The microtonalist composer and theorist Johnny Reinhard invited me to his New York apartment Sunday to hear a new recording, which he is producing, of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata. There must be dozens of recordings of the piece. What makes this one unique is that it involves two pianists ― the young powerhouses Gabriel Zucker and Erika Dohi ― playing separate instruments tuned according to what Johnny calls an “extended Pythagorean” system, or “the spiral of fifths.”
The tuning creates 24 tones per octave and, Johnny says, comes closer to what the composer must have had in mind when he wrote the sonata. In this score, as in others, Ives distinguishes between tones that in equal temperament are enharmonic ― placing, for example, an F sharp beside a G flat in the same measure. To his copyists, this was just bad notation, and it drove them batty. In the Pythagorean system, however, the tones are distinct, and Johnny insists that with his version, he is merely taking Ives at his word.
He also finds justification for his approach in this paragraph from the Epilogue of Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata:
In some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones ― when the diatonic scale will be as obsolete as the pentatonic is now ― perhaps then these borderland experiences may be both easily expressed and readily recognized. But maybe the music is not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may be a transcendental language in the most extravagant sense. Possibly the power of literally distinguishing these “shades of abstraction” ― these attributes paralleled by “artistic intuitions” (call them what you will) ― is ever to be denied man for the same reason that the beginning and end of a circle are to be denied.
The century Ives predicted, Johnny said, is now. The circle has been broken, swept up into a spiral of fifths.
Of course, the proof of any theory is in the listening, and I have to say, there are many stunning, ear-stretching moments in this recording. The word that kept recurring to me throughout the 40-minute running time was “liberated.” The dense, complex “Emerson” movement, in particular, gains a new power and resonance. The music seems propelled by a long-pent-up energy, like a tiger suddenly let loose from a cage. The fresh charge comes at a cost, however, as the last two movements, in which Ives progressively thins out the textures, lose some of their accustomed flavor. “The Alcotts” sounds less naive, “Thoreau” less transparent, with the flute solo at the end (performed sensitively enough by Erin Keppner) struggling to break through the haze. But these are initial impressions, derived perhaps from a lifetime of familiarity with standard performances ― if any performance of the Concord may be called “standard.” With repeated listening, I expect I might find new values to replace the old.
The two-piano version did not require any form of re-arrangement, Johnny said. All he did was take two copies of the score, black out some of the notes in each, and highlight others. The problems of coordination for the two musicians must have been staggering, but Zucker and Dohi rise to the challenge with astonishing precision. The performance is seamless.
Tuning for the two-piano, microtonal Concord Sonata:
Piano I (Zucker)
C# D# F# G# A#
C D E F G A B
Piano II (Dohi)
Db Eb Gb Ab Bb
B# Cx Fb E# Fx Gx Cb