April 2007

A 97-Note OctaveThe Piano in Sixteenth Tones
presented by New Music Concerts
April 28, 2007 Music Gallery Toronto
Some Pieces Were Written for the Imagination
by David Fujino with photo by Roger Humbert

A 16th tone piano? — what does it sound like?

Surely it was simple curiosity — in large part — that brought a large crowd this night to the Music Gallery to hear a piano that's based on a totally different tuning system from the one we're used to.

Of course, most curious listeners also wanted to hear how this 16th tone piano — a German-made Carrillo — would be used in the eight compositions by composers as different from each other as Bruce Mather whose interest in microtonal music and microtonal pianos has been on-going for several years; or, by way of contrast, listeners could delight in Michel Gonneville's refreshingly direct composition for 16th tone piano, "Naturel tempéré", with its sound like the slow and delightful de-tuning of the strings of an autoharp; or listeners could be directly engaged in Marc Patch's suspenseful, "A l'affaire en seize", a composition that brought together a normal piano — played masterfully by Pierrette Lepage — and a 16th tone piano played with a crisp attack by Bruce Mather in a duet of response, accommodation, and occasional merging, of the two different tonal systems.

"Où va Pierrot", by Jacques Desjardins, gave the audience something tangible to hang onto. We opened up to the chaconne's 11-note theme written to the words, "Au clair de la lune, mon ami Pierrot", and followed the 16th tone piano as it repeated this theme 16 times and successively, but surely, shuffled its tones into the gently turning structure of this most classic and comfortingly familiar of children's 'rounds'. We could follow the folding and unfolding of the piano's tones inside this clear repeated structure.

So what does this 16th tone piano really sound like?

I'd go with Bruce Mather who said the 16th tone piano has the "sound of voices" — long fluttering breath-like sounds, at times sounding like briskly shuffled air.

Well — some of the audience said they could listen to the piano "all night long". Not me.

In "L'Infiniment petit" by Gilles Tremblay, for example — a solo piece played by Bruce Mather, in which the extreme right end notes and extreme left end notes of the keyboard were frequently and tersely sounded — the resultant piece felt uncomfortably didactic, as if the Carrillo piano's 16th tones still remained a technical challenge to the composer's imagination.

Bruce Mather

But we also heard Bruce Mather's "Two Pieces", a late night lament which paired the 16th tone piano — all breathy and soft sighs — with Jean Laurendeau's expressive playing of the very expressive Onde Martenot, an electronically amplified keyboard with upright speaker. At the bottom of the Onde Martenot keyboard was a separate, moveable ring on a wire. When a finger pressed the wire, it sang away like a viola and, with the flip of a switch — much like a Hammond organ or an electric piano — a note from the piano keyboard changed its timbre.

And we thoroughly enjoyed Jack Behrens' charming and brief tribute to John Beckwith's 80th birthday in March — "For John Beckwith's 80th" (for string quartet). It was not written in microtones and it made good use of a violin flutter placed against a cello and violin pizzicato line. After a section with extreme abstracted rubato lines, the piece cycled back to the original violin flutter and pizzicato cello and violin line.

And then Alain Bancquart's "Habiter l'ambre" started with a 'horror movie' shimmer of sound from a pre-recorded tape; and the piano picked out a mid-keyboard line of notes. The composition's second taped introduction produced low tones and long and droning horizontal atmospheres. The third taped introduction developed into a modern world global clatter of engine drones and microtonal singing, with all of this ending in a static suspension of complex sound.

But — yes, it's a matter of opinion — the 'best' was saved for the last (or second last) in the programme.

The performance of John Beckwith's wonderful composition, "Fractions" — for 16th tone piano and string quartet — was a truly mobile and organic listening experience in which the 16th tone piano's struck tones and the string shrieks called and responded back and forth in a growing open walled environment of sound. The cello and violin then brought warmth. The piano produced voices and wobbly upright waveforms. Then after the strings intersected in stark open space, there was from the piano a last soft utterance and the concluding sigh of strings.

"Fractions" had that sense of human life to it. It contained multitudes, and it was about music, not the piano's 16 tones.

Postscript "I don't know what it means, but I guess that's up to a person's imagination."
(John Beckwith speaking after the concert about his composition, "Fractions".)

The musicians
Bruce Mather (Sauter 16th tone “Carrillo” piano)
Pierrette Lepage (piano)
Jean Laurendeau (Ondes Martenot)

Accordes String Quartet
Fujiko Imajishi and Carol Lynn Fujino — violins
Douglas Perry — viola
David Hetherington — cello


Gilles Tremblay (Canada) — "L' infiniment petit" (2003)
Jacques Desjardins (Canada) — "Oú va Pierrot" (2003)
Alain Bancquart (France) — "Habiter l'ambre" (with tape) (2001)


Marc Patch (Canada) — "A l'affaire en seize (16th tone pianos)" (2003)
Michel Gonneville (Canada) — "Naturel tempéré" (2003)
Bruce Mather (Canada) — "Two Pieces" (with ondes Martenot) (2004)
John Beckwith (Canada) — "Fractions" (for Carrillo piano and string quartet) (2007)
Jack Behrens (USA/Canada) — "For John Beckwith's 80th" (for string quartet) (2007)

We welcome your comments and feedback
David Fujino
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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