We began the month with Ives, and I just cannot stop there. Charles Ives brings such a tonal genius to us. I'll be honest. I am fascinated with the concept of microtonal composition. The idea that music in our culture is limited to the 12 "chosen" notes leaves me somewhat unsatisfied. There are certainly other notes there. We can play them on wind and string instruments. But those of us who are limited to tuned bars such as percussionists, frets on a guitar, or the tuning limitations of a piano keyboard are stuck in a world limited to equal-temperament tuning with A at 440 hz. It is a hard to be pianist who is fascinated with these new notes!
That is probably why I embrace those who have taken our ears to new places and found ways to do so, and Charles Ives is certainly one of the best. Ives gives his father, George, the credit for his desire to experiment. His father would hear nearby church bells but be unable to reproduce the harmonic sound produced by the bells on the piano. This led his father to experiment with quarter-tones. His father would ask the question, "If the whole tones can be divided equally, why not half tones?" (George Ives as Theorist: Some Unpublished Documents" - Eiseman, 1975)
Charles Ives wrote these three pieces for a concert in 1925 that showcased a specially-constructed quarter-tone piano with two keyboards developed by Hans Barth. Although, the first two pieces were performed on the concert on this instrument, Ives is unclear as to his intentions, and the published score is laid out for two pianos, one tuned one quarter-tone sharp and the other at standard pitch.
These pieces will stretch your ears a little. You'll hear sounds that we normally say are wrong, but the question "Why are they wrong?" cries out. Could our ears learn and become comfortable with an expanded harmonic language? Probably not, culture-wide, but perhaps we can challenge ourselves to expand our understanding of harmony a little as we enjoy a composer like Ives who takes us to a totally new harmonic place.