Name: Michael Harrison
Occupation: Composer, pianist
Current release: Michael Harrison's Seven Sacred Names is out via Cantaloupe Music.
Recommendations: I highly recommend Hazrat Inayat Khan's “The Mysticism of Sound”. I'm also into epic biographies and stories about life from a very different perspective than our Western norm. For this, I recommend “The Heart of Everything That Is" (the untold story of Red Cloud, an American legend). It is genuinely astonishing to me that Red Cloud's and his ancestors way of life still existed as little as 150-200 years ago!
Of course, I also recommend La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano (which is available here), and although almost everyone already knows Miles' "Kind of Blue," if you haven't listened recently, listen again with fresh ears. It is fantastic that we now also have Jacob Collier performing and recording complex vocal harmonies in just intonation and sharing his process. There are also some exciting music and interdisciplinary art programs that I am involved with at Arts Letters & Numbers.
If you enjoyed this Michael Harrison interview, visit his expansive official website for a lot more information. Current updates and music can be found on Facebook, Soundcloud and bandcamp.
When did you start composing – and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started composing and improvising when I was in my early teens, immediately after my father, a prominent creative mathematician, gave me my first music theory lessons. I was hooked after learning some of the most basic building blocks in music. Around this same time, my passion was for rock and prog rock and the great outdoors where I grew up in Oregon.
At the age of 15, I first went to India and Nepal and also heard Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha in concert. A few years later, I became intoxicated by the Sufi musician and mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan's teachings on music and began a lifelong study and practice of Indian classical music. From age 20 onwards, my most important influences were my teachers, Pandit Pran Nath, La Monte Young and Terry Riley, and later Mashkoor Ali Khan.
My other primary influences include Debussy, Miles Davis and the Beatles. One thing you can hear in most of my music is a keen interest in melody. I'm sure it helps to be singing and playing ragas every day, but this affinity is part of what draws me to the music of my influences.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
The most formative stage in my development involved sitting next to La Monte every time he played an acoustic piano since 1979, including 51 concerts and recording sessions of The Well-Tuned Piano (TWTP). Just sitting there watching and listening as he composed, practiced and performed TWTP gave me some of the best music lessons of my life. And this is also how we learn Indian classical music (except that is done with call and response).
TWTP was the primary influence for my two major works for piano in just intonation: From Ancient Worlds and Revelation. These works and others also represent the development of my unique compositional voice using the lessons I learned from La Monte.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I was so strongly influenced by The Well-Tuned Piano and Indian classical music that it took a while to find my own voice. It was always there, but I feel like I am coming into it more and more with each passing year.
My first major work that broke from the mold of TWTP was Just Ancient Loops, composed for Maya Beiser and her multi-track cellos and a film by Bill Morrison.
[Read our Maya Beiser interview.]
A few years later, Just Constellations, written for Roomful of Teeth, also draws from TWTP by exploring similar harmonic structures but with voices.
More recently, with Seven Sacred Names, I allowed myself to write more lyrical works like Kalim and Mureed and the raga-based pieces Alim and Qadr. Basir, however, also draws from TWTP.
You're a trained singer, a performing pianist and a composer working with a wide range of ensemble settings. Since it's sometimes claimed that the human voice is the most direct way of expression, I was wondering how you see that yourself – which creative activities have allowed you to express yourself most freely, would you say?
In his teachings on music, Hazrat Inayat Khan said that "… Hindus discovered that the shortest way to attain spiritual heights is by singing… It is told that Tansen, the great singer of India, performed wonders by singing. Tansen was a Yogi, a Yogi of singing, and he had mastered sound; therefore the sound of his voice became living; and by making his voice living, everything he wanted happened. Very few in this world know to what extent phenomena can be produced by the power of the voice. If there is any real trace of miracle, of phenomena, of wonder, it is in the voice."
When I first read that I started singing and it changed my life. Now I sing ragas and play the piano in just intonation every day. What is beautiful about this is that it combines all of the things I love the most in music: singing, playing piano, just intonation, ragas and talas, composition, and structured improvisation. This is the well-spring I go to every day, and out of it, the seeds of most of my compositions are born.
An important stepping stone in your biography was when La Monte Young invited you to tune his instruments for him. I'm curious about two things: What was so different about the way you would tune his instruments that he liked? And: What does one learn about music by tuning instruments?
Well, again, this was the most formative period of my life. I was a very devoted protégé, and I gave it everything I had. When you do that, it makes all the difference in the world.
There is no better way to learn about music and harmonic relationships than constantly refining a piano tuning in just intonation. Before the invention of the modern piano and the proliferation of equal temperament, most musicians tuned their own instruments. Physically hammering away at specific sequences of intervals and intently listening to them engrains the harmonic relationships in your mind and body. I highly recommend doing this to anyone interested in exploring music beyond the limitations of equal temperament.
I wanted to talk about two important works for you. One is obviously your latest release, Seven Sacred Names. Before that, though, I'd like to focus on a piece which wasn't actually written by you, but to which you dedicated a lot of time: The Well-Tuned Piano. As someone who has probably a deeper connection to that work besides La Monte and Marian Zazeela, I'm curious what you believe makes this composition so special? What were some of the most memorable renditions, how has it developed over the years and how did your perspective on it change once you started performing it yourself?
There are many things about TWTP that make it so special. First, the approach to tuning is radically original. Western harmony builds upon three basic intervals: the octave (2:1), the perfect fifth (3:2) (and its inversion, the perfect fourth (4:3)), and the pure major third (5:4). Every other interval and harmony derives from these three basic intervals.
So now comes along La Monte, who removes all of the intervals related to 5:4 (no more triadic harmonies) and replaces them with a chain of intervals derived from the pure harmonic seventh (7:4). Voila, a new harmonic language is born! On top of this, consider La Monte's relatively unique approach to composition: improvising and working by memory at the piano to create the musical equivalent of an epic Homeric poem. By notating very little, he remained in a constant state of listening and exploring.
La Monte would only play TWTP during a series of concerts and rehearsals that would last for months. First, there would be at least a month of rehearsals, usually every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and on Sunday nights, there would be invitational performances. After following this schedule for a month or so, there would be anywhere between 4 and 8 live concerts, always on Sundays at 6 pm, with tape playbacks every Wednesday (where we would listen to what he did and I would I create a time score that he could study). Sometimes sitting there without a break for 5 to 6-½ hours would feel like a long time, but other times I would go into a time warp, and the time would fly by. Sometimes a single "cloud" passage could last as long as an hour. The most memorable renditions were usually the last few concerts of every concert series.
Over time my perspective on the piece changed radically. When I first heard it I had no idea how La Monte was creating these amazing otherworldly sounds at the piano. But step by step, learning the tuning, then learning the piece and the very specialized techniques that are used to create and perform it the mystery was gradually unveiled.
La Monte has been quoted in numerous interviews as saying that he is “probably the most influential composer of all time.” It certainly gets people's attention when you make a bold statement like this. Let’s put in another way, Schoenberg and Stravinsky are widely considered to be the most influential composers of the first half of the 20th Century. John Cage, who studied with Schoenberg, is certainly one of the most influential composers of the second half of the 20th century. Now, La Monte studied with Leonard Stein, who was for years Schoenberg’s assistant and music director of the Schoenberg Institute at USC. La Monte was also extremely influenced by John Cage starting with meeting Cage's collaborator, pianist David Tudor, at the Darmstadt School in 1959, and subsequently engaging in correspondence with Cage, as well as presenting some of his music on the West Coast.
La Monte was already a radical visionary, but Darmstadt and the connection to Cage were a definitive turning point. So, there is a lineage that goes directly back to Schoenberg (and beyond). I am extremely honored to have worked so closely with La Monte over the decades and to be connected to this extraordinary line of composers.
There is a very open spiritual dimension to Seven Sacred Names, but it seems to be present in all of your work. Can you talk a bit about that dimension and how working with just intonation relates to it?
Music and meditation are the very fabric of my life. From the time I was 17, I was interested in the intersection of the two, and over many years, I found that music is my meditation. So what is meditation but the act of focusing on something to slow down the constantly active mental chatter? I do this by singing long tones with particular low voice practices, then expanding into singing ragas and playing the piano.
Tuning in just intonation is an important part of this process because as you slow the music down you will hear the compromises in the equal tempered tuning and everything starts sounding “out of tune.” With just intonation, everything lines up perfectly, creating a deep resonance and attunement that I believe (depending upon the nature of the music) can positively affect our minds and nervous systems.
Time is a variable only seldom discussed within the context of contemporary composition. It seems to be very relevant to your music, however, which often bends, transforms and sometimes seems to leave behind our traditional perception of it entirely. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in a piece like Seven Sacred Names?
I live my life constantly referencing different time frames, such as moment to moment, day to day, human time, geological time, and cosmic time. Everything is relative. The solar system's life span resembles a blink of an eye in cosmic time. Realizing this can reframe how we experience life and prioritize what is truly important.
In a related way, I'm interested in how music, meditation and other conscious activities can change our perception of time. When I perform my work Revelation (my extended work for solo piano in a radical just intonation tuning), which is usually 90 minutes in length, I frequently receive interesting feedback about time from audience members.
For example, people tell me that when the performance is over, they think an intermission is happening because it feels like 45-minutes have passed instead of 90 minutes. As I mentioned before, I frequently had similar experiences sitting next to La Monte during 6-hour performances of TWTP.
In both TWTP and Revelation there is a conscious way of triggering this kind of "time warp" experience. Part of this has to do with having a long, slow, mostly non-metric opening (similar to an "alap" in the performance of a raga), which serves to slow down the sense of time for the listener and may even slow down their metabolism. This kind of thing can be repeated at various intervals throughout the course of a longer work. If a work has a fast rhythm and rate of harmonic change then it is very difficult to sustain interest for 10-15 minutes, while as this is easier to do with slower or non-metric music especially with slow harmonic changes. Another thing is to design the music in a way that it draws attention to the more subtle and gradual changes, such as resonance and inner voices, rather than having the music develop and change at a more traditional pace.
Seven Sacred Names uses these techniques, especially in "Hayy: Revealing the Tones" and in the longer non-metric and raga-based movements, Alim and Basir.
Also, the rate of harmonic change is relatively slow throughout the entire work. Overall the work is intended to be a meditation on the seven universal states of awakening corresponding with the seven sacred names.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Along with the more traditional primary elements of melody, harmony and rhythm, "sound" or "timbre" has become the fourth primary element to develop in Western music in the 20th and 21st centuries.
I like creating the architecture of a work that gradually unfolds. For example, as the register and intensity increase progressively, the timbre also changes. Revelation, Alim and Basir, are excellent examples of this.
I'm interested in just intonation because the frequencies, including the primary notes and their overtones, and the resultant combination and difference tones, line up in the same places. The result is an incredibly satisfying resonance that can be beautiful in itself without focusing on the more traditional aspects of music.
Production quality is also of the utmost importance. I focus a lot on having great instruments (such as a beautifully tuned Steinway concert grand) and working with my favorite musicians, recording engineers and producers. The selection of mics, mic placement, and naturally resonant acoustics are integral to my work. Consider this: If you can record in a setting with great acoustics, you don't need to rely on digital EQ and effects. No EQ or digital effects were used in the recording of Revelation, just the natural sound of the Hamburg Steinway concert grand as it blossomed in the acoustics of the retired concert hall at the American Academy of Arts & Letters in Harlem.