Microtonal voices: Out of the ordinary, not out of tune

On Saturday night the Boston-based microtonal group NotaRiotous presented a concert of microtonal chamber music on the ’62 Center’s CenterStage. Led by Berkshire resident and Berkshire Symphony violist James Bergin, NotaRiotous is the chamber music arm of the Boston Microtonal Society, a group devoted to writing and performing works using microtones.

Microtonal music is very different from almost all the music normally encountered, strange even to those familiar with the avant-garde musical world. Imagine a piano keyboard, which has 12 notes in every octave. To go from one C to another, you must first pass through 11 other notes. Almost all Western music uses this 12-note scale. But microtonal music uses scales with many, many more notes. Much of the music in this concert, for example, used a scale with 72 notes in every octave. On a piano, that means there would be five extra keys in between every existing key. Performing this kind of exacting music is extremely demanding, and listening is challenging, too. What first sounds simply out of tune or wrong turns out to be carefully chosen, constantly surprising and engaging the listener.

The pieces in this particular concert used their microtonal language for very different effects, some more successfully than others. The first piece, Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Cello by Ben Johnston, was a lighthearted, off-kilter romp, with bubbling, propulsive melodic lines and jocular, syncopated rhythms. Microtones gave the piece a subtle, abstract quality, as if viewing the bottom of a lake through shifting water that rendered everything slightly askew – a quality that would have been missing had Johnston used a traditional scale.

The other successful pieces on the program similarly used this expanded musical language to convey direct and understandable musical goals. James Bergin’s piece Noli me tangere began with a violin and viola playing wailing, swirling figures. A stuttering drum kit in the balcony suddenly interrupted them, followed by a bracing, guttural saxophone line, played with great tenacity by faculty member Steven Bodner. Bergin’s other work on the program, Prelude & Kyrie, featured a fantastically dramatic performance by baritone Avery Griffin, who groaned, belted and gasped alongside wilting viola and cello lines. In both pieces it was the combination of subtle and broad musical gestures that made them feel freely expressive and evocative, and they made a convincing case for the ability of such a complex language to be emotionally direct.

Other highlights included Julia Werntz’s Five Vignettes from the Garden by the Sea, a work full of slippery, wave-like chords for cello and violin, and Jonathan Harvey’s Curve with Plateaux for solo cello, impressively rendered by cellist David Russell. Starting at the bottom of the cello’s register, the piece gradually worked its way up to the very highest notes the instrument can produce, then slowly fell back down again. Russell navigated the complex and finely detailed score with great energy and unfailing clarity, and the audience was particularly entranced as he played quick, rippling patterns of impossibly high harmonics with ease.

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Joseph Maneri, an influential teacher, composer and player of microtonal music. A longtime faculty member of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Maneri just recently passed away, and two of his works were on Saturday night’s program. The first, Osanj, a 15-minute piece for solo viola, was written as a love song for his wife. The viola line was smooth and expressive, and even when agitated, it never lost a sense of tenderness.

The second Maneri piece, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, was a less expressive, more rigorous work for soprano and piano with a text by Dylan Thomas. It opened with thin delicate chords high in the piano’s register, with the soprano entering on a sluggish microtonal vocal line. In fact, the text was rendered at such a slow speed that the words became merely isolated syllables, with little discernable drama or noticeable emphasis on any one phrase or idea. A more raucous middle section briefly interrupted the unyielding deliberateness of the first, but the opening material soon returned and the piece ended much as it began.

Although one can admire Maneri for his meticulous insistence, as a listener I was left feeling unsatisfied with the lack of expression incorporated into such carefully controlled parameters. It seems to me that microtonality is naturally a kind of musical liberation, giving performers and composers many more choices with regards to pitch, and imposing such heavy restraints on a microtonal piece undermines the larger goals the medium is capable of satisfying. But overall, many of the other pieces on NotaRiotous’ program successfully exemplified the genre, making the case that microtonality can be a tool for expanding musical expressiveness and engaging audiences with new and surprising musical sounds.