In the West, it’s called “microtonal music.” Elsewhere in the world, it’s just called “music.”
Microtonal music uses alternatives to the scale reflected in that familiar do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do sequence. The scales can have more, fewer, or just different notes – the notes between the notes, they're sometimes called.
“Most world musics use notes that are tuned in other ways than what we’re used to,” said Mathew Rosenblum, who chairs the University of Pittsburgh’s music department.
If you’ve heard Indonesian gamelan music, for instance, or certain electronic music, or even particular bent notes in the blues, you’ve heard microtonal music without knowing it.
Beyond 2020, Pittsburgh’s festival of microtonal music, wants to bring such sounds to a wider audience.
The festival offers four concerts and two talks over three days starting Friday, at venues including the New Hazlett Theater, The Andy Warhol Museum, and the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, in Oakland. Beyond 2020 is presented by the Warhol and Pitt’s Music on the Edge Series, which highlights new music year-round.
The solo artists and groups include the MikroEnsemble, from Finland, and performers from around the country. Beyond also draws on Pittsburgh-based new-music outfits including Alia Musica, Nat 28, Kamratōn, and Wolf Trap.
Microtonal performers use a variety of instruments, from electronics to specially built quarter-tone pianos – which have twice as many pitches – and custom-fretted guitars. Microtonal composers including the pioneering Harry Partch even invented their own instruments to summon unique sounds. (Partch used a scale with 43 notes to an octave.)
While much microtonal music is instrumental, groups with vocalists performing in Beyond 2020 include Kamratōn (with soprano Anna Elder) and the West Coast outfit Brightwork Ensemble (soprano Stacey Fraser).
“With a voice you can hit any pitch you can imagine,” said Rosenblum.
The 12-note scale was standardized by Western composers in the 18th century; prior to that, a variety of tunings had been used. “So we’re goin’ back!” said Rosenblum. “We’re trying to undo that a little bit again, and build it back and see what the other possibilities are. Why discard that and why not use those expressive qualities in a new way?”
Contemporary microtonal music ranges from dreamy or eerie to brusque, and can strike unaccustomed ears as dissonant. The form dates back more than a century, to composers like Partch. This is the third Beyond festival. (The first two were in 2015 and 2018.) Other big microtonal fests in the U.S. include the American Festival of Microtonal Music, in NYC, which dates to 1981, and Microfest, in southern California, which launched in 1997.
Performers at Beyond 2020 will play works by Partch, but will focus on pieces by living composers, including Rosenblum, Moe, and names like Catherine Lamb and Burr Van Nostrand.
Other performers include such acclaimed instrumentalists as solo guitarist John Schneider, electronics group the Ray-Kallay Duo, and the Del Sol String Quartet.
The Friday concert, featuring Schneider and Brightworks, will be accompanied by video projections by artists Barbara Weisserger, Aaron Henderson, and Jeremy Boyle. The Saturday matinee, at Frick Fine Arts, is free.
The festival also includes a pair of symposia, on Saturday morning, at Pitt’s Music Building, and a pre-show talk on Sunday, at The Warhol.
WESA receives funding from The Warhol.