Composer/pianist Michael Harrison (called “an American maverick” by Philip Glass) is one of only a few musicians with equal training and immersion in both Western classical and Indian classical music. His music forges a new approach to composition through tunings and structures that extend the ancient concept of just intonation, a form of pure tuning constructed from musical intervals of perfect mathematical proportions.
While still an undergraduate student, Harrison met composer La Monte Young. Soon Young brought him to New York as his protégé, to study composition, performance, and Indian classical music. Harrison was the exclusive tuner for Young’s custom Bösendorfer concert grand and became the only person other than the composer to perform Young’s 6-hour The Well-Tuned Piano. Terry Riley became a close friend and mentor. Most importantly, Harrison became a disciple of Young and Riley’s music guru Pandit Pran Nath, traveling to India with Pran Nath and Riley for periods of extensive study and practice.
Harrison creates dedicated tuning systems for many of his works. He also pioneered a structural approach to composition in which the proportions of harmonic relationships organically determine other musical elements such as pitch, duration, and dynamics. He seeks expressions of universality via the physics of sound – music that brings one into a state of concentrated listening as a meditative and even mind-altering experience.
His music has been performed at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Muziekgebouw, Park Avenue Armory, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Louvre, Centre Pompidou, MASS MoCA, Big Ears Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, the United Nations, Klavier Festival Ruhr, and the Sundance Film Festival.
A Guggenheim Fellow, Harrison has been commissioned by Grammy-winning vocal group Roomful of Teeth, Alarm Will Sound, Maya Beiser, Cello Octet Amsterdam, Del Sol String Quartet, and Contemporaneous. His evening-length work Revelation, for piano in his own tuning system, was named one of the Best Classical Recordings of 2007 by The New York Times, Boston Globe, and TimeOut New York, and was called “probably the most brilliant and original extended composition for solo piano since the early works of Frederic Rzewski three decades ago” by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page. Other acclaimed works include his Time Loops album with Maya Beiser (selected for NPR’s Top 10 Classical Albums of 2012) and Just Constellations for Roomful of Teeth, forthcoming from New Amsterdam (called “glacially beautiful” and “luminous” by Alex Ross in The New Yorker).
His residencies include MacDowell, Yaddo, Camargo, McColl Center, Ucross, Djerassi, Millay, Bogliasco, La Napoule, I-Park, MASS MoCA, and the Visiting Artists program of the American Academy in Rome. In addition to the Guggenheim, his awards include a NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship, Aaron Copland Recording Grant, Classical Recording Foundation Award, IBLA Foundation Prize, American Composers Forum residency and performance in the Havana School of Music. He invented the "harmonic piano," a grand piano that plays 24 notes per Contemporary Music Festival, and a New Music USA Grant.
Harrison received his Masters in Composition, studying with Reiko Fueting, at Manhattan octave, documented in the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. His music has been recorded on Cantaloupe, New Amsterdam, Innova, New Albion, and New World Records.
"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 his earliest American disciples, La Monte Young and 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 sounded increasingly “out of tune” and became disturbing to my newly sensitive hearing. As I began exploring the application of just intonation to the piano these two musical worlds came together for me and opened the door to a new musical universe latent with potentials waiting to be discovered. The “harmonically tuned” piano is my modern microtonal approach to the ancient principles of just intonation tuning based on non-tempered harmonic resonances or overtones.
The foundation for this work was laid by Pythagoras and other Greek philosophers and mathematicians who worked out a theory of whole numbers as they relate to musical consonances.
This concept of universal order links music, mathematics, architecture, and philosophy in a system of balance and proportion that was referred to as “the music of the spheres.” Just intonation is found not only in the music of ancient Greece, but also in that of India, Persia, China, and Japan, and the “a cappella” music of the West.
I strongly believe that in the generations and centuries to come hundreds and thousands of composers will explore new tunings at the piano, and that the instrument itself will be redesigned to accommodate this revolutionary new approach. Tuners will also learn these new tunings. But the composers need to be the sound explorers that lead the way—then the instrument makers, tuners, and performers will follow. "
by Michael Harrison
Project: TUNINGS AND NEW PARADIGMS IN MUSIC
Presented: as part of the SWS Vienna GREEN Plenary programme, December 2020
Zoom session: 1:15 h
Harrison will show the development of the just intonation tuning he invented for his critically acclaimed work "Revelation" as well as playing excerpts from his recent performance of the work in Rome.