,
leaving the “pitch” of each percussion instrument indeterminate (there
is no better way to irritate a percussionist than to suggest “tunings”
for his or her concert toms). However, many composers who helped
define the idiom of percussion music in the twentieth century
explored, been fascinated by, and worked within the microtonal
tradition. Among many others, Stockhausen, Varese, Penderecki,
Lucier, Boulez, and Ligeti all utilized tonal systems that expanded
the traditional twelve-note octave. Xenakis, for example, felt that
quartertone systems allow sonorities to become “more alive,” creating
dissonances and beats that he believed “enriched” his work. Though
quartertones may not be a new phenomenon, they are part of a musical
tradition that pushes musical boundaries and questions the very
framework of western musical thought – a tradition we are inspired by
and hope to continue.

In a 1925 article explaining his quartertone compositions to skeptical
American public, Charles Ives wrote that “it will probably be
centuries, at least generations, before man will discover all or even
most of the value in a quarter-tone extension. And when he does,
nature has plenty of other things up her sleeve. And it may be loner
than we think before the ear will freely translate what it hears and
instinctively arouse and amplify the spiritual consciousness. But
that needn’t keep anyone from trying to use a few more of the myriads
of sound waves nature has put around in the air for man to catch if he
can and ‘perchance make himself a part with nature,’ as Thoreau used
to say.” Nearly a century has passed, and whether man has discovered
all the value of quarter-tones remains to be seen. But damned if
we’re not going to take Ives’ advice and try to use a few more
soundwaves as we launch into our 2012 season and beyond.

The Living Earth Show has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their project. To find out about it and become a supporter, please click here.

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