Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”

New Focus FCR 920

This album works so very well on many levels. It is a great example of the state of the art in tuning scholarship, a lovely recording of a fine instrument, and a deeply engaging example of authentic and thoughtful performance practice. From the moment I first heard this CD I was entranced by the very musical experience. There is as much to appreciate in the depth and accuracy of the scholarship involved as there is in the deeply committed and learned performance. This recording is “definitive” in that it represents state of the art tuning theory, instrument making, and baroque performance practice.

Readers of this blog know that I rarely review music written before 1950 but this is a rather special case of contemporary scholarship that, in its way, occupies both the old and the new. It is Bach in the context of the modern scholar providing a unique insight for the modern listener. And, having reviewed much of Mr. Lippel’s work with contemporary music this journey to the past provides a useful perspective on the artist’s range.

This is NOT the complete Bach music for guitar (the modern guitar did not exist in Bach’s time). This is NOT the complete Bach music for lute played on guitar. Rather this is the complete Bach music for “Lautenwerk“, a curious instrument which was a cross between a lute and a harpsichord. While there have been reconstructions of this unusual instrument there are no known extant instruments from Bach’s time. The instrument featured gut strings (rather than metal) which produced a softer sound. The strings were plucked by quills controlled by a keyboard in the manner of a harpsichord and pretty much anyone who played keyboard could play this instrument.

This is a performance on a guitar tuned to the “well tempered” tuning which inspired Bach’s definitive masterpiece, “The Well Tempered Clavier” which demonstrated the utility of the well tempered tuning system (Andreas Werckmeister’s to be specific). This differs considerably from equal temperament tuning which permeates most of the music we commonly hear in western classical traditions. While the technicalities of tuning are well beyond the scope of this review (more information is available at and in any number of learned theses on tuning) the critical fact is that this recording provides, as much as possible, the experience of hearing this music on an instrument tuned in the manner which Bach and his contemporaries used. This is about as close as one could come to hearing what Bach’s audiences heard.

All this attention to tuning scholarship, authentic instrument building, and authentic performance practice place this album in the lineage of similarly definitive recordings by the likes of Noah Greenberg and the New York Pro Musica along with artists such as David Munrow, Julian Bream, Alfred Deller, and their successors. The scholarship here draws on the work of scholars whose lineage includes Harry Partch and Ben Johnston. The liner notes are written by one of the living royalty of microtonal scholars, John Schneider (himself a guitarist and composer who is in the process of recording definitive editions of all of Harry Partch’s work). Also mentioned is the assertion by another living royalty of tuning scholarship, the composer/scholar Kyle Gann who suggests that, “hearing performances of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in modern equal temperament is like viewing Rembrandt’s work through wax paper”. The analogy is apt and the value of this recording is the “removal of the wax paper” (so to say), allowing the listener to hear something much closer to the composer’s original intent.

Of course a standard guitar cannot play these tunings so the artist turned to German luthier (guitar builder) Walter Vogt whose invention, The Fine Tunable Fretboard, graces the beautiful instrument seen on the album cover. This is the instrument we hear in this recording. It is tuned to Johann Kirnberger’s keyboard well tempered tuning system.

And now to the artist. Daniel Lippel is a guitarist, producer, and new music advocate. Though he did release a Bach on guitar recording in 2007 the majority of his work on recordings has been dominated by music composed after 1950 and actually mostly after 2000. Hearing his affinity for baroque performance practice is indeed a revelation by itself. Lippel whose virtuosity and facility with new music is well known demonstrates his facility with baroque performance turning in a ravishingly beautiful recording of this music.

There are three works on this disc, the 6 movement Suite in E minor BWV 996, the four movement Suite in C minor BWV 997, and the Prelude, Fuga, and Allegro BWV 998. The performances are candy for the ears and food for the soul. This is a level of excellence that has this writer hoping for more.

World Premieres and a Resurrection: Partch Vol. 3 on Bridge Records

Bridge Records is one of those labels whose every release is worth one’s attention. Their series of music of Elliott Carter, George Crumb, et al are definitive. And while this listener has yet to hear the first two volumes of the Harry Partch series this third volume suggests that Bridge continues to maintain a high standard as they do in all the releases that I’ve heard.

Harry Partch (1901-1974), like Philip Glass and Steve Reich would later do, formed his own group of musicians to perform his works. For Glass and Reich they could not find performers who understood and wanted to play their music. For Partch this issue was further complicated by the fact that he needed specially built instruments which musicians had to learn to play to perform the very notes he asked of them.  And keep in mind that Partch managed to do a significant portion of his work during the depression.  He is as important to the history of tonality as Bach, Wagner, and Schoenberg.

I will confess a long term fascination with Partch’s music.  Ever since hearing a snippet of Castor and Pollux on that little 7 inch vinyl sampler that came packaged with my prized copy of Switched on Bach I was hooked.  That little sampler also pointed this (then 13 year old) listener to Berio’s Sinfonia, Nancarrow, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley.  And so it continues.  But it is not just nostalgia that recommends this disc, it is the definitive nature of the scholarship, the intelligence of the production, and the quality of both performances and recordings that make this an essential part of any serious collector of Partch, microtonal music, musicology, and good recordings in general.

With the aforementioned interest/fascination I reached a point where I had pretty much collected and listened to all I could find of Partch’s music.  Certainly everything of his had been recorded, right?  Well ain’t this a welcome kick in an old collector’s slats?  Not only have the folks at Bridge (read John Schneider) found and recorded a heretofore practically known composition but they’ve done it with a brand of reverence, scholarship, and quality of both recording and performances such that this is a collector’s dream and a major contribution to the history of microtonal musics and American music in general.


John Schneider from a You Tube screen capture

Let me start with the liner notes by producer John Schneider.  As one who is given to complain about the lack of liner notes I am so pleased to encounter such as these.  They alone are worth the price of the CD and read at times like the adventure they describe, to wit, this recording.  The tasteful and well designed (by one Casey Siu) booklet provides an intelligent guide to the music which enhances the listening experience.  Schneider’s web site also provides a wealth of information and references for further research.  Many would think that these liner notes are comprehensive as they are and there should be no need for anything more…so the link provided to even more info on the web site of the performing group on this disc, PARTCH.   These folks are Grammy winners and they perform on scholarly copies of the original Partch instruments executed by Schneider and his associates.  This release is solidly built from the ground up.


PARTCH performing at RedCat copyright Redcat

PARTCH includes: Erin Barnes (Diamond Marimba, Cymbal, Bass), Alison Bjorkedal (Canons, Kitharas), Matt Cook (Canon, Cloud Chamber Bowls, Spoils of War), Vicki Ray (Canons, Chromelodeon, Surrogate Kithara), John Schneider (Adapted Guitars, Bowls, Canons, Spoils, Surrogate Kithara, Adapted Viols, Voice), Nick Terry (Boo, Hypobass), T.J. Troy (Adapted Guitar II, Bass Marimba, Voice), Alex Wand (Adapted Guitar III, Canons, Surrogate Kithara)

The 21 tracks contain five Partch compositions.  It opens with one of Partch’s more unusual pieces (for him), Ulysses at the Edge of the World (1962).  This piece was written for Chet Baker but Baker never got to play it.  It kind of sits a bit outside of Partch’s work and is his most direct use of the medium of “jazz”.  The piece has been recorded twice before.  For this recording two fine new music/jazz musicians were chosen, saxophonist Ulrich Krieger and trumpet player extraordinaire Daniel Rosenboom.  Excellent choices for this too little performed piece.

Tracks 2-13 contain the Twelve Intrusions (1950) which is basically an accompanied song cycle with instrumental pieces placed at the beginning.  These are great vintage Partch works but do read the liner notes on the evolution of Partch as he was writing these.  They describe some of Partch’s evolution during that time.

Next is another discovery (or restoration if you will).  Partch’s scores exist in various versions for various reasons.  Windsong (1958) was written as a film score for the Madeline Tourtelot film of that name.  It was later reworked into a dance drama (Daphne of the Dunes, 1967).  Here we have a live performance of the entire score which (read them notes) includes things not heard before, not to mention the most lucid sound of this recording.

Now to the putative star of this release, the Sonata Dementia (1950).  It too comes with some nice detective work allowing listeners to hear substantially what Partch intended but neither recorded nor rejected.  There are three movements and let me just say that they are captivating and substantial.  This deserves to be heard again and again.

Now two little bonus tracks (reminiscent in nature but not in content of the sampler I mentioned earlier) add significantly to Partch and his place in music history.  First is a Edison cylinder recording from 1904 of a traditional Isleta Indian chant which Partch, who had been hired to transcribe these songs, later incorporated into his music.  It’s early date and the nature of that old recording method provide a picture of early ethnomusicological work.


Photo of Partch with adapted guitar found on web

The second bonus is a real gem.  Again, read the liner notes for more fascinating details.This is an important find, an acetate recording made of Partch performing his Barstow (1941) for an appreciative audience at the Eastman School of Music from November 3, 1942.  This early version (of at least three) for adapted guitar and voice was reconstructed by John Schneider and released on the Just West Coast album of 1993 (Bridge BCD 9041) and later performed so beautifully at Other Minds 14 in 2009.  But I believe that Schneider’s reconstruction predated the discovery of this recording.  Pretty validating to hear this now I would think.

It is this reviewer’s fondest hope that this wonderful Partch project will continue with its definitive survey of Partch’s work.  Bravo!!




Mechanical and Microtonal: Kyle Gann’s “Hyperchromatica”


Other Minds OM 1025-2

Kyle Gann‘s interest in the microtonal has been evident at least since his opera Custer and Sitting Bull (1997-99).  Many will be familiar with his justly famed monograph on Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano works.  Given that history this release seems almost inevitable, a series of works (or perhaps it is one big work) written for 3 computer controlled pianos tuned to his 33 note scale based on the harmonics of the E flat scale.

This is also hardly Gann’s first foray into the world of the player piano (as it was called in a different age).  His 2005 Nude Rolling Down an Escalator album contains some of his etudes for this computer controlled instrument which is the modern equivalent of the player piano.  And in addition to his fascination with alternate tunings and scales it should be noted that Gann is also somewhat of an expert as regards the player piano itself.  Gann authored one of the finest books on that composer’s music, “The Music of Conlon Nancarrow” (1995).  So it appears intuitive that he would write a magnum opus for the modern equivalent of the player piano, the disklavier, a computer controlled piano.

Gann refers to this work as being the longest composition for a keyboard in alternate tuning.  Indeed this would appear to be the case but a listener could easily hear these as  individual works with poetic titles like one encounters in Debussy’s Preludes.  Like those works one can listen to them individually or as a complete set.  But regardless of how you may choose to file these in your head this is an intriguing and engaging work (or set of works).

A work of  this dimension will necessarily invite comparisons to The Well Tempered Clavier, The Art of Fugue, and similar works because it effectively demonstrates the scales and the various musical possibilities unlocked by the different tuning much as Bach did nearly 300 years ago with well tempered tuning (or, in the latter example, the possibilities of counterpoint).  This work is like a major thesis on alternate tunings and the effects it has on melody and harmony.  Some listeners will be familiar with the interesting but less comprehensive Microtonal Music (1996) CD by Easley Blackwood.  Using a synthesizer Blackwood explores tonal and melodic relationships of various different tunings achieving some of the same goals as Gann.

The titles the composer uses reflect his ongoing fascination with things cosmic as he did with his, “The Planets” (1994-2008).  In this respect we hear Gann, the romantic, writing little tone poems.  Now these tone poems put the listener into a different universe but they fit the same logical category as tone poems written in a more familiar tuning system and hence have the more romantic quality of representational (as opposed to absolute) music.  Of course the composer’s intention of exploring this tuning system keeps this work also in the category of absolute music meaning that it is in large part about the tuning system.  Unlike the Blackwood experiments which were about finding functional harmonies (at least in the commonly understood western music definition) Gann’s work is about expression, motives, melodies.  It is, if you will, a logical step for one who has worked intensely with the complex rhythms endemic to Nancarrow and the fascination with alternate tuning systems gleaned from both western music history and world musics.

Since the end of the Baroque era western music adopted well tempered tuning as a standard and the result is that hearing these alternate tunings sounds wrong to most ears.  One of the things Gann is doing here is to make a foray into what will likely be a more common practice, that being the use of alternate tunings.  They are quite approachable and listenable in this context.