What do performers think of microtonal music?

mica - music austria

Under the title “Small is beautiful”, an international symposium on microtonal and ekmelic music with lectures and concerts will take place in Salzburg from June 28th to 30th, 2019. Didi Neidhart spoke to AGUSTÍN CASTILLA-ÁVILA, the composer and president of the INTERNATIONAL SOCIETY FOR ECMELIC MUSIC, about the fascination of microtones and the symposium.

TheInternational Society for Ekmelic Music was founded in 1981 by Franz Richter Herf and Rolf Maedel in Salzburg. What was the motivation behind it?

Agustín Castilla-Avila: The ekmelic music developed by the two professors had made Salzburg a new center of microtonal music. This gave rise to the need to coordinate future artistic and scientific activities in the form of a society. In accordance with its statutes, the society promotes the spread of microtonal music - especially in the 72-step ekmelic sound system - through the organization of concerts, lectures and symposia as well as the publication and printing of ekmelic compositions. This also includes support for research work on microtonality and ekmelicism. It maintains links with other organizations around the world working in the field of microtonal music.

The society has co-organized several symposia since 1985. So there have been some collaborations with that Mozarteum, but also with the Turn of the century society in Heidelberg.

This year specialists from 16 countries come to the symposium. That's a record for us. We are very happy that our long work has made Salzburg one of the most important centers for microtonal music.

"Ekmelic music uses finely organized tones that lie between the twelve semitone levels of our traditional tempered tone system and thus outside of our listening habits."

What does “microtonal music” actually mean? Are you talking about quarter-tone steps like in Indian music?

Agustín Castilla-Avila: Microtones are actually those intervals that are smaller than a semitone: quarter tone, sixth tone, eighth tone, etc.

In classical music, i.e. In the tempered system, the octave is divided into twelve equal divisions. As a composer, I often write in the 36 EDO system [equal divisions of the octave; Grade]. So you don't have to vote equally. A musical tone system is referred to as “pure tuning” in which the pitches octave, fifth, fourth and major third of the diatonic scale used are intoned exactly according to the frequency ratios 2: 1, 3: 2, 4: 3 or 5 : 4 to the fundamental become.

In the Pythagorean tuning of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, only the octaves, fifths and fourths were in tune. Regardless of the mood, the word “pure” is used in the prime, fourth, fifth and octave intervals as the opposite of “diminished” or “excessive”.

Franz Richter Herf and other composers from our society loved the 72-step ekmelic tone system. The term “ekmelic” comes from ancient Greek music theory: “ek mélos” means “out of sequence”. It was used to designate tones that were not included in the ancient Greek tone system.

The term is used with the same meaning today: Ekmelic music uses finely organized tones that lie between the twelve semitone levels of our traditional tempered tone system and thus outside of our listening habits.

What is the stimulus and what is the challenge in view of the 72-step ekmelic tone system?

Agustín Castilla-Avila: In the 72-EDO system you have the twelve tones that you have in classical music plus many other tones. The impulses to use them result from going further, but at the same time also becoming more primitive. Indian, Turkish, Balinese, Arabic, and Japanese musical systems have smaller intervals. As a composer, I personally use the 36-EDO system as a bridge between folk music from different regions of the world and contemporary music.

The motto of this year's symposium is "Small is beautiful". What is that supposed to mean?

Agustín Castilla-Avila: The motto “Small is beautiful”, a well-known quote from the philosopher Leopold Kohr, has to do with the smaller intervals. The last three symposia and the two books on them were already like that.

Can our hearing, which in the European context is mainly characterized by well-tempered scales, even perceive micro-tones, i.e. register tone differences? The topic of the lecture by Johannes Kotschy on June 26, 2019 is surely not for nothing "Microtonal Music - Just Imagination?"

Agustín Castilla-Avila: The distance between the individual pitches is 16 ⅔ cents, with one semitone corresponding to 100 cents. This can still be differentiated for the hearing, because the hearing limit is around five to eight cents. In classical music, many musical instruments and singers can realize the microtonal deviations. The better that succeeds, the more perfect the harmony is felt. The lecture by Johannes Kotschy will deal specifically with this.

What other lectures will there be at the symposium?

Agustín Castilla-Avila: There are lectures on theoretical and historical aspects, on folk and classical music, on own microtonal ideas and on new microtonal instruments.

If you read through the program, you will find among other things. Concerts for strings, trombone, bassoon, piano, guitar, marimba, saxophone and keyboard. Don't the possibilities of electronic music or computer music play such a role here? After all, the first electronic sound machines were among other things. therefore designed to escape the 12-tone system.

Agustín Castilla-Avila: This year computer music has less presence. It is different at every symposium. We are sure that it will be different next time.

With Karlheinz Stockhausen and Harry Partch, the symposium this year is dedicated to two “classics” of contemporary modernism of the 20th century. What connects the Californian with the German or is it more about the differences between the two?

Agustín Castilla-Avila: Karlheinz Stockhausen and Harry Partch have created magical worlds of sound. On the last day of the symposium, on June 30th, the two great artists will be presented. It's more about the differences.

We thought that the tonal piece “Mood” by Stockhausen would go very well with the symposium. Tonal systems or microtonal systems are in the end, only devices for composition. Franz Richter Herf himself wrote works in ekmelic music and works in the traditional tone system.

This year there will also be a “microtonal jam session”. How did this idea come about?

Agustín Castilla-Avila: I travel a lot because of microtonality and I also know many artists personally. Many are very good at improvising. It would be a shame if so many good artists met in Salzburg and didn't take the opportunity to play together. We are all very happy. The jam session will be less academic, it will take place very easily in the Cafe Shakespeare instead of.

Are there any concert tips?

Agustín Castilla-Avila: We have seven very different concerts, but also great concert lectures. But for us there is a special concert: “The best of life, tribute to Richter Herf” on June 29th. For this concert there will be a CD with the same title and a special exhibition about Richter Herf.

How is the symposium actually financed?

Agustín Castilla-Avila: We have from the State of Salzburg, the City of Salzburg and the Mozarteum University To get support. From ConTempOhr from Salzburg, the Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music from the USA and from Coneculta from Mexico. But thanks also go to the members of the society for their great altruistic work for the symposium.

Thank you very much for the conversation.

Didi Neidhart


Microtones: Small is beautiful. International symposium
Fri, June 28 - Sun, June 30, 2019
Mozarteum University, Mirabellplatz 1, 5020 Salzburg

Ekmelic Music (website)