Michael Harrison    
photo of Michael Harrison


My Revelation

The "harmonically tuned" piano is my modern approach to the ancient principles of "pure tuning," that is, a tuning based on the work of Pythagoras and other Greek philosophers and mathematicians who discovered that musical concords arise from simple mathematical relationships based on whole numbers. This kind of tuning, known as "just intonation," is found not only in the music of ancient Greece, but also in that of India, Persia, China, and Japan. Just intonation is also vital to the "a cappella" music of the West, from Gregorian chant and renaissance polyphony to "doo-wop" and "barbershop" harmonies.

My initial fascination with pure tunings stems from my interest in North Indian classical music, which I began singing and studying in 1978 with one of India's master vocalists, Pandit Pran Nath, and composer Terry Riley. Singing Indian ragas while accompanying myself on the tamboura, a resonant Indian string instrument, awakened my ears to the beautiful resonances of pure tunings. As I became more familiar with the intonation of the Indian ragas, the compromises of equal temperament, the tuning used on the modern piano, sounded increasingly "out of tune" and became disturbing to my newly sensitive hearing. In 1980, seeking the guidance of the most innovative composer working with just intonation, I came to New York City to study with La Monte Young. I began exploring the application of just intonation to the piano, and these two musical worlds came together for me and opened the door to a new musical universe.

As the development of my music and tunings unfolded, I created the "harmonic piano," a customized seven-foot grand piano with the ability to alternate between two different tunings, thus creating the possibility of playing 24 notes per octave on a conventional keyboard. This allowed me a range of tonal flexibility and precision of unprecedented scope. The effects of this specialized tuning were realized in my first major work for piano, From Ancient Worlds (New Albion Records, 1992), which was recorded in the reverberant acoustics of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. My newest major work, Revelation (2001), represents the evolution of the concept I began with in From Ancient Worlds. Revelation introduces for the first time in modern tuning the extensive use of the extremely minute and dissonant byproducts that result from stacking several "pure" intervals at once. The intervals between two versions of the same note are called "commas."

Revelation incorporates three sets of adjacently tuned commas into the harmonic fabric of the tuning. When they sound simultaneously or in rapid succession, they produce never-before-heard combinations of modes, harmonies, and acoustical phenomenon. Paul Griffiths of The New York Times, stated that these resonant tone clouds "...generated huge golden balls of vibrant sound."

In my work the comma is thus freed from its restricted status as an untamed "out-of-tune" dissonance that, until recently, was disguised, avoided or obliterated by tempered tunings, compositional styles, performance practices and instrument designs. I believe that the "emancipation of the comma" represents the next step in the evolution of music.

The U.S. premiere of Revelation at Lincoln Center on October 20, 2001 received an overwhelming audience response. The performance filled the hall with shimmering and pulsating effects weaving through delicate lyrical passages as well as massive walls of harmonic resonance. Critic Sandy McCroskey vividly described these unusual acoustic effects as "...glorious clouds of harmonics, ...divine thunder, angel choirs, celestial bells." A live recording of this concert is available through my web-site at

Audio excerpts from Michael Harrison's CD Revelation:

Dyads Revealing the Commas (2:01)
Tone Clouds (2:00)

This streaming audio clip can be played with the RealPlayer or RealAudio player, available free from Progressive Networks.
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