Saturday, August 23, 2008

John Schneider - Lou Harrison: Por Gitaro

This is an album entirely of solo acoustic guitar playing, with light percussion added on select tracks. Listeners may be skeptical they possess the attention span to sit through over an hour of such a bare overall texture, but novelties abound for the uninitiated into the colorful world of microtonal music.

Briefly, the story is this: ancient Greek scholars beginning with Pythagoras held with certainty that perfect music note intervals should be constructed from simple, whole-number ratios, such as 1:1, 2:1, 3:2, etc. These ratios respectively correspond with the perfect unison, octave, and fifth. However, seemingly irreconcilable problems arise when one tries to invent a complete tuning system with these simple ratios, for the numbers refuse to add up and at least one bad-sounding interval becomes inevitable.

The modern solution to this was a compromise: it was agreed upon that the octave should be split into 12 notes, each an equal distance apart in terms of ratios. Equal temperament tuning, then, is based upon the 12th root of 2 - an irrational number. While the irrational frequencies of equal temperament tuning are quite close to their perfect rational counterparts, this compromise means only the unison and the octave sound as good (in terms of purely physical consonance and dissonance) as what is theoretically possible. On the other hand, it is a practical solution: every interval does sound acceptably good for most people.

But not for all, and thus is motivated the need for microtonal composition, which eschews equal temperament and the very heart of Western music - the 12 notes per octave. Indeed, in non-Western spheres many cultures adopt altogether different tuning systems, such as Turkey with a 53 note per octave system. The compositional possibilities of these expanded pitch palettes fascinated many 20th century Western composers, including Lou Harrison, whose compositions are featured on the 2008 recording Por Gitaro.

Most of these pieces therefore feature themes which sound exotic or ethnic to Western ears, and all feature those golden, pure ratios lost to the system of equal temperament. John Schneider's playing is well-paced, precise, and not in the least lacking in emotion, ranging from somber and reverent ("Threnody to the Memory of Oliver Daniel") to whimsically playful ("Tandy's Tango"). This will appeal to audiophiles, guitarists, mystics, and any lover of beauty.

Mode Records page

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