Polytempic Polymicrotonal Music: The Road Less Traveled

PDF Polytempic Polymicrotonal Music: The Road Less Traveled September 8, 2022

Book author
  1. Peter Alexander Thoegersen

This book introduces polytempic polymicrotonality as a new musical aesthetic. It proposes music with more than one microtonal tuning system and discusses examples from the literature to give an historic framework showing that this tendency has been present throughout human musical history. Polytempo is a tool for which polymicrotonal structures can function in relief from its background, and it acts as a frame, or ground structure, that is multidimensional, akin to the advancement of perspective in Renaissance art. The book has historic significance as it is the only book of its category, or genre, in music that features polymicrotonality in music composition or production. It displays examples of music literature for musical precedence in this area, focusing on Charles Ives’s Universe Symphony, unfinished since 1925.


Charles Ives’s Universe Symphony is the first, and up to now, possibly the only polytempic polymicrotonal work. Written between 1915– 1926, the Universe Symphony lay in disrepair for half a century until two individuals, Larry Austin in 1974 and Johnny Reinhard in 1996, pieced together the scraps and notes of the score, [in their original intention, as Ives proscribed in his notes], and, released two vastly different versions. The version that best suits the scope of polymicrotonality is Reinhard’s version, from 1996, which released the official Universe Symphony score and recording through the American Festival of Microtonal Music, approved by the Charles Ives.

Within the Universe Symphony, there are three levels of tempi and four different tunings. These impart a structurally stratified, deeper, and more powerful listening experience for the audience than even Ives’s Symphony No. 4, which is already a wonderfully temporally and rhythmically stratified architecture. The differing tunings yield microtones that go well beyond Ives’s Three Quartertone Pieces and point to a completely startling, evocative, and pioneering use of pitch color never before heard.

The significance and vast potential of polytempic polymicrotonal music can be seen by comparing this phenomenon with the similar polytextuality of the early motets of the fourteenth century, the Italian trecento. Then polyphony was in its infancy, and composers were willing to separate the simultaneous melodies by using differing texts, which were often polytextual literature (for example, French and Latin3) in order to create independence and individuality in the melodic lines. The trecento polytextuality is a perfect analogy for polymicrotonality, except that gradations of pitch are used in the latter to define the voice part in extreme subtlety; further independence is achieved by setting each line in a different tempo. Just as it is possible that the trecento composer experienced greater freedom than many twentieth-century composers, this author intends to help define a style that takes Ives’s Universe Symphony as a foundation, building thereon music of unprecedented freedom for the twenty-first century.
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