Crowd-Source Question, What Are the Difficulties Performing Mircotonal Music?

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This is a bit unusual for me, but I would like to informally survey performer’s thoughts on performing mircotonal music. Not thoughts about microtonal music in general, but the issues, problems, difficulties or joys of actually playing or singing the stuff. Which notations are best? Are the difficulties worth the acoustic result? Are the acoustic results hear-able, worth the effort?

I realize there are as many uses of microtonality as there are composers who use it, but if there are especially good or bad examples, I would be interested in knowing who and why.



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8 thoughts on “Crowd-Source Question, What Are the Difficulties Performing Mircotonal Music?

  1. comment

    Hi Helen,

    Recently an (early music) ensemble I perform with had a piece written for us, using microtones. It was quite difficult, and given the short time allotted for rehearsing, we ended up postponing the performance until those in charge could arrange for much more rehearsal time in order for us to do a good job with it.

    I encountered some difficulties, and I’m assuming that this applies equally to using a Boehm flute (Kingma system likely) as it does to the baroque flute; first of all there are a whole bunch of new fingerings to learn, and being able to do these at speed requires a LOT of lead time to practice. Second difficulty is notation. Our composer used the single-sharp (one quartertone sharp), regular sharp, and triple-sharp (3-quartertone-sharp). I found the single-sharp the hardest to read, because at any speed the sign still looks like a sort of sharp sign. I think a notation using up-arrows (possibly this is one of the various ways out there) would be more intuitive to read. Natural-sign with up-arrow, sharp-sign with up-arrow. Finally, the composer needs a good understanding of how the instruments work. Effects like quarter-tone trills on violin aren’t really possible (fingers too fat). The baroque flute has a lot of peculiarities that need to be taken into account, or taken advantage of to produce a piece that works. I assume that the Boehm flute has its own peculiarities when it comes to quarter tones, and those need to be similarly accounted for.

    regards, –Lars Johannesson, Santa Cruz, CA, USA.

    • Yes, Lars, these problems do apply to Boehm flute, even a Kingma system. How many times do I hear from a composer “but you have a Kingma System, that should be no problem, right?” Not so. Fast passages with microtones take not twice as long to learn, but for me, up to 10 times as long. Who knows, maybe the next generation will fare better. Good luck with your piece, if your ensemble does get the rehearsal time.

  2. I personally love the acoustic results and am willing to do the extra practise to achieve the right in-between notes, but right now I’m working on Murail Winter fragments, and it’s just so fast! In this case (or another example: P.Hurel’s Loops for two flutes) I try my best to find the “closed hole” fingerings, they are less intuitive, but easier to play in fast tempo. I still don’t know what to do with the notes between g and f-sharp, so I end up turning the flute, although I don’t really like to rely on this technique too much as it changes the timbre (but I’m getting used to it with playing Talea. Could I ask you a question here: do you use the instructions Grisey gives or do you rather use the fingered alternatives?). I would love to hear your thoughts!

    • Hi Anja, I did not always use the fingerings Grisey wrote for Talea. With Talea I was able to find good solutions, but with other pieces that have very fast microtones (I haven’t played Winter Fragments) I end up doing “whatever works”. To be perfectly honest, sometimes this means not playing a microtone as marked, but altering another neighboring note in order to keep the de-tuned atmosphere going. Realize this is only for very fast passages. In spectral music where your ears have time to process the pitches, you have to be careful and play the “correct” pitches. But sometimes I wonder, would the composer of a fast microtonal passage really want the combination (say this is nestled in with other normal notes) F#- G1/4Flat- A, or will F1/4#-F#-A do just as well?

  3. I remember the first microtonal piece i did ( by Freiburg composer Christian Billian) making me weep with frustration.It was the first time i had practiced for a week without seeming to make any progress.but as with any technique repeating the experience helped it become less terrifying. it has definitely improved my overall technique ( the independence of my fingers) and processing- information speed (I am a better sight-reader now).I wish the notation would be standardized .
    And yes I am sure the results are audible, if only in forcing us to listen harder.When I was a student, I heard a discussion about a trombonist who could hear 8th tones ( not quavers but microtonal eighths).Now, 20 years on, this is more common than I would have then believed.Microtonality has been an expressive tool present in asian music for centuries, i guess we “westerners” are finally catching up.

  4. This is an enormous topic of course 🙂 Personally I’m in favour of the half-sharp and backwards flat signs for quartertones (apparently Tartini invented them, who knew?) – they’re standardised enough in the repertoire I play that I don’t have to think twice about them. On the other hand, for quartertones arrow notation is not helpful for me since it means different things in different pieces.

    I’m very much in favour of microtonal writing taking account of what works idiomatically on the instrument. This doesn’t at all have to mean only writing what’s easy to do, of course – but it’s very much easier to embrace the task when it seems to have been conceived with an awareness of what the task will actually be. Having said that, I’m fairly sure that for example Aperghis’s recent bass clarinet piece (Damespiel) wasn’t written with any knowledge of specific fingerings – in that case what makes the task easier to undertake is that the piece is compositionally so coherent and the quartertones create their own logic.

    It’s quite stimulating for me to dabble in early instruments – and there it’s impossible to escape noticing that some of the fingerings are exactly the same as quartertone fingerings on the ‘modern’ clarinet so there’s no excuse for not being able to get the fingers around them. The fingerings also need constant attention from the embouchure and therefore also the brain if the right notes are going to come out – the instrument doesn’t tune itself. That’s a very clear parallel with the kind of situation we often face in new music: it’s scarcely possible to realise microtonal writing (or even semitonal writing) without having arrived at some kind of aural understanding. The ears need to be able to tell the muscles what to do otherwise the task is neither feasible nor rewarding. But that’s how it always was 🙂

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