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The Art of the Unheard: Navigating Microtonality in Opera

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Exploring the Possibilities of Microtonal Opera


Opera, with its emotional depth, grandeur, and musical complexity, has long been a beloved art form. It consistently pushes the boundaries of what is possible in music, challenging performers and audiences alike. However, what if we could push its boundaries even further by incorporating microtonal scales and tuning systems? This new wave of exploration has opened up an entirely new world of soundscapes for opera composers and performers, creating an entirely new world previously unexplored in this traditional art form. In this article, we will delve into the history, techniques, and aesthetics of microtonal opera, exploring its use in contemporary compositions and the practicalities of implementing it.

 

Understanding Microtonality


Before diving into how microtones are used in opera, it's essential to understand what microtonality means. Microtonal music expands upon the typical Western tonal system that divides an octave into twelve equal parts. Instead of limiting themselves to these standard intervals, microtonal composers use smaller intervals, dividing the octave into more than twelve equal parts. By adding more intervals between each of these traditional notes, composers can create a wider range of sounds and harmonies. Though the idea of microtonal scales dates back to ancient Greece and has roots in non-Western musical traditions, it wasn't until the 20th century that it gained more significant attention in Western music.


Defining Microtonal Music


There are several ways to define microtonal music, but generally, it refers to music that uses intervals smaller than traditional Western semitones. These intervals could range from quarter-tones to even smaller intervals that are challenging to identify by ear alone. Microtonality can be heard in various musical traditions, from Middle Eastern and Indian classical music to contemporary experimental compositions.


Microtonal music can be challenging to perform and compose because it requires a different approach to tuning and playing instruments. Musicians must learn to play notes that are not found on traditional Western instruments, and composers must create new notation systems to represent these microtonal intervals.


Microtonal music has been used in various genres of music, including classical, jazz, and even rock. The use of microtonal music has allowed composers to explore new tonal possibilities, creating unique and innovative sounds that are not possible with the traditional Western tonal system.

 

A Brief History of Microtonal Music


Early Microtonal Compositions


In the early 20th century, composer Charles Ives was among the first to experiment with microtonal intervals in his music, though he did not use them extensively. It wasn't until the 1930s that Harry Partch began to compose music almost exclusively using microtonal scales, tuning systems, and custom-designed instruments. Both composers were pivotal in influencing later microtonal composers, including those in the realm of opera.


Harry Partch's music was particularly innovative in its use of microtonal intervals. He developed a unique system of tuning that built on the centuries-old concept of just intonation, in which all intervals are derived from the harmonic series. Partch's approach involved the creation of custom instruments that could accurately produce microtonal intervals, and he utilised these instruments extensively in his complex and challenging compositions. Partch's contributions to the field of microtonal music and his development of new instruments helped pave the way for future generations of composers.


The Evolution of Microtonal Techniques


As microtonal music gained more attention, composers began experimenting with different ways of incorporating microtonal intervals and scales into their music. Some opted for equal temperament, while others explored just intonation, Composers also experimented with non-standard tuning systems, including instruments with non-standard tuning mechanisms.


The development of the "quarter-tone" system represents a significant milestone in the history of microtonal music. This system divides the octave into 24 equal parts, allowing for smaller intervals than the 12-tone equal temperament (12-TET) system while still adhering to a fixed tuning system. By using this fixed tuning system, which is similar to western chromaticism, performers can achieve a level of accuracy required to play "in-tune". The result is a precise and consistent sonority that is vital to the success of microtonal compositions. But why stop at 24? Some composers used this way of thinking to develop, 28-TET, 31-TET, 10-TET; the list goes on. The quarter-tone system opened up new avenues for composers and performers to explore the expressive potential of microtonal music, marking an important chapter in the evolution of music theory and practice.


Pioneers of Microtonal Opera


Among the pioneers of microtonal opera was American composer Ben Johnston. His 1964 opera, "Carmilla," features his own just intonation system and opened up new possibilities for microtonal opera. Another notable composer in this field was Iannis Xenakis, whose 1966 opera "Oresteïa" explores a complex and ever-changing tapestry of microtonal harmonies that reflect the emotional and psychological turmoil of the characters. Since then, numerous composers have been drawn to the unique possibilities of microtonal opera.


Microtonal opera allows composers to explore new tonal possibilities, creating unique and innovative sounds that are not possible with traditional Western opera. The use of microtonal intervals and scales can create a haunting and otherworldly atmosphere, adding a new dimension to the performance.

 

Understanding Microtonal Scales and Tuning Systems


Before delving further into microtonal opera, it's essential to have a basic understanding of microtonal scales and tuning systems. As we discovered prior, Microtonal music involves the use of intervals smaller than the standard Western semitone. These intervals may be derived from various tuning systems, including equal temperament and just intonation.


Equal temperament divides the octave into twelve equal parts, which is the standard approach in Western music. However, just intonation divides the octave into intervals derived from the harmonic series, meaning that the intervals are pure and have a harmonious quality. The choice between these tuning systems depends on the composer's goals, as equal temperament may be more practical for some works, while just intonation may offer more harmonic options.


Microtonal music allows for a wider range of expression and can create unique and interesting sounds that cannot be achieved with standard Western tuning systems. However, it requires a different approach to composition and performance.


Despite the challenges of working with microtonal music, many composers and performers find it to be a rewarding and exciting field of exploration. Microtonal music offers a unique set of sounds and harmonies that can't be found in traditional Western music, and it continues to inspire new generations of musicians and composers.


Common Microtonal Scales


There are several common microtonal scales, each with its own unique sound and character. One example is the Bohlen-Pierce scale, which divides the octave into thirteen equal parts. This scale has a distinctively "otherworldly" sound and is often used in experimental and avant-garde music.


Another microtonal scale is the Wendy Carlos Alpha scale, which includes nineteen tones per octave. This scale was used extensively in Carlos's album "Beauty in the Beast" and has a haunting and ethereal quality.


One frequently used microtonal scale is the 31-tone scale, which was developed by Julián Carrillo, a Mexican composer who created his own microtonal music system known as "The Thirteenth Sound". This innovative system is based on the 31-tone equal temperament, which divides the octave into 31 equal parts. Carrillo was of the opinion that this system offered a wider range of expression and emotional depth in music, making it a popular choice for contemporary composers exploring the world of microtonality.


Carrillo's use of the 31-tone scale can be heard in his compositions, such as his "Preludio a Colón" (Prelude to Columbus). The piece features microtonal intervals and glissandi, creating a unique and otherworldly sound. Another example is his string quartet "No. 10" (also known as "From My Life"), which uses the 31-tone scale to create complex harmonies and timbres.


Other composers have created their own unique scales, such as Harry Partch's 43-tone scale. Partch was a pioneer in microtonal music and created a whole system of tuning and instruments to explore this area of music.


One of the challenges of working with microtonal scales is that they often require new notation systems to represent the intervals. For example, the Bohlen-Pierce scale uses a different set of symbols to represent its intervals than traditional Western notation does.


The Limit


While just intonation provides a rich palette of harmonic possibilities, it also presents challenges for performers. Unlike standard tuning systems, just intonation requires precise intonation adjustments for every interval, making it difficult to play on conventional instruments designed for equal temperament. To address this issue, just-intonation composers often use "the limit" as a means of constraining their works within a manageable range of harmonic complexity. By adhering to a specific limit, composers can create intervals that are complex enough to be expressive while still being playable on custom-built instruments or using specialised performance techniques.


To reiterate, "the limit" refers to the maximum complexity of musical intervals that can be produced within a particular tuning system. In just intonation, the limit is determined by the number of prime factors (basic building blocks of numbers) that can be multiplied together to create a given interval.


For example, Harry Partch's 5-limit tuning system uses intervals created by multiplying the first three prime numbers (2, 3, and 5). This system allows for a wide range of harmonic possibilities and produces intervals that are more complex and richer in color than those found in standard tuning systems. However, there are limits to the complexity that can be achieved within the 5-limit system, and some composers have explored higher limit systems for instance, the 7-limit system uses intervals derived from the first four prime factors (2, 3, 5, and 7), which allows for even more subtle and nuanced harmonic relationships.


In essence, the concept of "the limit" helps to shape the way we hear and understand music. Different tuning systems allow for different harmonic possibilities, and the limits of each system play a vital role in the creation of musical intervals and relationships. By understanding the concept of "the limit," we can gain a greater appreciation for the complexity and beauty of microtonal music.


The Role of Instruments in Microtonal Composition


Since many standard Western instruments are not equipped to play microtonal music due to their tuning mechanisms, many microtonal composers have had to create their own custom instruments. These instruments may use non-standard tuning systems or have additional frets or keys to allow for microtonal intervals.


Harry Partch was a master of creating his own instruments, and his creations included the "Cloud Chamber Bowls" and "Kithara." These instruments were designed specifically for his microtonal compositions and allowed him to explore a vast range of tonal possibilities.


Overall, microtonal composition is a fascinating and complex area of music that requires a deep understanding of tuning systems, scales, and instruments. By exploring these elements, composers can create unique and innovative works that push the boundaries of what is possible in music.

 

Microtonality in Opera


Opera is a particularly promising genre for microtonality, as it offers ample opportunities to explore the sounds and emotions that microtones can produce. The use of microtones in opera has the potential to create a new world of sounds and emotions that can evoke a wide range of feelings in the audience. Let's take a closer look at how microtonality has been used in opera throughout history and how contemporary composers are pushing the boundaries even further.


Early Examples of Microtonal Opera


The use of microtones in opera is not a new idea. As early as the 17th century, composers experimented with quarter-tones in vocal music, most notably in works from the Ottoman Empire that blended Western and Arabic musical elements. Similarly, the late Romantic composer Franz Schreker incorporated microtones into his operas in the early 20th century to create more prominent emotional states. These early examples of microtonal opera paved the way for contemporary composers to explore this unique musical language.


Notable Contemporary Microtonal Operas and Composers


Today, several composers are actively exploring microtonality in opera.


Harry Partch's "Delusion of the Fury"

Harry Partch's 1969 opera "Delusion of the Fury" remains one of the most famous microtonal operas of all time. This unique piece includes music composed for his custom-designed instruments, as well as just intonation and other non-standard tuning systems.


Kaija Saariaho's "L'Amour de loin"

This microtonal opera, composed in 2000, tells the story of a medieval troubadour who falls in love with a woman he has never met, who lives in a far-off land. The opera features microtonal harmonies and extended vocal techniques, and it has been performed by numerous opera companies around the world. More recently Saariaho has expanded this field with her 2022 opera, Innocence, premiere at Aix-en-Provence.


Ben Johnston's "Carmilla"

Ben Johnston's 1964 opera "Carmilla" was one of the first significant contributions to the field of microtonal opera. His use of just intonation and his own custom-designed tuning system pushed the boundaries of what was possible in opera music.


Georg Friedrich Haas' "Thomas"

"Thomas", composed in 2013, uses microtones to convey the story of a blind boy. Haas's use of microtonality creates a haunting and otherworldly atmosphere that perfectly captures the protagonist's sense of isolation and disorientation.


Helmut Lachenmann's "Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern"

Helmut Lachenmann's 1997 staged work"Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern" features microtonal writing for the singers and orchestra. Lachenmann's use of microtones creates a sense of tension and unease that perfectly complements the dark and unsettling story of the opera.


Other Influential Microtonal Operas

Other notable microtonal operas include "The Revenge of Blind Joe Death" by Easley Blackwood, Jr.; "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by John Eaton. These works highlight the vast range of possibilities available in microtonal opera and continue to inspire composers in this exciting field.

 

The Aesthetics and Challenges of Microtonal Opera


Microtonal opera offers a unique sound that can be quite different from standard Western opera. Microtonal passages often have a more exotic, otherworldly quality that stretches the boundaries of the listener's expectations. However, producing microtonal opera does not come without its challenges. One of the most significant difficulties is finding singers and instrumentalists who are skilled in playing microtonal music. The technical demands of singing and playing these non-standard intervals require a high level of skill and musicianship, which can delay or even halt a production.


The Unique Soundscapes of Microtonal Opera


Despite the challenges, microtonal opera offers composers the ability to create unique soundscapes that push the boundaries of traditional opera. Microtonal scales and tuning systems allow composers to create dissonances and harmonies that are not possible within standard Western tuning. These unusual harmonies and sounds create a new dimension for composers to explore dramatically.


For example, in microtonal opera, composers can use quartertones, which are intervals that are half the size of a semitone, to create new harmonies that are not available in traditional Western music. This allows for a greater range of expression and emotion in the music, as well as the ability to create new moods and atmospheres.


Furthermore, microtonal opera can incorporate non-Western musical styles, such as Arabic or Indian music, which have their own unique tuning systems. This allows for a fusion of musical styles that can create a completely new and exciting sound.


Adapting Traditional Opera Techniques


Many traditional opera techniques can be adapted for microtonal writing, such as leitmotifs, recitative, and aria writing. By using these familiar elements, composers can create a sense of continuity between traditional and contemporary opera while experimenting with new sounds.


For instance, a composer could use a leitmotif to represent a character or an idea in a microtonal opera. This technique can help to unify the different parts of the opera and create a cohesive narrative. Similarly, recitative, which is a style of singing that is closer to speech than melody, can be used to convey important plot points or dialogue in a microtonal opera.


Additionally, aria writing can be used to showcase the unique vocal abilities of the performers. Aria writing can be particularly effective in a microtonal opera, as it allows the composer to explore new vocal techniques and timbres.


Vocal Techniques for Microtonal Singing


In the world of microtonal opera, singers are required to master the art of tuning their voices to non-standard intervals that are specified by the composer. This skill is not easy to acquire and demands extensive training in singing and ear training. However, microtonality offers a broad palette of vocal techniques and timbres that traditional opera rarely employs.


Microtonal singers use techniques such as glissandi, where the voice moves seamlessly between notes, and quartertones, where the voice sings the note between semitones, creating a haunting and ethereal quality in the singing.


Additionally, extended vocal techniques such as throat singing, overtone singing, and multiphonics are commonly used in microtonal opera to create unique and otherworldly sounds that contribute to the overall atmosphere of the piece.


Furthermore, microtonal singing can be utilised to evoke specific emotions or moods. For instance, using microtonal intervals to create dissonance can generate a sense of tension or unease, while using microtonal intervals to create consonance can establish a sense of resolution or calmness.


Microtonal Instrumentation and Orchestration


Composers can also use microtones to create new orchestration techniques, such as precise tuning and instrumental manipulations that highlight the unique properties of microtonal tuning. These techniques can add texture and depth to a microtonal opera, providing even more opportunities for expression.

For example, a composer could use microtonal tuning to create new harmonies and chord progressions that are not possible in traditional Western music. Additionally, microtonal tuning can be used to create new timbres and textures in the instruments themselves.


Furthermore, microtonal orchestration can be used to create specific soundscapes within the opera. For instance, a composer could use microtonal tuning to create a sense of otherworldliness or to evoke a specific historical context.


In conclusion, there are many techniques that can be used to compose a successful microtonal opera. By adapting traditional opera techniques, exploring new vocal techniques and timbres, and using microtonal instrumentation and orchestration, composers can create a unique and compelling work of art that pushes the boundaries of contemporary opera.

 

Performance Considerations


As stated prior, performing a microtonal opera comes with its own set of unique challenges, particularly in terms of training singers and adapting production elements. Let's take a closer look at some of the practical considerations involved in the performance of microtonal opera.


Training Singers for Microtonal Opera


Singers must receive specialised training to perform microtonal music accurately. They must learn to sing outside of the traditional Western tuning system and develop a sense of microtonal intonation, which requires an accurate ear for pitch and an intuitive sense of the music's emotional context. Singers may also need to develop new vocal techniques to produce microtonal intervals accurately.


Training for microtonal opera is a rigorous process that can take years to master. Singers must work with coaches and conductors to develop their skills, often practicing for hours a day. They must also be able to read and interpret complex musical scores, which can be challenging even for experienced musicians.


Despite the difficulties, many singers find the experience of performing microtonal music to be incredibly rewarding. They are able to explore new sounds and emotions that are not possible within the constraints of traditional Western music.


Navigating Microtonal Intonation Challenges


The microtonal intonation of singers and instruments must be precise to achieve the intended effect. Orchestra members must tune their instruments to the designated microtonal scale and make sure their intervals are precise. This can be a challenging task, as many instruments are not designed to play microtonal music.


To overcome these challenges, many composers of microtonal music have developed new instruments or modified existing ones to better suit their needs. For example, some composers have created new types of keyboards or adapted traditional instruments like the violin to play microtonal intervals.


Additionally, singers may need to rely on electronic devices or specialised keyboards to introduce precise microtones into their singing. These devices can help singers stay in tune and ensure that their performances are accurate and consistent.


Overcoming the Barriers to Microtonal Opera Production


Finally, stage and lighting design may also need to adapt to the unique sound world of microtonal music. Staging techniques that work well in traditional opera - such as elaborate set designs and dramatic costume changes - may need to be adapted to accommodate the subtler, emotive tonal nuances of microtonal music.


Producing microtonal opera requires a significant investment in time and resources. Finding musicians who are skilled in playing the required custom or modified instruments and who can execute the composer's vision can be challenging. It also requires a willingness to push the boundaries of traditional opera production and invest in extensive training for singers and instrumentalists.


Lighting designers may need to experiment with different colour palettes and lighting effects to create the right mood for microtonal performances. Set designers may need to focus on creating minimalist, abstract sets that allow the music to take centre stage.


The rewards of producing microtonal opera can be great. The unique soundscapes and musical possibilities offered by microtonal music can create a completely new and exciting experience for audiences. It can also provide a platform for composers to explore new musical ideas and push the boundaries of what is possible in opera.


Overall, microtonal opera offers a challenging but rewarding experience for musicians and audiences alike. Despite these challenges, many opera companies are embracing microtonal music and incorporating it into their productions. They recognise the importance of exploring new musical frontiers and pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the world of opera.

 

Conclusion


Exploring the possibilities of microtonal opera offers a unique challenge for composers seeking to push the boundaries beyond traditional Western opera music. The use of non-standard tonal intervals, tuning systems, and custom instrument designs creates an entirely new dimension in the art form that can transport audiences to otherworldly soundscapes. While producing microtonal opera can be challenging and requires significant investment in time, effort, and resources, the result is a sound that is truly unique and pushes the boundaries of what is possible in music.


As a composer myself, I find the world of microtonal opera to be a thrilling and uncharted terrain for exploration. The use of microtonality in opera opens up a world of possibilities for new sounds, new emotions, and new expressions. With the right training and techniques, singers can unlock the power of microtones to create unique and enchanting sonic landscapes. I am excited about the potential of this art form and am currently exploring ways to write my own microtonal opera, while also developing methodologies to help enable singers to perform it with ease. I believe that the future of opera lies in embracing the unexplored world of microtonality, and I can't wait to see where this path leads us.

 

Listening Examples

 

Further Reading

  1. Partch, H. (1979). Genesis of a music: an account of a creative work, its roots, and its fulfillments. Da Capo Press.

  2. Blackwood, E. (1997). The Structure of Recognizable Diatonic Tunings. University of Michigan Press.

  3. Sethares, W. A. (1998). Tuning, timbre, spectrum, scale. Springer Science & Business Media.

  4. Johnston, B. (2006). Maximum clarity and other writings on music. University of Illinois Press.

  5. Gann, K. (2010). Hyperchromatica: the Pioneering Musical Worlds of Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, and Terry Riley. Other Press, LLC.

  6. Gilmore, B. (2014). Harry Partch: A Biography. University of Illinois Press.

  7. Madrid, A. L. (2015). In Search of Julián Carrillo and Sonido 13. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

  8. Wyschnegradsky, I. (n.d.). Microtonal Resources. Centre de documentation de la musique contemporaine. Retrieved from https://www.cdmc.asso.fr/en/ressources/microtonal-resources

  9. Gann, K. (2012). Microtonality. NewMusicBox. Retrieved from https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/microtonality/

  10. Carlos, W. (n.d.). Wendy Carlos Official Web Site. Retrieved from https://www.wendycarlos.com/

  11. Huygens-Fokker Foundation. (n.d.). Microtonal Music & Tuning. Retrieved from https://www.huygens-fokker.org/scala/

 

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