Beyond: Microtonal Music Festival takes place Jan. 11-13 in Pittsburgh | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Beyond: Microtonal Music Festival takes place Jan. 11-13 in Pittsburgh

“It’s visceral. It’s a journey.”

While assembling the program for the second Beyond: Microtonal Music Festival, the organizers wanted pieces that connected with the theme, “Cultural Roots/Cultural Intersection.” Western composers use the term “microtonal” for music built with pitches and tunings that expand beyond the 12-note equal temperament that has been the standard since J.S. Bach. (The notes from middle C and the C an octave higher on the piano represent the 12-tone scale.) Microtonal music utilizes more notes, allowing for quarter tones (i.e. pitches between C and C-sharp, for instance), leading to concepts like instrument builder/composer Harry Partch’s own 43-tone scale.

But there isn’t one set standard for microtonal music, nor do musicians from other countries use that term. “There are so many microtonal [variations]. It’s all looked at through the Western eye,” says Mathew Rosenblum, co-director of Music on the Edge, which co-presents the festival with The Andy Warhol Museum’s Sound Series. “If you talk to an Indonesian artist or someone from another culture, they don’t think of it as microtonal.”

All composers have some sort of cultural roots, Rosenblum adds. So this festival — the second one, three years after its maiden voyage — explores the idea of “reaching into one’s own cultural roots, or some other influence, and looking at it through the lens of microtonality,” he says. 

Rosenblum’s own “Lament/Witches’ Sabbath” is one of the compositions premiering on Thu., Jan. 11. David Krakauer, a featured clarinet soloist on the piece, says the work doesn’t require extensive knowledge of microtonality to enjoy it. “It’s visceral. It’s a journey,” he says. “I think people will sit and listen to it, and it’s not going to be about, ‘Oh, I have to have an owner’s manual to understand this.’ It’s very direct and expressive. And dramatic and powerful.” The same holds true for the whole festival.

Krakauer and Rosenblum have known each other since both attended the High School for Music and Art in New York, and explored the city’s diverse music scene in the early ’70s. The clarinetist, best known for his fresh take on traditional Klezmer music, has been a frequent visitor to Pittsburgh. On one trip, Rosenblum, also a professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh, expressed a desire to write a piece that would recall Hector Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique and incorporate the story of his grandmother.

“At Passover seders in the Bronx in New York, I heard this story about how my family escaped the Ukraine in 1919,” Rosenblum explains. “They crossed the border to escape the massacre in the town. My grandmother tied her silverware to her legs and sold it [later]. She gave birth to my mother while they were fleeing in the woods.

“There was one time that my grandmother told this to me, that was the most powerful. In retrospect, I realized it was this Eastern European lament style: She was sobbing and storytelling, narrating this story in a very specific, interesting way. It made a huge impression on me as a little 6- or 8-year old.”

When he recounted the story to Krakauer, the compositions started to fall into place. “Hey, man, that’s the personal connection to the piece,” Krakauer told him, “and then you can do the ‘Witches’ Sabbath.’ We need to start with the lament.”

Rosenblum says the writing process was driven by the sound of the voice. He researched Ukrainian and Jewish laments, incorporating field recordings of them into the piece, along with recordings of his grandmother speaking when she was in her 80s. This pre-recorded audio will be interwoven into the music during its performance. 

Krakauer’s connection to Jewish music — which acknowledges cultural heritage and puts a modern spin on it — makes him a natural soloist in the piece. At the Carnegie Music Hall, he joins an orchestra that also includes Iraqi oud performer Rahim AlHaj and members of the New York ensemble Loudbang. (All three acts also perform at other times during the three-day festival.) 

“Lament/Witches’ Sabbath” offers the perfect example of the cultural roots coming together in a contemporary way. Rosenblum has been interested in world music since college when he transcribed Persian and Javanese music. Now his work is “turning the camera around and looking at myself,” he says. “It’s about connecting with my own family history and cultural roots, with this idea of an Eastern European lament as a starting point, which has microtonal qualities to it. But it’s also really about the sound. It’s all bundled into one sound.”

In addition to the music performances, which will be streamed live via Facebook, two symposia offer perspectives on the reach of microtonal music. With one, “Creation, Performance, Politics,” Rosenblum hopes to address the role of the artist today. “We have all these microtonal musicians and composers,” he says. “[We can] think of intercultural intersections and intercultural references, and talk about the role of composers and musicians in today’s political climate today as well.” The other symposia will discuss Partch, the “grandfather” of American microtonal music.

Overall, the festival includes six musical premieres, with performers that include new local groups NAT 28, Kamraton and WolfTrap. As Krakauer talks about the music, he stresses the accessibility of it, which is tied the performance of the players. “People put their life force into it. It’s all about the life force. Mathew has put his entire life force into this piece, and it’s really something,” he says, as his voice softens to a murmur. “And I will match in kind.”