Michael Harrison – Just Constellations


“Roomful of Teeth

Just Constellations
Music by Michael Harrison

World premiere performance
MASS MoCA, August 28, 2015

Estelí Gomez, soprano
Martha Cluver, soprano
Caroline Shaw, alto
Virginia Warnken, alto
Eric Dudley, tenor
Avery Griffin, baritone
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone
Cameron Beauchamp, bass

Brad Wells, artistic director

Program Notes

I. The Opening Constellation
II. The Romantic Constellation
III. The Magic Constellation
IV. The Acoustic Constellation

Ever since the 1980’s, when I started working as La Monte Young’s composition and tuning assistant, I have wanted to compose a work like Just Constellations for specialized singers exploring gradually evolving constellations of tones in extended “just intonation” tunings. However, it was not until Brad Wells commissioned me to compose for Roomful of Teeth that the opportunity finally presented itself.

Just Constellations is approximately 23 minutes in duration and is comprised of four interconnected constellations of justly tuned chords and modes. The first three of these are derived from harmonic regions of La Monte Young’s epic The Well-Tuned Piano using tunings based on the harmonic primes 2, 3 and 7. The Magic Constellation presents an arrangement of “The Theme of The Magic Chord,” which is one of the simplest but most profound themes from The Well-Tuned Piano. The Acoustic Constellation is based on the fourth octave of the harmonic series and uses what is often referred to as the “acoustic” mode, using the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, and 16th partials of the harmonic series (I replace the 13th partial with the 27th partial down an octave).

“Just intonation is the tuning system of the later ancient Greek modes as codified by Ptolemy; it was the aesthetic ideal of the Renaissance theorists; and it is the tuning practice of a great many musical cultures worldwide, both ancient and modern.” (Gilmore, Bob, “Maximum Clarity” and Other Writings On Music). It is any musical tuning in which the frequencies of notes are related by ratios of whole numbers. The two notes in any just interval are members of the same harmonic series and are called “just” or pure. Historic just intonation uses only notes derived from multiples of the prime numbers 2, 3 and 5, while “extended” just intonation includes higher primes such as 7, 11 and 13. Just intonation can be contrasted with equal temperament, which dominates most Western instruments, and compromises the purity and harmonic integrity of music for the convenience of having 12 equally spaced notes.
-Michael Harrison

Just Constellations was commissioned by Roomful of Teeth and supported by fellowships from Yaddo and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.?