The Piano Retuned: Michael Harrison’s Revelation

As music listeners we often forget how accustomed we are to twelve-tone equal temperament. This is, of course, the tuning system used on almost all keyboard instruments, allowing the performer to move evenly from key to key. The sacrifice of our system is the loss of pure intervals, as might be heard by a professional ensemble singing Palestrina. But while the choir can adjust their tuning on the fly to create a pure sound, the piano has no such flexibility.

Michael Harrison has been experimenting with alternatives to equal temperament since his introduction to north Indian classical music in the late 1970s. He performed Revelation: Music in Pure Intonation on October 16 at Riverside Recital Hall, Iowa City. This is a piece for solo piano, conceived of in 1999 using his own system of just intonation. Harrison tunes the piano according to the overtones of a fundamental low F. The white keys form a series of pure fifths and the black keys form a separate series of pure fifths. The end result is that many of the black keys sound as 1/8 semitone dissonances against adjacent white keys.

Revelation began on a pedagogical note: the first movement is titled “Revealing the Tones.” Harrison played softly and slowly from the low register of the piano, arpeggiating chords upwards. I could immediately hear the alien quality of the tuning system. It was as if something wasn’t quite right, as if the piano was strangely out of tune. The second movement, “Night Vigil,” was more motivic in nature. The music began to take on a minimalistic style: a repetitive ostinato in the left hand and a theme in the right which came back again and again. “Revealing the Commas” was next as the audience heard those intervals for the first time.

The fourth movement was the real substance of the piece: “Tone Cloud I.” It began with a pause while Harrison brought out an odd contraption. It was a metal bar with teeth that he set on the keyboard to depress a series of keys. He then held down the sustain pedal so that these strings were open the entire movement. Harrison closed his eyes and seemed to zone out. He was playing very rapid, repeating patterns of microtones in both hands. These “clouds” swelled up and down as the music changed. I realized that I was hearing some totally new timbres from the piano. It sounded almost like a cello or voice. Other times there was a low rumble which enveloped the whole room. Above, I could hear distinct overtones created from the close harmonies.

Revelation contained four such tone clouds, each with a different character. Interspersed were various other movements which I didn’t find as compelling. “Homage to La Monte” reused material from earlier and “Night Vigil II” was more a point of repose. The minimalism was a bit too repetitive to be interesting. “Vision in the Desert” was an obvious take on an Indian raga. It featured ornamental elaboration on various pentatonic scales.

Happily, the piece ended with the grand “Tone Cloud IV.” This movement built up into an aggressive frenzy of sound. Harrison pounded on the keyboard with fists and elbows. I could swear it sounded like someone was playing the unused organ on the other side of the stage. Harrison hit the final, lowest note and let that sound slowly die away before taking his bow.

I realized after the performance that Revelation: Music in Pure Intonation was really an exploration of timbre the piano. It succeeded tremendously, opening the audience to brand new sounds. Harrison’s performance was emotional and engaging. I would say this piece is worth a listen – even to those who normally avoid minimalist music.

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