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ASU Contemporary Music Festival explores world of microtonal music


John Schneider, microtonal music expert, will perform on legendary composer Harry Partch's altered instruments.


Photo by Courtesy of John Schneider

March 27, 2013

Microtonal music has been referred to as “the sounds between the keys” found on a piano. And it’s to this unexpected world of music that the public is invited April 24–26 as part of the ASU School of Music’s annual Contemporary Music Festival.

“I love microtonal music. I teach new music and experimental music and I love to look at a wide spectrum of musical approaches, not just what we already know,” said Sabine Feisst, associate professor in the ASU School of Music, who with Professor Glenn Hackbarth, Assistant Professor Benjamin Levy and Faculty Associate Simone Mancuso, are organizing the festival.

For Feisst, the festival evokes travel to a foreign land. “There are many pitches in between the keys of a piano that we can’t play because there are no keys to represent them. Microtonal music happens in between,” she said. “The sounds aren’t especially complex and the music is not difficult to listen to. It is as if you’ve traveled to a foreign country and you’ve listened to music that sounds different although some of it may sound familiar.”

“Musicians celebrate the world of alternative tunings whose acoustically pure and nuanced sounds are more associated with the music of ancient times, China, India and the sliding harmonies of barbershop quartets,” said John Schneider, a microtonal music expert, internationally recognized guitarist, composer and author, and guest artist and lecturer during this year’s festival.

“We have been told that there are 12 notes in an octave, but in microtonal music you can hear 500 notes in an octave. It’s an issue of tuning,” said Schneider. “You hear more than you’ve ever heard before and harmonies you had never imagined. Microtonal music is like a paint box of hues you’ve never seen before. It can be slightly disorienting initially and then it sounds deeply familiar.”

Schneider is a devotee of the late legendary maverick composer Harry Partch, who shunned the standardized Western tuning conventions of the last 200 years for what he considered to be the pure nearly unlimited range of pitches available through alternative tuning. Partch created his own instruments to accommodate microtonal music. He sought sounds and instruments from everywhere including the hobos whose music and sounds he heard and tried to recreate when he lived among them during the Depression. He’s inspired generations of composers including Schneider who plays on a couple of Harry Partch–adapted guitars when he performs in concert and conducts workshops during the festival.

The three-day festival is open to the public and includes three concerts and two lectures and demonstrations. Many of the events are free. Beginning on April 24 at 4:30 p.m. Benjamin Levy presents a Harry Partch movie in the fifth floor Recital Hall in the ASU Music Building.

The April 24 7:30 p.m. concert features percussionist Simone Mancuso performing the world premiere of Italian composer Giovanni Damiani’s solo work for sixxen that he dedicated to Mancuso. The piece is titled “1, 3, 6, 10” and it is the first solo for sixxen written. The sixxen is a percussion keyboard instrument invented by composer Iannis Xenakis for his 1978 composition, “Pleiades” written for six percussionists. A sixxen has 19 bars of metal tuned microtonally. Its name comes from “six”, for six percussionists and “xen” for its inventor, Xenakis. ASU is one of the few universities in the world that own this instrument. The opening concert also features compositions by School of Music faculty members Jody Rockmaker and James DeMars and composer and clarinet virtuoso Eric Mandat with soloist Robert Spring, professor of clarinet, performing and Wayne Bailey, professor of music, conducting. Tickets range from $5–$9.

Schneider appears in the second concert, April 25 at 7:30 p.m., and performs compositions on adapted guitars and viola by Lou Harrison, Partch, Terry Riley and his own, “Men Are Men and Mountains Are Mountains.” Schneider also presents a lecture on microtonal music at 10:30 a.m. on April 25 in the fifth floor Recital Hall.

Jacob Adler, ASU School of Music faculty associate, alumnus and Phoenix-based composer and performer, will lecture and demonstrate microtonal music from 4:30–6:30 p.m. April 25 in the Music Building room W130.

The festival concludes with the third concert on April 26 at 7:30 p.m. with a performance by the Arizona Contemporary Music Ensemble, directed by Professor Glenn Hackbarth, and the Contemporary Percussion Ensemble, directed by Mancuso. Crossing 32nd St. Ensemble will also perform. The concert will feature the U.S. premiere of “Clinamen” for six percussionists and live electronics by Swiss composer Luca Congedo, who will be present at the performance.

All concerts take place in Katzin Concert Hall on the ASU Tempe campus.

For a complete schedule visit the website. For more information about the ASU School of Music visitmusic.asu.edu.

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Susan Felt
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