On Sunday, 11th December the first Microfest in the Netherlands took place, organized by Stichting Huygens-Fokker. The BAM zaal in Amsterdam’s Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ was well filled throughout the day, and the audience consisted of musicians and composers involved in microtonal music as well as interested listeners and new music lovers.
The opening concert was played by Ensemble SCALA, an Amsterdam-based group of musicians who specialize in the performance of microtonal music and especially music written in 31-tone system (31 divisions of the octave). Among the seven pieces on the program were two premieres: Gallium, a colourful piece with catching grooves by Sander Germanus and Dissonate 9: Parhymne by 26year-old François-Gabriel Madden. I was happy to see François-Gabriel in Amsterdam since we met just a few weeks before in Montreal, François-Gabriel being a student of Prof. Michel Gonneville at la Conservatoire de musique de Montréal.
Also one of the most intriguing pieces was Madonna, il poco dolce, written by Italian Nicola Vicentino. Vicentino, besides Dutchman Christiaan Huygens one of the first early microtonalists who, inspired by the idea of making it possible to transpose mean-tone tunings on a cembalo and play ″pure″ in every key, built his archicembalo as early as in 1555. In the same year, he wrote his treatise L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica in which he suggests a radical tuning system of 31 tones per octave. His enharmonic (microtonal) madrigal Madonna, il poco dolce shows Vicentino’s compositional audiaciousness by leading the vocal (in this concert: flute) part in superchromatic steps. (cf. Anton Vishio)
Unfortunately, I was late for Bob Gilmore’s lecture about Harry Partch due to the restaurant being very slow – on the other hand, it was a pleasure to talk to my colleagues and meet the other musicians.
Ensemble Musifabrik Köln has ordered a large set of Partch instruments, Gilmore told in his lecture, and they will be finished already in summer 2012. The musicians then will take one year of time to – besides their other projects – get acquainted with Partch’s special instruments tuned to 11-limit Just Intonation. The premiere concert with compositions by Harry Partch played on instrument replicas is planned for Ruhrtriennale in summer 2013. I am very curious about this project because as far as I know there are currently only two sets of Partch instruments worldwide, both in the US. Musikfabrik’s project will bring Partch’s music in live performances to the European continent for the first time. Just a few days ago, the ensemble was officially awarded a generous funding of 214.000 € from Kulturstiftung des Bundes.
The next concert I had to miss because I was preparing for my own show. Keiko Shichijo played the Carillo piano which has been purchased by Stichting Huygens-Fokker in 2011; flutist Anne La Berge shared the stage. The 97 keys of the Carillo piano cover the range of one octave, dividing it into steps of 1/16 tone. Mexican composer Julián Carillo collaborated in the 1950s with the piano manufacture Sauter in Germany to realize his dream of a piano which was able to play any intervall within an octave as a just interval (reine Stimmung). Between 1997 and 2000, Sauter made ten more of these 96-tone pianos. Last year, I already had the opprtunity to try the 1/16 tone piano of Bruce Mather which is standing at Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, and it was a blast playing around on it! Imagine you move your fingers to play a chromatic scale as fast as you can, and ″nothing″ changes…
I showed up in the BAM zaal again for Forum: Microtonale muziek in de praktijk. Participants of the podium discussion were some of the musicians performing on that day: Ere Lievonen (player of the Fokker organ), Ned McGowan (conductor of Ensemble Scala), Anne La Berge (flutist), Siemen Terpstra (lutenist; he has a fretless lute and plays in every tuning, e.g. 53-EDO or Arabic and Turkish tunings as well as meantone), Ákos Hoffmann and myself (Bohlen-Pierce clarinets). Sander Germanus led the discussion about problems that musicians are facing when playing microtonal music. The necessity of compromising between sound colour or tone quality and intonation for wind instruments was mentioned as well as recent developments such as the Kingma system for flute which allows to play microtones more easily. A feature of fretless instruments as Siemen’s Egyptian lute is the fact that they can be played in any tuning, whereas on Bohlen-Pierce clarinets we are ″stuck″ to one system (although the BP clarinet can be useful when playing 31-tone music since a BP quartertone is almost exactly a third tone of 12-edo; a big problem is that we would need the BP clarinet notation here what would drive composers mad). Ere Lievonen told about his process of becoming acquainted with the Fokker organ and its totally different key layout not only for the manuals but also for the pedals.
After the discussion, the audience was curious to have a close look at our instruments, and naturally the Carillo piano was a great success because it could be tried out by everyone.
The concert I was involved in, Bohlen-Pierce meets Huygens-Fokker, was scheduled for the evening. The first half consisted of pieces for the Fokker organ played by Ere Lievonen, including another new piece by François-Gabriel Madden, Fantasie, which I liked a lot. Ivan Wyschengradsky’s Étude ultrachromatique op. 42 (1959) was performed as well as an early music piece by Tarquinio Merula, Capriccio cromatico with its bold melodic and harmonic progressions which the Fokker organ is ideal to play. In Danny de Graan’s piece Forma (2009) the organ was controlled by a laptop. It started with the sound of the organ’s mechanic, without air and thus without sound production. It developed into a ″speaking″ sound similar to that used by Peter Ablinger, a sound synthesized from spoken language. Later on, the piece culminated in sound mixtures and electronic-like effects.
In the second half of the concert me and my colleague Ákos Hoffmann played pieces from the Bohlen-Pierce clarinet repertoire that can almost be named classic: Manfred Stahnke’s Die Vogelmenschen von St. Kilda, Georg Hajdu’s Beyond te Horizon – with Ere Lievonen on Bohlen-Pierce-tuned synthesizer – Sascha Lemke’s Pas de deux, and a relatively old piece but new to us: Wanderer by Canadian composer Owen Bloomfield, one of the world’s first two compositions for Bohlen-Pierce clarinets. By the way, the concert was not only sponsored by Goethe Institute but also by the Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory. Hereby it is proved that the Bohlen-Pierce clarinet is an outer-space clarinet indeed! A warm thank-you to both sponsors.
During the whole day I enjoyed the open and communicative, friendly atmosphere in the Microfest and the nice view from the concert hall over the water. I very much hope that Microfest Amsterdam will be established as a regular event.