Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ives v. Pythagoras II

I asked for more detailed information regarding the tuning of Charles Ives’ Second Sting Quartet, and I got it: last Friday, Johnny Reinhard, the man behind the Flux Quartet’s recording, send me an e-mail with a link to his essay on the validity of Extended Pythagorean tuning in Ives’ music. You can read it here.

It’s a long argument, rather dense and technical. It might even be right, as far as any extrapolations from a man’s Nachlass can be, but I caught myself wondering just what it’s all for. Some of the discrepancies in pitch between equal temperament and Pythagorean tuning amount to no more than two one hundredths of a half step, a difference no listener could possibly pick up on. In a letter to a copyist, which Johnny quotes, Ives offers an observation we would do well to heed: “Either way won't 'make or break' the listener's ear.”

In any event, I stand by my assessment of the Flux Quartet’s performance. It is not my go-to recording. Johnny does address my criticisms in his e-mail, a little defensively. “One thing further to consider,” he says, “is that Flux was playing a live concert performance, while I suspect the other performances were studio. It is a testament to their playing that they could achieve this ‘experiment’ in their initial performance of the piece, and may also account somewhat to the length of the performance.”

I don’t want to sound harsh, because I am grateful than Johnny took the trouble to write, but I don’t see why the conditions of a live performance should make much of a difference. There are many wonderful live recordings. If the performers weren’t on top of the music, they could have spent more time in rehearsal. The mere fact they were able to make it through the piece is hardly a five-star recommendation.

And what’s with the name “Flux”? It sounds like some kind of discharge.

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