Monroe Golden | A Still Subtler Spirit

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Avant Garde: Microtonal Classical: Contemporary Moods: Mood: Quirky
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A Still Subtler Spirit

by Monroe Golden

New chamber works explore alternate tuning systems and the implications for other musical structures.
Genre: Avant Garde: Microtonal
Release Date: 

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  Song Share Time Download
1. Vegan Permaculture (microtonal guitar quartet)
Rusty Banks
13:52 $1.99
2. By Nary (microtonal piano and chimes, alto flute, and trombone)
D. Ashworth, D. Bristol, K. Carpenter, G. Fambrough, K. Grigsby
13:09 $1.99
3. Walden Songs (mezzo-soprano and piano - 'The Ponds'
Adam Bowles and Kathryn Venable
4:04 $0.99
4. Walden Songs (mezzo-soprano and piano) - 'The Pond in Winter'
Adam Bowles and Kathryn Venable
3:07 $0.99
5. Walden Songs (mezzo-soprano and piano) - 'Spring'
Adam Bowles and Kathryn Venable
6:11 $0.99
6. Loci (flute and live electronics)
Donnie Ashworth
13:03 $1.99
7. Drift (two pianos or player piano)
Monroe Golden
17:33 $1.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
"Golden's first CD, A Still Subtler Spirit, is a more varied catalogue of microtonal writing, beginning with Vegan Permaculture for four microtonal "drumming" guitarists. Here the guitars are restrung and retuned with a total of twelve high E strings (each tuned to a slightly different E). The result is a voluptuous cascade of guitar licks (think Liszt meets Scelsi). The piece is as subtle as any for guitar by John Schneider, Harry Partch or Lou Harrison.
By Nary is for microtonal piano, chimes, alto flute and trombone. Each octave of the piano is tuned to the first twelve prime-numbered partials (2,3,5,7,11 etc). The chimes are tuned to the next six prime-numbered partials (41,43 etc.). Here a series of duets "self destruct, atrophy or transform" with a bright, clear sound reminiscent of the best metallic work of Evelyn Glennie.
In Walden Songs for mezzo and piano the vocal part is written in a harmonic tune-ing system with certain pitches inflected 1/10 flat, 1/6 tone flat, 1/5 tone flat, etc. which gives the part, oddly, an improvisation quality reminiscent of the string quartets of Monroe's teacher Ben Johnston.
Loci, for flute and electronics, was written in collaboration with Roumanian composer Aurel Stroe. It could have descended into a pale version of one of Berio's Sequenzas or, worse yet, one of Mario Davidovski's Synchronisms. But Monroe and Stroe handle the flute's often hackneyed extended technique with restraint and to good effect.
Drift for the Yamaha Disklavier is "microtonally conceived music for a fixed-pitch equal-tempered instrument" goes all the way back to Ives and is one of the better pieces for this instrument, sounding, in places, like some of the Conlon Nancarrow's Studies and Carson Cooman's Music for Mechanical Piano.
A composer unjustly not exactly in the mainstream who writes beautiful, meaningful music, I look forward to his next CD." - New Music Connoisseur, Andrew Violette:

"Golden recently summed up the last 10 years of his intellectually rigorous brand of contemporary classical music on his CD, A Still Subtler Spirit, released by Living Artist Recordings. On the April 2004 release, listeners will encounter Golden's signature technique, microtonality, along with a healthy dose of minimalism.
Labels not withstanding, there is absolutely nothing about Golden's lovely, sumptuous, yet arcane music that fits snugly into any one category. Parallels to the eclectic, spiritual and stylistically elusive Ben Johnston, who taught Golden in graduate school at the University of Illinois, are helpful, but don't paint the entire picture. Partially to understand Golden's tastes one has to travel back to the 1970s -- not to the experimental enclaves of New York or San Francisco, but to the heyday of the mid-to-high end of the FM dial." - Birmingham Weekly, Phillip Ratliff


Vegan Permaculture (1995) was so named because notions of sustainable agriculture/forest gardening were a twin obsession while writing the work, in particular the research done by Ken Fern in Cornwall. Only after initial rehearsals did I realize that that view of nature, cooperative rather than competitive, is reflected in the non-hierarchical interactions of the four instruments. It is fitting that Rusty Banks performs the work, since I wrote it at his prodding, and with four drumming guitarists like him in mind. The four instruments are restrung and retuned, with twelve high E strings (each tuned to a slightly different "E") in alternating positions - this in order to facilitate a hybrid tuning system relating overtones to fundamentals from a Pythagorean system.

By Nary was composed and premiered in Urbana, Illinois in 1987. Written for alto flute, trombone, custom-built chimes and piano, each octave of the piano is tuned to the first twelve prime-numbered partials {2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37} in relation to a fundamental of "A". The chimes are tuned to the next six prime-numbered partials {41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61}. One aspect of this tuning system is audible difference tones, or lower pitches produced by two or more higher pitches. Another attribute is that, excepting octave transposition, no distances between any two notes are exactly the same. Meant to resist, and at the same time acknowledge, tendencies to dichotomy and traveling in pairs, the work is organized as duets, occurring both in series and parallel, that self-destruct, atrophy, or transform. These smaller formal components constitute two macrocosmic sections that divide the whole composition. The first is based on gradually expanding and contracting intervals. The second presents overtone relationships relative to fundamentals (always "A") that change by octave displacement.

Walden Songs, completed in 1999, were written for and dedicated to mezzo-soprano Kathryn Venable. After spending some time in search of prose about the relationship of people to the natural world, a conversation with Thoreau scholar Theodore Haddin led me back to Walden. In short order, I found three excerpts that were not only amenable to setting, but also suggested musical treatment because of the nature of the text. For instance, in setting the excerpt from "The Ponds," I alternated two different musical textures and changed their relationship to each other over time, just as Thoreau compares the surface of water reflecting air to the surface of air and a higher plane, perhaps spiritual, but certainly beyond present human perception. Thoreau's acknowledgement of our limited awareness of natural laws in "The Pond in Winter" suggested a piano part that is itself a complete process, apart from the vocal line. In "Spring," the breaking down of words to their component parts and Greek origins, and the analogies of the macrocosmic awakening of the earth to the microcosmic budding of leaves, suggested gradually expanding musical structures. In all three songs, the vocal part is written in a harmonic tuning system, with certain pitches inflected 1/10 tone flat, 1/6 tone flat, 1/5 tone sharp, and ¼ tone sharp. The piano notes are treated as relationships between the 3rd, 9th, 17th, 19th, and 27th partials, those being harmonics proximate to equal tempered pitches. An overtone-based tuning system seems especially appropriate for setting Thoreau, since it is based on natural laws of musical acoustics, and is itself a subversive movement, challenging the status quo of equal temperament.

I. From "The Ponds:" A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is intermediate in its nature between land and sky. On land only the grass and trees wave, but the water itself is rippled by the wind. I see where the breeze dashes across it by the streaks or flakes of light. It is remarkable that we can look down on its surface. We shall, perhaps, look down thus on the surface of air at length, and mark where a still subtler spirit sweeps over it.

II. From "The Pond in Winter:" If we knew all the laws of Nature, we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point. Now we know only a few laws, and our result is vitiated, not, of course, by any confusion or irregularity in Nature, but by our ignorance of essential elements in the calculation. Our notions of law and harmony are commonly confined to those instances which we detect; but the harmony which results from a far greater number of seemingly conflicting, but really concurring, laws, which we have not detected, is still more wonderful. The particular laws are as our points of view, as, to the traveler, a mountain outline varies with every step, and it has an infinite number of profiles, though absolutely but one form. Even when cleft or bored through it is not comprehended in its entireness.

III. From "Spring:" No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant with it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (*, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; **, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words); externally, a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals, of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single-lobed, or B, double-lobed), with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of water-plants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils.

* the Greek letters lambda, epsilon, iota, beta, omega
** the Greek letters lambda, omega, beta, omega, sigma

Loci was written in 1986, following a collaborative project with Romanian composer Aurel Stroé that introduced me to catastrophism, and the implications therein for nonlinear musical form. My intent was to juxtapose and collide several incommensurate systems that encompass tuning, timbre, and performance practice; for example, harmonics, quarter-tone tetrachords, and noise. Only one system, represented by soft multiphonics with long echoes and no direct amplification, remains immutable, as a magnum mysterium.

Drift (1996) for piano, two pianos, or player piano is microtonally-conceived music for a fixed-pitch equal-tempered instrument, accomplished by extracting equal-tempered pitches corresponding to overtones relative to a conceptual fundamental that very gradually drifts lower in pitch. This process creates a dynamic series that eventually includes every note on the piano and, depending upon the register of the fundamental, increases or diminishes like a living organism. The nature of the row suggested its presentation as a long melody with constantly changing register and octave doublings. The definite tendency toward the piano's short small strings facilitated an almost total avoidance of damping, thereby treating the piano like a giant hammer dulcimer. Although the work may be heard as a rondo, I conceived it rather as a narrative interrupted by episodes.



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