Exploring the Bohlen-Pierce Musical Universe

cover - GEN 20695

BEYOND THE HORIZON / HAJDU: Burning Petrol. Beyond the Horizon. HARROP: Maelstrom. Bird of Janus. A. HOFFMANN: Duo Dez. MÜLLER: Morpheus. LEMKE: Pas de Deux.+ HELMER: Preludio e Passacaglia.* STAHNKE: Die Vogelmenschen von St. Kilda. SCHWENK: Night Hawks / Nora-Louise Müller, Ákos Hoffmann, cl/Bohlen-Pierce cl; Julia Puls, B-P cl; Lin Chen, B-P kalimba/perc; *Melle Weijters, 41-tone el-gtr; *Julia Stegmann, vla; *Tair Turganov, bs; Georg Hajdu,  elec/synth; +Sascha Lino Lemke, elec / Genuin 20695

The German label Genuin, which generally sticks to fairly conservative chamber music repertoire, here goes out on a limb to present an entire album of harmonically far-out music. The Bohlen-Pierce system, named after the two people who apparently arrived at the same point independently of each other, German microwave electronics engineer Heinz Bohlen and American satellite technology engineer John R. Pierce, consists not of an octave but of the perfect 12th (octave + 5, in Bohlen-Pierce terms a “tritave”), divided into 13 equal steps according to various mathematical considerations. According to the liner notes, “Each step is almost equal to a three-quarter tone in equal temperament: 146.3 centimeters. Simplified, one can imagine this as an elastic band: instead of reaching the octave after 12 semitone steps, we stretch the elastic band in order to choose the tritave as the returning point. We hence go about one-and-a-half times as far as before, with only one step more. Thus an alternative harmonic system evolves in which, notably, the octave does not appear. Due to the step size which differs from the usual, the octave is simply stepped over.”

Got it? Well, I didn’t really until I started listening, particularly since George Hajdu’s opening piece, Burning Petrol, sounded to my ears like a tonal piece in a somewhat minor key with atonal harmony. Yet as the music progressed, I began to sense a strangeness to it, almost as if I were listening to Le sacre du printemps played slightly flat. Oddly enough, however, one’s ears adapt to this unusual sound-world fairly easily, certainly more easily than to the microtonal music of Julián Carrillo or the microtonal keyboard music of Harry Partch. Part of this is due to the fact that Hajdu creates real melodic lines, however strange, within this strange harmonic system, since it is based on Scriabin’s Vers la flamme.

I was thankful for a certain amount of “grounding” in Scriabin as we then moved into Todd Harrop’s Maelstrom. Here, the strangeness of the harmonic system is more apparent, although to the naked ear it almost sounds like continuous diminished chords. I should also note that both of the first two pieces are played rather slowly, perhaps to allow the listener to adapt. It also makes perfect sense to me that our two intrepid clarinetists are in their mid-40s, which means that they grew up in a modern classical and jazz world when experimentation was accepted rather than ignored or, worse yet, discouraged. As the piece reaches its mid-point, however, we encounter even more strangeness in this sound-world, as certain notes tend to sound flat or otherwise out of kilter. One wonders, however, if the Bohlen-Pierce system could be used on string instruments or, as in Partch’s case, a specially-tuned keyboard. I suppose so, but clarinets are what we get here.

Indeed, one of the interesting things about this CD is the way in which each composer has, consciously or subconsciously, tried to keep the tritave somewhat within the boundaries of conventional tonality; indeed, Hoffmann even admits as much in his liner notes for Duo Dez, which I found interesting. Apparently, these performer-composers would like this system to be used and played in conventional concert settings, hoping that it will NOT become a “freak” system such as those of Carrillo and Partch.

Only with Müller’s Morpheus do we finally arrive at a piece so outré that one can no longer think of it as being simply bitonal or atonal. She revels in the Bohlen-Pierce anomalies, exploring the BP clarinet’s ability to produce an almost continuous glissando in addition to its unusual multiphonics. Hajdu’s Beyond the Horizon opens with a fairly dull narration about the expansion of the universe before moving into music, initially meant to describe “dark energy” in the universe which creates a “fixed event horizon.” But here, too, the music is certainly odder than in some of the previous works, pulling us deeper into the BP musical vortex. We eventually reach swirling figures played by the two clarinets, around which one also hears some light triangle-like percussion which is, Hajdu tells us, is computer technology used to create “artificial bell-sounding spectra” which helps lead to “an agreement of the spectral, harmonic and tonal dimensions as we know it from 12-tone tuning.”

 Bird of Janus is for a solo clarinet in two tunings, the BP tuning and the Carlos Alpha tuning, which is nine steps per perfect fifth. Once again, the composer makes an attempt to “place” these odd tunings in music that sounds, at least superficially, somewhat conventional.

Sascha Lemke’s Pas de deux, which opens with electronics, is “all about the confrontation between the 146-cent(imeter) scale of the Bohlen-Pierce clarinet and the 100-cent scale of the classical clarinet,” but for me this piece was too much electronics (nasty and noisy-sounding) and not enough actual music. All I really heard from either clarinet were squeaks, squawks and descending scales, nothing that really sounded like music to me. By contrast, Benjamin Helmer’s Preludio e Passacaglia combines traditional old forms with the Bohlen-Pierce scale. He also tosses a 41-tone electric guitar, a violin and a cello into the mix, which adds to the lonesome sound while satisfying the crossing themes of the passacaglia.

Manfred Stahnke’s Die Vogelmenschen von St. Kilda describes a community that lived on a group of remote islands in the Scottish Hebrides, “unpopulated today but once inhabited by birdcatchers and egg harvesters who had little contact with our civilization. When these people, who were completely on their own, were introduced to the mirror, their community came to an end.” This is wildly inventive music, simulating some pretty loony-sounding bird squawks and chirps via the clarinets. Or maybe it’s the squawking of the population of St. Kilda. Who knows?

The last selection is Fredrik Schwenk’s Night Hawks, and here we return to somewhat more conventional-sounding music, or at least low-range flutters from two BP clarinets and two regular clarinets, which share the tuning note A, so that’s where the music mostly stays in varying rhythmic patterns, although with some high-range flutters later on.

Well, I don’t know what to say about this one. It’s strange, all right!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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