First Encounters…

This past semester I taught a chamber music class at The Boston Conservatory in Ben Johnston‘s string quartets for the very first time. It was a revelation, for the students and for me. Exploring music with others – be they colleagues, the next generation of performers, or general audiences, is always a joy. But this class was particularly dramatic.

At our first meeting, each quartet member was hooked up to their own chromatic tuner. We began by tuning a dominant 7th chord. The root and 5th were simple (being very close to Equal Temperament). It was also easy for everyone to agree that the major 3rd sounded excellent about 14 cents lower than ET. The 7th was a different story.

A pure dominant 7th is extremely low compared to ET – almost ¼ tone. The players – each in turn, watching the meter on their tuner – approached the 7th with extreme caution, slowly creeping lower. They could not believe, using their eyes, that they were headed in the right direction. Once there, after balancing the chord, we just listened to it for a minute.

Next, I asked them to take the 7th back up to ET. This was a moment I will never forget. First eyes widened in disbelief, followed by pained expressions as the grim reality of the ET dominant 7th sank in. They could not reconcile their eyes and ears and how absolutely dreadful the chord sounded with the 7th raised.

I chose quartet #9 as the portal into Johnston’s world of Extended Just Tuning. The first movement begins by introducing the just tuned C Major scale with a syntonic comma thrown in for good measure. The third is a simple hymn-like song which modulates down two syntonic commas and back up, all within the first phrase (this affects me physically every time I hear it – like digging a hole and jumping in, then climbing back out as the sun comes from behind a cloud….).

The journey was easier for the students than it was for Kepler, simply because I was there as tour guide – but it was not an easy ride by any means. One coaching session they informed me that they had covered only three chords in a two hour rehearsal. By the end of the semester, the quartet had covered about 50 measures of music, and only half that really thoroughly. But they really owned those first 30 measures. It was thrilling.

The adventure gave them a whole new understanding of pitch, how it can be manipulated, the importance of a pitch’s role in a given harmony, how voicing affects perception of being ‘in tune’ and so on.

As one of the students said at the end of the semester, “Nothing will ever be the same again”.

8 responses to “First Encounters…

  1. I think I may have to take your course some day! Sounds like a whole new world. Congratulations, Sharan!

  2. I intend to offer it first semester next year. It would be great to have you there.

  3. I had a lot of fun working my way through the “just tuned” page and I have forwarded it to two of my riding students who are both musicians and I think would appreciate it. Again, just an amateur voyeur in all this but still would like you to know that I enjoyed it.

  4. Pingback: That’s so last century…. | Just Tuning In

  5. This is kind of a “fluffy” response, but I thought you might enjoy it:

    C, E-flat, and G go into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, but we don’t
    serve minors.” So E-flat leaves, and C and G have an open fifth between
    them. After a few drinks, the fifth is diminished, and G is out flat. F
    comes in and tries to augment the situation, but is not sharp enough. D
    comes in and heads for the bathroom, saying, “Excuse me; I’ll just be a
    second.” Then A comes in, but the bartender is not convinced that this
    relative of C is not a minor. Then the bartender notices B-flat hiding
    at the end of the bar and says, “Get out! You’re the seventh minor I’ve
    found in this bar tonight.” E-flat comes back the next night in a
    three-piece suit with nicely shined shoes. The bartender says, “You’re
    looking sharp tonight. Come on in, this could be a major development.”
    Sure enough, E-flat soon takes off his suit and everything else, and is
    au natural. Eventually C sobers up and realizes in horror that he’s
    under a rest. C is brought to trial, found guilty of contributing to the
    diminution of a minor, and is sentenced to 10 years of D.S. without Coda
    at an upscale correctional facility.

  6. Pingback: + – 7 L ^ ……? | Just Tuning In

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