Quixotic Harmonies: The Microtonal Music of Easley Blackwood – by Peter Nelson-King

The 70’s was a time of prodigious drug use.  I don’t mean to say that in any judgmental fashion, just as a statement of fact.  The bomb had detonated and previous established rules of conduct were scattered across the floor.  In this newfound, confused verve, electronic music was gaining a lot of speed.  After a couple decades of cloistered experimentation there were a handful of electronic works that broke into the mainstream, chiefly records by two individuals: Walter Carlos (later Wendy) and Isao Tomita.

These are from 1971 and 1974 respectively, and if you recognize them (or not) it is their defining trait to be electronic recompositions of well-known classical pieces (by Henry Purcell and Claude Debussy, respectively).  It was a stark contrast from the previous community of electronic composers, whose compositional devices were avant-garde and largely inaccessible to the general public.  I think that these records became so popular chiefly because, rather than composing new music, they offered new ways to hear old music.  Regardless of their creators’ intents, these works are much like walking out of your house while high: same shit, different glasses.  These records may have also struck a chord with enthusiasts of progressive rock, not just in the shared use of synthesizers, but also in helping bring classical music to the colloquial drug crowd.  Though never a drug user, my mother has admitted that hearing the Tomita record featured above (Snowflakes are Dancing) was her introduction to the music of Debussy, just as it can be easily said that the theme to A Clockwork Orange was probably most people’s introduction to Funeral Music for Queen Mary.  Both Carlos and Tomita went on to make a number of best-selling records recomposing the classical rep, and the arts community started to notice.

In the late 70’s the National Endowment for the Humanities approached a dynamic composer-pianist named Easley Blackwood with the idea of exploring microtonal music.  For the uninitiated, microtonal music that uses scales that contain more notes than the one most used in Western classical music, which has twelve evenly-spaced notes.  Composers had been tinkering with microtonal scales since the beginning of the 20th century, but this was a new bag for Blackwood, whose previous works had been described as atonal and polyrhythmic, but formally conservative.  His approach could have gone countless routes, including composing works like he had done for the previous twenty years, or adopting a different experimental style.  What he chose instead was not only remarkable, but extremely timely.

What you’ve been listening to is from the 12 Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media, released on LP in 1980.  In what Blackwood likened to being a “sequel” to Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, each piece is first composed in a traditional tonal harmonic language, and then filtered through a microtonal pitch set, a different one for each etude.  Glancing at the sheet music moving past the viewer of the included videos will reveal music that would have fit in nicely at the turn of the 20th century in Russia, with the works of Scriabin and his ilk.  The beauty of the use of scales is that the listener doesn’t need to be aware of each exact tone being used, or even how many there are in each scale.  He simply has to be anticipating what normal music sounds like, and become swept away by the new quixotic soundworld Blackwood presents.  The new scales don’t actually align to any of the notes in a traditional 12-note scale, but they’re often close enough to trick the ear, and listeners are taken on an aural roller coaster, following the tones up and down.  It’s intoxicating, and the music by itself would be rich and lovely, pleasant to the ear.  These new scales have the power to make good music even better.

The Etudes became some of blackwood’s most well-known works, and the record was reissued on CD in 1994 along with two other microtonal works: the Fanfare using a 19-note scale, and a Suite using a 16-note scale for a guitar with a modified fretboard.  These works actually had such a profound effect on Blackwood’s composition that he largely turned away from atonality, instead focusing on sophisticated use of traditional harmony.  It’s as if he went through the looking glass and came out even more conservative than he already was.  Not that his soundworld is a bad place to be.


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