Microtonality in 60 seconds

By Brianna Wellen

Most musicians use 12 standard tones and the familiar sound of the “Do, Re, Mi” scale as a guideline. But the 60 musicians involved in UnTwelve’s 60×60 mix have a different idea about music. For them, it is about exploring tones outside the musical norm—within 60 seconds.

Chicago-based microtonality group UnTwelve collaborated with New York-based Vox Novus to present the final installment of the Magical Musical Showcase series at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., on April 27. The groups created their own mix for the 60×60 project, an attempt to present 60-second pieces by 60 composers in 60 minutes.

“Part of the mission is to represent diverse composers from all walks of life,” said Robert Voisey, director of Vox Novus and 60×60 who also contributed a work to the UnTwelve mix.

The project in its entirety has featured the work of more than 2,000 composers from around the world on 30 different mixes. The newest mix featured composers from more than 10 different countries, and a great many local artists experimenting with microtonal sounds.

According to Aaron Krister Johnson, founder of UnTwelve, microtonality is a natural progression for contemporary musicians who are looking to explore something new. Much like the way painters often use colors outside of the rainbow, musicians follow their curiosity to explore tones outside of the standard scale.

“There’s a certain sense to the synchronicity to the universe that these ideas are ripe and, in a way, low-hanging fruit for people,” Johnson said. “You get bored with the same old, same old. The history of art always seems to be a quest for the new.”

For many of the composers involved, microtonality was not necessarily the foremost thought. Mark Eden’s piece, “Ma Minute,” featured nine separate Yo-Yo Ma tracks layered upon each other to fit into the 60-second time constraint. This created interesting tone combinations, displacing the standard scale. Tova Kardonne admitted her piece, “Undertow,” was accidentally microtonal. Using vocals to create layers of sound, she only tuned the first note to an actual instrument.

For the composers, a 60-second piece presented an exciting challenge. Often for them, the shorter pieces are more difficult and take longer to create—up to 90 hours of work for some.

“I kind of think of it like poetry,” Kardonne said. “When you prose, you can be a little more undisciplined, you can extend. But with the 60-second piece, you have to be really disciplined about what you want to say and really make sure that you only put the things in that are important to you to say.”

With more than 600 minute-long submissions for the mix, it was Johnson’s job to sort through and find the 60 that did say something. He looked, first and foremost, for good music, but then it became more complicated.

“You’re looking to create a dramatic tension throughout the hour so people don’t get bored,” Johnson said. “You’re creating maximal variety.”

While the 60×60 project will go on to explore other facets of their idea (60 dances by 60 choreographers in 60 minutes and 60 orchestral pieces in 60 minutes), Johnson and UnTwelve will continue presenting microtonal music to make it commonplace in Chicago.

“I’m hoping the general public can become a part of this too, not just the esoteric musician who knows what I’m talking about off the bat,” Johnson said. “I want to entice people, I want to seduce people in these sounds.”