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“Just Intonation” (Used 3 times)

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andrewcsmith on 05/06/2011 at 03:00PM

Ellen Fullman's Long String Instrument

Photo by Judy Dater

In the early 1980s, Ellen Fullman began developing the "Long String Instrument," stringing tuned piano wire across her Brooklyn studio. In the last thirty years, she has moved this instrument all over the country, and for one day she'll perform in ISSUE Project Room's new space at 110 Livingston, in Downtown Brooklyn (May 22: 3 pm & 7 pm: brand-new ISSUE members get two free tickets). It's been compared to standing inside an enormous grand piano, or "some cyclopean subterranean grotto" (The Wire). She has an upcoming release on Important Records, Through Glass Panes, and the mix below includes a few of these tracks as well as collaborations with the artists she'll be joined by later this month.

These comparisons, like "standing inside an enormous grand piano," don't quite convey the symbiosis between Fullman's instrument and her way of playing it. It's true, the audience is sitting in a room with seventy 80-foot, precisely tuned wires strung across it, but the comparison seems to fall apart when you realize you've never quite heard a piano that sounds like this. Instead of playing digitally, Fullman's playing seems to live on the threshold of audibility. The on/off of the piano seems distant — can a light brush on a single string be counted as a "note," in the same way that pressing a key constitutes a note?

The careful tuning of the strings causes sympathetic resonances among them. The wire is strung between resonator boxes made of Sitka spruce, built by a harp builder, and the sound is entirely acoustic. This setup, which on the surface seems simple, like a giant guitar with no frets or a harp with no pedals, creates infinitely complex resonances and acoustic effects. In a resonant space, the line between the instrument sounding and not sounding could be blurred.

The uploaded tracks include collaborations with the musicians she'll be performing with on May 22. Through Glass Panes, her new CD on Important Records, includes a duet with Theresa Wong, "Never Gets Out of Me," and other tracks include a duet with percussionist Sean Meehan ("untitled 3," out on cut), electronic musician David Gamper, and trombonist Monique Buzzarté ("Fluctuation 5," from the album Fluctuations on Pauline Oliveros's Deep Listening label).

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natewooley on 04/13/2011 at 03:38PM

Ben Johnston: The Baddest Composer You Probably Don't Know

The Great Ben Johnston

I always find it refreshing in this age, when even the most embattled, embittered, and reclusive of artists still have a very active facebook page and some sort of aggressive"web presence", to find a truly incredible composer or performer that I've never heard of.  Part of me enjoys the hipster cadre of saying "Stuart Saunders Smith...oh, you haven't heard of him..oh, yeah, I'm a big fan", or "I was just listening to this early Walter Marchetti recording...wait, you don't know Marchetti?!".  Then I put on my bright pink sunglasses and ride my fixed gear bike to get a case of pbr. 

Okay, Okay, enough stereotyping, and on to the point. Which is Ben Johnsont.

Ben Johnston was introduced to me through his new release on New World Records, in which the Kepler Quartet perform his String Quartets 1,5, and 10.  I listen to every New World release, in hopes there is some kind of promotion I can do, even if it is just word of mouth.  I don't like them all, but that's what makes listening to music great, right? 

Johnston was a revelation, though.  As I've said in previous posts, I'm fascinated by that thin line between concept and raw music making.  Johnston's use of just intonation and serialism is so natural and integrated with his use of folk and gospel song and western tonal harmony that the microtonality just becomes a very intense emotional coloring for the listener. If you don't know Ben Johnston, I suggest you take a listen to the two tracks I've listed here, as well as the new release on New World.  Then bring up his name at parties......a lot.


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andrewcsmith on 08/13/2010 at 09:00AM

Perfect/Imperfect: Duane Pitre, coming to IPR's ImpRec courtyard show this Sunday

Electric guitarist and composer Duane Pitre, by Lauren Cecil

Duane Pitre, performing on the same bill as Master Musicians of Bukkake with Important Records in the courtyard at 2 p.m. this Sunday at ISSUE, tends toward calm and extreme concentration. His electric guitar is usually tuned to some form of just intonation—a tuning schema where all notes are whole-number ratios of some single pitch center—and he often plays it with a bow. This is the case in his newly released album Origin, on Root Strata, featuring an ensemble of bowed and retuned guitars. Pitre also curated an album of works in just intonation called "The Harmonic Series," released on Important Records in 2009.

At its peak, his music is a contiguous mass in which everything is shifting but nothing moves. In fact, it seems that the composer is absent, save for a few notes: a three-sentence score (printed on the album page, and after the jump) provides the underpinnings of an entire work, the rest to come later. But the composer is far from absent in these works. Pitre plays in nearly every performance of his music (as he will on Sunday), usually alternating between Niblockean drones and freely rhythmic figures (as in "Feel Free," at Zebulon in Brooklyn, after the jump).

The piece below, Perfect/Imperfect, is from Pitre's Artist-in-Residency at ISSUE in Spring 2009. Perfect/Imperfect is, on an aural level, a "focus-piece, a concentration-piece, for both performers and audience." In it, the string players each match a computer-generated sine tone—that steadfastly and coldly stable stalwart of computer music—and as the humans' pitches fluctuate a few hertz one way or the other the entire room seems to shift and spin. On a conceptual level, the piece is about the strive for perfection among imperfect beings: whether a computer or human can "do the job better." On a human level, the piece is a welcome respite from the "50+ hours" that Pitre said he spends in front of a computer every week. It's these imperfect, human fluctuations that make the music move.


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