Brass and microtonal music are some of the unique features of this year's Music on the Edge series at Pitt | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Brass and microtonal music are some of the unique features of this year's Music on the Edge series at Pitt

"At one point, it was a whole fringe subfield, wacky."

click to enlarge Meridian Arts Ensemble
Meridian Arts Ensemble

Pittsburgh has never seen a festival of microtonal music. That probably doesn't come as a big surprise to you, if you even know what microtonal music is. But it's the kind of thing Pitt's Mathew Rosenblum is into — and that's why Music on the Edge, the Pitt-affiliated program he and Eric Moe run, is staging one this year. In late February, the series will hold a three-day event called Beyond: Microtonal Music Festival. It's just one of a number of novel happenings that comprise the series' 2014-15 season, which starts this weekend.

Microtonal music uses tones between the well-known notes of the scale that we're used to. It sometimes uses novel instruments, too. Mantra Percussion, for example, will perform a piece at the festival using six 2-by-4 pieces of lumber. (They do carry their instruments with them from show to show, says Rosenblum; they don't just stop at Lowe's in every town on their agenda.)

The festival will also feature discussion sessions with experts on microtonal music, from Frank J. Oteri of NewMusicBox magazine to composers like Charles Corey. "At one point, it was a whole fringe subfield, wacky," says Rosenblum, a noted composer who works with microtones. "Then people like Sonic Youth started using junk guitars and retuning things, and Lamont Young, and all of a sudden it became assimilated into music in an interesting way. It's really part of a general language of new music."

"In a way, you can almost think of it as a world-music thing," notes MOTE's Jessica Hohman, "because Asian music uses many more tones than Western music does. It's just normal over there: In India, even when they sing, they use all these tones that we never use."

The MOTE season's kickoff, Fri., Oct. 3, is a performance by Meridian Arts Ensemble, a Buffalo-based brass band, a configuration not seen often in new-music circles. "These guys have been around for a while, and [new music] is all they do," Rosenblum explains. In recent years, MOTE hadn't seen any brass groups. "We hadn't found the right fit," he says. "But these guys approached us, and they fit really well with what we do."

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