A discussion with composer Frank J. Oteri

Photo © by Jeffrey Herman

Frank J. Oteri is someone who needs no introduction in New Music circles, where he is perhaps best known as the founder and co-editor of the popular NewMusicBox online ‘zine, among many other roles in the community. We were very happy that his solo clarinet work Spurl won our MicroCosmos Microtonal Pedagogy prize this year.

UnTwelve: We know that your listening tastes are about as wide-ranging as any human's could possibly be, but as a composer, how many of your works have explored microtonality? Tell us about some of the things you've explored.

FJO: Indeed my listening habits are omnivorous and probably insatiable :) Everything I listen to is a window into another world, a chance to hear the world in a new way, and everything I listen to leads to something else I want to listen to, whether music by the same musicians/composers/interpreters, one of their compatriots, contemporaries or predecessors. To me, listening to music is perhaps the greatest activity, even more than composing or performing it, because it is a way to get outside of my own ideas and into those of someone else, an opportunity for empathy, and ultimately a chance to learn from someone else. Obviously that learning from someone else ultimately feeds back into directions my own music has taken since I do not think it is beneficial to anyone to create in a vacuum (even though there have been some truly extraordinary musical creations that were the by-product of people who created in relative isolation and without much discernible influence and while I admire much of that music, it is not a condition I aspire to). In fact, I've often said, and I truly believe this, that the ability to listen to someone else's music serves as an ideal model for listening to others overall, and something that we must learn to do if we are to function as a free, pluralistic society. A society in which people are incapable of paying attention to or to have empathy for perspectives other than their own is an extremely dangerous and dysfunctional society, and I worry frequently these days that we are veering toward such a society.

As for listening to microtonal music, or rather listening to music microtonally, being open to all possible pitches and combinations of them, is indeed an even further step in listening as a means to appreciate and understand otherness. Discovering microtonal music when I was a teenager was a revelation to me and coming toward an aesthetic position that all music is microtonal was extremely liberating. (After all, why should we divide the world into music in 12tET and everything else? Why should 12tET music have such leverage?)

As far as how that has impacted my compositions, I therefore consider all my music microtonal and when I compose a work that is in 12tET (which I still do from time to time), it is a conscious choice that that particular collection of pitches will best serve the specific idea(s) I wish to explore in that piece. That said, I'm sure what you'd like to know about are my other non-12tET compositions aside from Spurl. In 1982, I plunged in to 31tET as a result of being able to work on Joel Mandelbaum's Motorola Scalatrons at Queens College. It seemed the ideal tuning for an opera I wanted to write that was based on the novel In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan. I was still in my teens and still a bit naive about how the musical world operates. I never secured the rights to the novel since I did not realize that was something I had to do. While I had some ideas about orchestration, I wasn't sure what players I'd be able to find to perform such a piece so I only notated a complete vocal-keyboard score. I also had no idea how difficult such a piece would be for the singers. Needless to say, my attempts to do anything with this didn't get terribly far and it has yet to be performed. One day maybe :)

UnTwelve: Was Joel Mandelbaum the micro-music you first discovered as a teenager, or was it something else?

FJO: I first learned about microtonal music when Johnny Reinhard was first forming the American Festival of Microtonal Music and I helped him do research on composers like Alois Hába, Ivan Wyschnegradsky and Julián Carrillo and tracking down some of their scores. In fact, after being mind-blown after hearing Wyschnegradsky's Ainsi Parlait Zarathoustra for 4 pianos, 2 tuned a 1/4-tone away from the other two, which Johnny played me on a third generation cassette recording from a Pacifica Radio broadcast, I wrote him a fan letter and several months later it was returned to me in the mail with a mark telling me that he had died. This actually led to my writing an obituary of Wyschnegradsky in Ear Magazine, my first professional publication, which led to the music journalist part of my life. Ear was also the first professional entity to publish an excerpt of my music, in the Under 25 issue, where they published the opening measures of the keyboard score for my aforementioned never performed 31tET opera In Watermelon Sugar.

Through Johnny, I met Joel Mandelbaum and a host of other NYC-area microtonalists including Tui St. George Tucker, whose 2 upright pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart and positioned 90 degrees from each other to facilitate being played by one person, convinced me that I had to compose microtonal music, and Jon Catler, whose 31-tone rock band JC and the Microtones whose gigs I followed in all the clubs convinced me that the microtonal music I had to compose was in 31tET.

Meanwhile, after attempting the most ambitious type of piece I could possibly imagine outside 12tET, I decided I'd be better off creating smaller scale works that I could perform myself on various retuned synthesizers, starting with π a la Modal (1983) which used triads including the ratio of π/2 (a rather sharp fifth) that I triggered using the Chord Memory function of the Korg MonoPoly and culminating with Oasis, Four Steps Toward an Untempered Clavier (1989), for which I attached a digital keyboard via a MIDI cable to a Yamaha TX81Z set to a simple preset 5-limit Just Intonation, but which explored other keys than the one that the Just Intonation was set for, specifically Bb, D, and Eb (which get progressively further "out") and ultimately back home to C. Since the material I conceptualized for this grew more and more contrapuntal, I added a delay unit, but even still it was beyond my dexterity and so for the initial performance of the piece at a gallery in SoHo, I triggered the TX81Z with my then computer, an Apple IIGS using a primitive notation input program called Pyware Music Writer. A few years ago (in 2014), I revised the piece so that it is perfectly playable on a single retuned keyboard by two players (four-hands) and it is in this version that the Ray-Kallay Duo have performed the piece in Pittsburgh, Boston, and Southern California. The most ambitious undertaking I did with that TX81Z, however, was to use it in a 10-piece salsa band for which I created a chart in 11-limit just intonation called Just Salsa in 1991. That band played just once, at an American Festival of Microtonal Music concert at New York University's Frederick Loewe Theatre, but the performance was preserved on a recording and released on CD by the AFMM.

I did not return to writing music outside of 12tET until the early 21st century once I began to use Sibelius which enabled me to notate and playback quartertones. I eventually figured out how the program did that and was able to get it to playback sixth-tones and even smaller gradations. The result has been a flowering of non-12tET pieces such as: circles mostly in wood for wind quintet in quartertones (2002) which was premiered by Pentasonic Winds at a Composers Concordance concert and subsequently performed by the Sylvan Winds; Fair and Balanced? for saxophone quartet in quartertones (2004) which was premiered and recorded by the PRISM Quartet; Imagined Overtures for rock band in sixth-tones (2005) which was premiered by Capital M and has been recorded by the Los Angeles Electric 8; Spurl for solo clarinet or alto saxophone in 13-limit just intonation (2009) which was created for the 10th anniversary of the Boston Microtonal Society; Lamed Vav Vav for unaccompanied vocal quintet in sixth-tones (2015) which was one of 72 short compositions from as many composers created for a presentation with 72 paintings by Rainer Gross; and (not) knowing the answer (based on six sijos by Jim Murphy) for unaccompanied vocal sextet in 13-limit just intonation (2009-15) which has yet to be performed.

UnTwelve: Somewhere on the Social Medias, I saw a history of how Spurl came to happen, it was pretty fascinating. Would you mind recounting that tale for us here?

FJO: Back in 2009, I had this crazy "what if" idea involving eight consecutive pitches in the overtone series as an alternative to the diatonic scale which was inspired by conjectures about what probably happened when most valveless brass players attempted to play extended melodic passages in the Baroque era. (Folks used to the diatonic scale would have found such performances "out of tune," though they would have been more "in tune" with natural harmonics which the physical properties of such instruments enabled them to sound far more easily; playing "correctly in tune" diatonic pitches would have required subtle lip adjustments.) So, at first, I thought about exploring the possibilities of embracing such a pitch environment in a brass quintet which, in honor of Richard Brautigan, I wanted to title Maps of New Places. After a couple of years I only got as far as the first movement (which I called "Crossing a Bridge to Nowhere") and it's been somewhat frustrating that the rest of it has yet to come to fruition or to a performance.

When the Boston Microtonal Society asked me to write a piece for their 10th anniversary, this brass quintet was precisely what I wanted to write, but they only had the resources for solo pieces, a medium that had been something of a bête noire for me since all too often such works sounded to me like the one without the "music minus one", if you know what I mean... But I perservered and came up with something, which after Roald Dahl I called Spurl, inspired by the following sentences in Dahl's 1949 short story "The Sound Machine": "A Flower probably didn't feel pain. It felt something else which we didn't know about--something called toin or spurl or plinuckment, or anything you like." I scored it for solo alto saxophone and created a manic virtuoso cascade of notes which journeys relentlessly through every possible hexachord that could be created from the 8 pitches of my "what if" overtone scale.

I was not completely satisfied with the result, but I later transposed it and created a version for solo Bb clarinet which I now think is definitive, especially after Michiyo Suzuki's amazing performance of it at a Composers Concordance concert at the Turtle Bay Music School back in 2013. In fact, I was so thrilled with how that performance turned out that I returned to that scale as the basis for another composition, (not) knowing the answer, a musical setting of six sijos by Jim Murphy for 6 unaccompanied singers, a work which, admittedly, will be quite a challenge for any vocal ensemble to perform. But now, emboldened by the award for Spurl from Untwelve for which I am extremely grateful, I'm hoping that I can persuade a vocal group out there to accept the challenge to perform (not) knowing the answer and perhaps also find a brass quintet that will be willing to join me on the quixotic journey of actually realizing Maps of New Places.

UnTwelve: Well, thanks again for talking to us, and thanks for your wonderful music!