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On Another Scale Altogether

MicroFest's organizers are expanding the annual event to take advantage of growing Western interest in the alternate pitches of microtonality.

March 25, 2001|JOSEF WOODARD | Josef Woodard is a frequent contributor to Calendar

"In the cracks" is the operative phrase for microtonal music. This is music with notes and scales that fall between those of conventional Western music, which assigns 12 pitches to an octave. Tuning systems outside of that norm can strike many ears as weird, even heretical. Never mind that a variety of musical schemes have existed in other parts of the world since time immemorial.

Poetically enough, the culture of microtonal music too tends to fall between the cracks of existing institutional and performance channels. But that may be changing. Microtonality has been sneaking into wider consciousness through world music and such rock artists as Sonic Youth, as well as through underground scenes where experimentalism and self-determination rule.

John Schneider--microtonal performer and composer, Pierce College music professor and founder-director of MicroFest, an annual celebration of microtonality--has been in a good position to note the widening world of unconventional tuning. "Everybody I talk to, all of a sudden, says, 'I know about that music.' In every musical community, there's somebody who has gone micro," he laughs.

Fittingly, this year, MicroFest will also widen its reach. The kickoff, April 6-8, will include concerts and an academic-style conference, and there will be four performance events around the area in May that will also carry MicroFest sponsorship.

The centerpiece of the April festival, organized by Harvey Mudd College assistant music professor Bill Alves, a participant in previous festivals, will be a tribute to Northern California composer Lou Harrison. Harrison is arguably the best-known microtonal composer in the world. He will give a keynote address April 7, the night before a concert of his music, which will include the world premiere of a piece he wrote in 1935, at age 17. The work is scored for eight stringed instruments in quarter tones.

MicroFest's expanding profile in Southern California is no fluke. Microtonal events have taken place around the country, including the American Festival of Microtonal Music in New York, run for the last 17 years by bassoonist Johnny Reinhard. But Southern California was home to two influential early U.S. experimenters in alternate tunings, John Cage and especially Harry Partch, a patron saint of this subculture. Partch, who was born in Oakland and lived in many places around Los Angeles and San Diego later in his life, constructed his own musical universe out of a personalized 43-tones-to-the-octave scale and elaborate handmade instruments to make it manifest. The May MicroFest events include a Partch centennial celebration, in conjunction with UCLA, and features an instrument "petting zoo," a performance, panels and screenings of two films about Partch.

Now, says Alves, in addition to "the Harry Partch heritage," Southern California is home to microtonal theorist Erv Wilson and one-time Partch collaborator Jonathan Glazier, who runs the Sonic Art Gallery in San Diego. The delightfully eccentric microtonal prophet and instrument-maker Ivor Darreg, who died in 1994, operated out of his home in Glendale. Other avid microtonalists here include players--mostly percussionists--and composers Kraig Grady, Ron George and Rod Poole, each of whom is putting together MicroFest concerts.

Schneider sees the strength of the microtonal community in these parts as a natural result of both the experimental tradition, on the one hand, "and the influence of the incredible ethnic salad" here, on the other. "The fact is that West Coast musicians have always felt somewhat apart from East Coast tradition, which itself is beholden to European tradition. We're about as far away as you can get from Europe. Part of the reason people are here is that they're looking for another way. And because of our proximity to the Pacific Rim, that influence, I think, is very strong."

Schneider got the festival bug after joining Reinhard for a festival in Denver called Microstock. He says, "I got to thinking, 'Why not here?' "

In 1997, MicroFest began at Pierce College in Woodland Hills with just one concert. From the beginning, Schneider wanted the festival to showcase music from different stylistic quarters. Concerts have included the Indonesian gamelan and Persian music, alternate-tuned folk music and experimental composers such as Ben Johnston, who studied with Partch in the '50s and whose music was featured in last year's festival.

Schneider defines microtonality's appeal for musicians as "a new toy box." "For us in the West, it's like, what are all these colors?" says Schneider, who hosts the radio program "Global Village" on KPFK-FM (90.7). "But a lot of Western musicians don't have a handle on what to do with these things, because it is new material. I always find it instructive to turn to traditions who have had [these tunings] for centuries, if not millennia."

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