Stuart Isacoff    
photo of Stuart Isacoff


Temperament tells the story of a long human saga that begins and ends with a musical problem "that the purest, most beautiful musical harmonies (created by two strings vibrating in certain simple musical proportions, such as 2:1 and 3:2) can not coexist on one keyboard instrument. Tune the instrument so that it will always execute pure octaves (tones vibrating in the proportion 2:1) and it can not consistently produce pure fifths (tones vibrating in the proportion 3:2). Retaining both harmonies is a mathematical impossibility. Therefore, the pure musical proportions had to be altered, or tempered; the scale we hear on today's pianos compromises nearly every one of the "ideal" harmonies, in order to avoid the conflicts between them "which can result in harsh, sour clashes that Renaissance musicians referred to as 'wolfs.'"

Composer and pianist Michael Harrison writes and performs music that purposely incorporates these "wolves" into a contemporary musical texture. In the final chapter of Temperament, I described the result in this way: "It sounded like a jumble at first--a drone, or a room full of drones. Then, from within the din, high-pitched sounds seemed to rise and float toward the ceiling. The deeper Harrison played into the bass end of the instrument, the more he seemed to free an angelic choir above. Were these sympathetic vibrations? I wondered. Overtones? The clashing of strings just slightly out of tune? I couldn't tell.

"Now the texture changed. The pianist's fingers engaged in a furious rhythmic interplay, and a groaning mass of sound in the low end of the piano gave birth to more phantoms above. Musical concords seemed to emerge and shake hands above the fray."

Here is Michael Harrison's own description of his work, which he performs on a specially constructed piano, along with audio tracks to sample.

-- Stuart Isacoff

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