Composer-pianist Michael Harrison‘s new album on the Cantaloupe label, titled Revelation, is an extensive exercise in just intonation, the ancient tuning that applies whole number ratios to the spaces between notes, in contrast with the adjustments (compromises, some would say) that resulted in the tuning common in Western music today.
The album is a single piece for solo piano. It’s so sinuous and tonal, so fluid and approachable, that a listener might not even get the sense that it’s based on some system other than the familiar one. The closest symptom of the difference might be the occasional beading of proximate notes, which can take on the rusty, opaque vibrations of a hard old player piano.
Otherwise, the work, as evidenced by a nearly six-minute excerpt available for free download from the label’s website (MP3), is a lush, flowing composition that sounds far grander that the format (single player, single piano) might suggest. Harrison has his theories as to why this is: “Just intonation tuning frees the piano from these restraints,” he writes, “further revealing and maximizing its natural resonances.”
Harrison studied with perhaps America’s foremost proponent of just intonation, composer La Monte Young. It’s an experience he writes about at length on his site:
In 1980, seeking the guidance of the most innovative composer working with just intonation, I came to New York City to study with the minimalist pioneer, La Monte Young. Throughout the ensuing decade, I worked closely with Young executing all of the specialized tunings and transcribing the scores for his 6-1/2 hour magnum opus The Well-Tuned Piano. In 1987, I became the only other person besides Young to perform this work. The previous year I had created the “harmonic piano,” an extensively modified seven-foot grand piano with the ability to alternate between two different tunings, thus creating the possibility to play 24 notes per octave on a conventional keyboard. The unique features of my instrument evolved from Young’s custom designed Bösendorfer Imperial grand. My harmonic piano allowed me a range of tonal flexibility and precision of unprecedented scope.More info at michaelharrison.com and cantaloupemusic.com. A record is due from Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain label later this year of electronically mediated solo cello works, composed by Harrison and performed by Wendy Sutter.