Stuart Isacoff    







Temperament by Stuart Isacoff is an exhilarating journey through centuries of sublime thought, argument, invention, and progression guided by the search for a true structure of harmony. The laws governing music were thought to reveal the blueprint of the heavens and thus were not only of interest to composers but to philosophers and heads of state and church, to painters, architects and mathematicians. Isacoff notes that Leonardo da Vinci called music "the shaping of the invisible."

All material and philosophical structure, all creation, was thought to be bound by the proportions of scale inherent in musical composition. To question the elegant 2:1 proportion of musical scale was to defy the logic of God. Skeptics were stripped of their livelihood, incarcerated or much worse but still the argument was waged. It had to be because the proportions discovered and documented by the earliest logicians of musical phenomena became useless through the introduction of thirds and fifths. The ancient formulas precluded new types of music or made torturous the recital of compositions on all but the tuning of an instrument upon which a piece had been born.

The profound, if contentious, inquiry into the one all-encompassing solution to musical harmony, a solution that could account not only for a universe of sounds but one that could express a universal truth, ended up pointing instead to the folly of insisting "that the proportions in the mind of God must fit in the mind of man." In the early 1700s this path, strewn as it was with an incredible assortment of scales, tunings, and keyboards with keys heaped upon keys, emerged unto a clearing known as equal temperament. The tuning of equal temperament, using the 12-step octave as a unit that can be replicated across the keyboard, creating tonal centers that can be strayed from and returned to, made possible the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin as well as the great improvisational riffs in jazz and remains the standard today. As Isacoff writes, "Playing a piano for which this is not true would be like playing a game of chess in which the rules changed from moment to moment."

In this issue of Bold Type we present a Q&A with author Stuart Isacoff, an audio description of the fifths, thirds, and octaves in equal temperament and their counter sounds in just intonation, and an excerpt from Temperament. Additionally, Stuart Isacoff introduces an essay by Michael Harrison, a contemporary composer who is working with some of the earliest precepts of harmony and scale to compose the celestial music of an alternative universe. Michael Harrison has provided two sample tracks from Revelation, a recording that realizes the potential for musical expression of splendor in the extreme.

--Catherine McWeeney

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  Photo credit: David Beyda

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