KG: May I ask how you first became interested in microtones?
JN: I never had that early experience many microtonalists describe, my ear wanting some other note than the ones found on the piano keys, or a realization that 12-equal is “out of tune”. I suppose I first became interested in microtones because they were featured in the modernist 20th century concert music repertoire, the starting point of my composing and my composition studies. Then, in the mid-80s, I was quite taken by the music of the French spectralist school, and I even went to Paris to study privately with Tristan Murail for some months. The spectralists’ principal technique is to use spectral analysis of existing acoustic sound sources as models for harmonies that are then written for orchestra or ensembles. The spectra are typically approximated with quarter-tones. I tried some of that in an early orchestra piece, my master’s composition at the Sibelius Academy, 1990, and also used quarter-tones melodically as kind of blue notes in a 1992 string quartet. I’ve come back to quarter-tone writing from time to time.
I’ve always been passionate about American concert music, particularly minimalism and experimentalism, but also the symphonic tradition and the Neo-Romantic and tonal composers of the late 20th century. I knew some Partch as well as Riley’s music for re-tuned organ but my serious interest in just intonation must have started with Ben Johnston. I spent the academic year in 1993-94 in New York on a Fulbright, and microtonality and just intonation were already very much on my radar. A 1991 article in Perspectives of New Music, “Six American Composers on Non-standard Tunings”, had been very important for me. One of the interviewees, Joel Mandelbaum, had given classes in microtonality at Queens College, and this was indeed one of the reasons why I chose to study at the City University of New York (Queens College belongs to CUNY). It turned out Mr. Mandelbaum didn’t teach anymore, but I did arrange a meeting with him, and he gave me a most interesting interview-cum-lesson and demonstrated various tuning systems on his Scalatron, the legendary microtonal keyboard instrument designed by the late George Secor.
My composition teacher in New York, the splendid Neo-Romantic iconoclast David Del Tredici, was in all ways a marvelous teacher and mentor, albeit with no interest in microtonality. But I made sure to go to every microtonal concert I could find: The American Festival of Microtonal Music, a lunch concert with Toby Twining’s vocal ensemble, a gig of the rock band Jon Catler & The Microtones, Newband playing Partch.
It still took me some years before I began writing in just intonation. It started with a 1995 commission for a piece for clarinet and kantele, the Finnish zither-like instrument. When working on the piece, I had a kantele on the table of my study. One day I tuned its strings to a pentatonic scale with the 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th and 11th harmonics of E, and heard the lush concord, the lovely resonance and the fascinating melodic intervals this simple tuning provided. My path as a microtonalist proper began. At first I combined 12-equal and static harmonic-series tunings in the same composition. Starting from the 2000s, most of my work has been exclusively microtonal, not only in just intonation but more and more in various other systems, as well.
KG: One of your recent projects was an opera on Andy Warhol called Flash Flash. Here you used 11-limit tunings in what might be Finland’s first high-limit just intonation opera. Considering how foreign this must have been for the performers, how did you get them to tackle what must have been quite an unusual request? I’m also curious about how you approach working with these new resources?
JN: Finland’s first high-limit JI opera? That’s certainly the case. How many are there in the entire world?
Flash Flash is scored for five voices, two keyboards, viola, cello, electric guitar, and percussion. Everybody is amplified and the percussion includes an electronic drum set. There’s also a notated part for a tap dancer. The instrumental accompaniment is dominated by the two keyboardists who play multiple software synthesizers producing electric piano, electric organ and synthesizer sounds. In addition, one of the keyboardists also plays an acoustic harpsichord.
I was lucky to have exactly the kind of soloists I’d imagined when I was writing the piece: singers that specialize in early music, with light baroque-type voices, without excessive vibrato. The singers were present or former members of superb chamber choirs. Such singers are well-versed in tuning and intonation.
Then, the music is written so that the singers get constant support from the doublings and chords played by the keyboards. The tonal language, while highly microtonal, is rather accessible: triads and tetrads and concordant otonal chords predominate.
There is a vocal score with the music of the instrumental ensemble transcribed to a single keyboard part. This was used in the singers’ rehearsals: similarly to standard opera productions, there was a rehearsal pianist. In rehearsals and in the performance, the keyboardists change tunings via MIDI, according to the markings in the score. There are some forty pitches per octave in Flash Flash but these are never mapped onto the keyboard at once. Instead, there are eighteen 12-note octave-repeating scales that are used as specified by the score. The one-manual harpsichord, obviously, is permanently tuned to one of them. Both keyboard players go through more than one hundred tuning and/or sound changes in the course of a performance.
For rehearsing at home, the singers had USB MIDI keyboards and they installed a simple microtonal software synthesizer on their laptops, with all the Flash Flash scales programmed in. I also gave a TBX Tuning Box, again with the Flash Flash scales stored in it, on loan for one of the singers so that she could retune her digital piano. So it was possible for the singers to play the keyboard part in the vocal score, or check the intonation of tones and melodies with a keyboard. There was also an online tuning fork app with buttons for all the pitches of Flash Flash. This was used by the singers and string players when they were practicing, as well as by the conductor in rehearsals.
I prepared MIDI mockups for the whole opera. There were also some solfège exercises for JI intervals and their notation, to be sung against recorded synthesizer sounds.
Flash Flash uses a kind of a modified Johnston notation where different-shaped noteheads stand for inflections by septimal or undecimal commas. This proved to be a good solution. The notation was quicker for the singers to read and grasp than one with an abundance of accidentals and combinations thereof, and the notehead shapes provided short and easy note names, quite handy in rehearsals: ”square B flat”, ”triangle F” etc. However, in the 2020 concert suite ‘Five Flashes from Flash Flash’ I used Marc Sabat’s HEJI Pitch Notation system which is becoming something of a standard in Europe.
For two of the three acts in the opera, the original libretto and score specify an unusual stage setup where most of the singing takes place off-stage, and the audience hears it as a kind of voiceover. So in these sections, it is possible to sing from the music, like choir singers do. However, the director decided not to follow our concept and, with the exception of the protagonist, had the singers in view for most of the duration of the opera. Having to memorize their parts and the text, and to act on stage, naturally made their task considerably more challenging, but they did very well. The same goes to the instrumentalists who were all students at the Sibelius Academy.
KG: Are you finding the players more open to working in different tunings than they once were? Do you see any trends emerging in tuning, or are there ones you would like to see?
JN: The musicians I write for are typically virtuosi who play a lot of demanding contemporary music. In this repertoire, quarter-tones have been commonplace for more than half a century. But it’s true that there’s been a growing interest in microtonality in recent decades here in Finland. There are active quarter-tone musicians such as the accordion virtuoso and composer Veli Kujala, and the other members in the microtonal ensemble formed by quarter-tone composer Sampo Haapamäki. One of the leading and most revered Finnish composers is Jukka Tiensuu, a harpsichordist who has used his own 24-tone just intonation harpsichord tuning for years, as well as implemented quarter-tones and other microtones in most of his music. Ere Lievonen, a Finnish keyboardist and composer, is the chief player of the Fokker organ in Amsterdam, and this has created a Finnish-Dutch connection and a growing repertoire of Finnish 31-tone works. Cellist Juho Laitinen has performed a lot of microtonal music, much of it in just intonation, in his concert series of experimental music.
And the musicians specializing in early music are always knowledgeable and interested in tuning systems, and in Finland they have commissioned a wealth of new music from contemporary composers – I’ve myself written pieces for such instruments as viola da gamba, meantone organ and split-key harpsichord.
There’s also maqam-influenced microtonal jazz.
So yes, one could say there is a growing scene, although the online interactions of the international microtonalists may well create as close a community as these individual Finnish musicians and groups mentioned above. Internationally, alternative tuning systems are thriving now in genres other than concert music: popular music, electronica, rock, jazz. Synthesizers targeted for techno musicians are now being advertised for their microtonal capabilities. It’s still a niche but I’m really starting to think that the hegemony of 12-tone equal temperament could well be shaking in this century, even in its first half. I wouldn’t have thought so two decades ago, but then, when I became a vegetarian 14 years ago, I would never have believed that in 2021 you can get vegan food in every food store and that my hometown has many popular vegan restaurants and every restaurant has some vegetarian and vegan options on the menu.
KG: Do you find some tunings are easier to get players to accept and tackle more than others?
I have parts for fixed-pitch instruments such as synthesizers, or soundtracks in most of my microtonal music, so the intonation of singers and wind or string players are helped by those. For unaccompanied free-pitched instruments or choir a cappella, I would say quarter-tones (24-equal) and just intonation are by far the most practical. Those I would expect our professional musicians to have mastered or be able to learn easily (of course the music has to be written in a practical way but that’s composition technique). As much as I like 22-equal, for example, I wouldn’t expect a choir or string quartet to learn a piece in that tuning in standard rehearsal time.
KG: I assume as you teach, you are increasingly exposing younger composers to different tunings. How is that experience?
I don’t advocate microtonality.
Every now and then I see messy atonal scores with poorly heard and impractical microtones, apparently included to add to the “complexity” or “richness” or “modernity” of the notes on paper. That’s certainly something I do not want to encourage.
I do teach the occasional microtonality and tuning theory class or workshop, and whenever a composer wants to write microtonal music and study that with me, I’m happy to offer help, but it’s important that they realize what they’re getting into, in terms of practicalities.
There has been a number of such students and while most simply incorporate some quarter-tones or harmonic sevenths in their non-tonal music – as is so common in present-day European concert music – it’s always a pleasure to discuss these things. My studio at the school is equipped with a microtonal keyboard, so I can always readily demonstrate the sound of the intervals and chords at hand.
One of my former students, Sebastian Dumitrescu, has written an excellent introduction to the commas in 31-equal – that was his master’s thesis – as well as composed several pieces for the Fokker organ. He’s now working on music in 17-equal, and he plays fretless bass guitar and writes for it. A music theory teacher at the Sibelius Academy, he will be in charge of the newly acquired Lumatone keyboard. (I have my own at home.)
I’d also like to mention the Lithuanian composer Vytautas Germanavicius, with whom we studied old field recordings of folk singing, using the Melodyne software for analyzing the scales, intervals and intonation. The Jordan-born singer and oud-player Nemat Battah took a composition course with me to help her in writing notated music for her fusion band. She taught me some basic principles of maqam music and we looked into the very interesting problem of harmonizing maqams.
These projects are among the many rewarding learning experiences for me and students alike that teaching has brought about.
KG: How much does notation influence how one writes?
JN: That’s a good question; I think it’s obvious that it affects a lot but I’m not sure if that’s problematic. Non-notated music is not inherently better (or worse) than notated, and there are composers for whom notation is an essential tool not only for writing things down but also for conceptualizing and imagining music. I suppose I’m one of them, although I do also make electroacoustic music with improvised elements and take part in the performances with a laptop or synthesizer. But even when I made some electronic dance music back in the day, I liked to use notation software or the notation editor in a DAW to create the MIDI tracks.
I’m quite conservative when it comes to microtonal notation; I think the closer it is to the traditional five-line diatonic notation, the better. This has to do with the musicians that I work with. Microtonalists who come up with all sorts of radically new notation systems, no matter how elegant, don’t always realize and appreciate the potential performers’ extremely developed reading abilities for standard notation, gained through decades of training and experience. Changing the notation system, rather than modifying it by adding accidentals and such, is unrealistic in most cases I’m involved in and would most probably hinder performances. The musicians I work with are typically extremely well-versed in non-tonal or highly chromatic music and do not expect key signatures and are used to seeing an accidental attached to every single note in the score. So adding microtonal symbols to the existing accidentals is not that big a deal whereas replacing the standard accidentals with new symbols and, say, changing the number of lines and modifying the diatonic logic certainly is.
Of course the situation is quite different with specially built instruments and dedicated musicians. Bohlen-Pierce instruments and the players of them, as well as your music, dear Kraig, provide good examples.