Michael Harrison: Exotic Resonance

The pioneering composer's shimmering new album with Roomful of Teeth caps a career devoted to the beauties of musical tunings — and started in Oregon

One day in the early 1980s, Michael Harrison noticed that his piano sounded out of tune. There was nothing wrong with the instrument, the University of Oregon music student soon realized. It was his ears that had changed.

Composer Michael Harrison

That realization set Harrison on a 30-year path that would lead him to become one of the most respected composers of his generation—lauded not just by major critics, who admire his innovations in tuning, but also by everyday listeners enchanted by his music’s ravishing beauty. His new album, performed by the award winning vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, both continues his ear-friendly innovations in tuning, and extends them into a new dimension.

Tuned in Oregon

Harrison’s quest began at the University of Oregon. Partly inspired by a world music class he had taken with his primary mentor, former dean Robert Trotter, Harrison studied in California with one of the 20th century’s most renowned teachers of Indian music, Pandit Pran Nath. Singers of classical Indian music, like many in the rest of the world and in the West stretching back to ancient Greece, tend to find harmonies and melodic intervals based on simple ratios between the frequencies (3:2 for the interval of a fifth, for example, 4:3 for a fourth, and so on)—a concept called “just intonation.” But for the past century or so, much Western music, including Harrison’s college piano, has used a very different “equal tempered” tuning that offered many conveniences — at the expense of the sheer sonic beauty produced by natural harmonies. 

A generation before Michael discovered just intonation, an earlier Harrison born in Oregon, Lou Harrison, pioneered the rediscovery of just tunings in his own music. (And this Michael is not to be confused with another contemporary Oregon pianist, Portland’s Michael Allen Harrison. AFAIK, none are related by more than shared love of music.) After studying and singing justly tuned Indian classical music, the conventional, compromised equal temperament that had so long dominated Western classical and pop music just sounded… wrong.

“In contrast to most tempered tunings, harmonies in just intonation ring with clarity and stability,” Harrison writes on his website, “and when certain complex ratios are used, the music shimmers with exotic resonance.”

Roomful of Teeth performs Harrison’s ‘Just Constellations.’

Harrison’s upbringing equipped him to handle the math he’d later use in his tuning experiments. His grandfather was a dean at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in the early 1960s, when Michael was six, his father, David, brought the family to Eugene, where he began a three-decade career teaching mathematics at the university. Michael began meditating in high school and studied yoga at the UO, where his interest in the connection between spirituality and music blossomed.

But you don’t need math, meditation, or a background in Indian music to enjoy Harrison’s compositions. Harrison attributes his music’s approachable beauty to his Oregon childhood.

“My first love even before music was the outdoors in Oregon,” Harrison remembers. An avid hiker, mountain climber, and skier, he has climbed most of the Cascades’ major peaks and regularly skies Mount Bachelor.  “I think that’s why my music is generally accessible,” he muses. “Nature is accessible, and composers affiliated with the West Coast understand the connection between music and nature. Just intonation is nature.”

Piano Man

Harrison devoted himself to exploring the beauty of those tunings in his own compositions, which made him a vital figure in American contemporary music. His music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum, the American Academy in Rome, and the Sundance Film Festival. He has collaborated with such contemporary music ensembles as Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can All Stars.   

In 1986, Harrison created the harmonic piano, which could play 24 notes per octave instead of the usual 12, thereby setting the stage for his breakthrough: the aptly titled Revelation, a 90-minute suite for solo harmonic piano hailed by critics as a revolutionary accomplishment. “In a music world all too dominated by fashion and ideological trends,” said fellow composer Philip Glass on bestowing one award, Harrison “has made for himself a highly personal music language — one whose freshness appeals to the ear, emotion opens the heart, and lucidity delights the mind.”  

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Even though, after his college epiphany of intonation, conventional pianos sounded out of tune to Harrison, he’s spent much of his life deeply involved with them. To pay the bills after moving to New York in 1987, he became a piano broker, and eventually co-founded Faust Harrison Pianos (and was later joined by his wife, Marina, an art historian) to restore vintage pianos. As his composition career burgeoned, he left the successful firm a few years ago, but still freelances, helping buyers, including institutions, find the pianos they want. Harrison also spreads the word about the Indian music he still sings every day, serving as co-founder and president of the American Academy of Indian Classical Music. 

“It can be deeply rewarding to sustain a lifelong practice in the arts while working in another field at the same time,” he told UO music students when he returned to the university to accept the School of Music and Dance’s 2014 Distinguished Alumnus Award. Never having taken a business class, he attributes his business and artistic success to his musical training, which taught him the skills, discipline, and attitudes useful in composing a career as well as music. “By studying music and dance,” he explains, “we become more intelligent and inventive members of society.”

Just Rewards

Harrison’s mesmerizing 2012 release Just Ancient Loops (later performed at Portland’s Time Based Art Festival) garnered still more honors and spread his reputation ever wider as its performer, cellist Maya Beiser, recorded and toured it around the world. It also signaled new directions: after a quarter-century focused mainly on writing large-scale works in just intonation for piano, Harrison is now composing for larger ensembles and choruses and using electronic instruments, which make unusual tuning much easier than painstakingly adjusting, say, an acoustic keyboard or guitar frets. 

Harrison has recently begun incorporating other aspects of the Indian music he sings every day into his new music for Western instruments and now voices. The “words” sung in his luminous new album with Roomful of Teeth, Just Constellations, are meaningless syllables Indian classical singers use to evoke certain vocal sound colors. Instead of employing lyrics to convey meaning, Harrison uses “the singers as bells, or the singers as drones,”  says the ensemble’s director Brad Wells. “Michael found an organic way to compose for the group.” 

Because he’s a singer himself, it’s surprising that Harrison had never composed for voices, since, like strings and unlike fixed-tone instruments, they can effortlessly reach any singable notes, including just intonation, without time consuming retuning. “Over the years, I often imagined how the sustained harmonies I produced on the piano might translate to the voice,” he recalled, “but this could only be achieved with an ensemble of voices.” 

Roomful of Teeth

Cue the world’s most adventurous contemporary classical vocal ensemble, which offered him a commission to compose for them. Harrison tailored the piece to the specific voices of RoT’s eight singers. “Every time I had a new draft, we would rehearse it and they would give me feedback,” he said. “Then, I would revise the score, and we would do the same thing a few days later with a new draft. I was in composer heaven!” 

Those distinctive voices combine to create a collective, unearthly, almost orchestral texture that ebbs and flows at the speed of breath for about 20 minutes, at a pace New Yorker classical music writer Alex Ross called “glacially beautiful.” Sometimes gossamer, sometimes ecstatic, their splashes of sound sometimes overlap, sometimes recede, bearing listeners along the rippling sonic waves.

The vocal blend is enhanced by the recording venue: “an amazing monumental old water tank with a reverb that lasts longer than any that I have ever heard, including the Taj Mahal,” Harrison said about the 65-foot-tall former water tower in Colorado that’s now a studio. It’s reminiscent of Port Townsend Washington’s famed “cistern chapel,” the site of similarly ethereal recordings of music by Stuart Dempster, Pauline Oliveros and others. 

The album is a triumph for the group, too, which can now add just intonation singing to its bountiful cornucopia of unusual (for Western choirs, at least) sounds. Fans of Cappella Romana and In Mulieribus might, er, resonate with the cathedral feel and pure, non-vibrato singing styles, just as ancient as the natural tunings Harrison employs. His journey through the new musical territories that led to Just Constellations suggests that Michael Harrison still has more musical revelations ahead.

Download Just Constellations on Bandcamp. A shorter version of this story appeared in Oregon Quarterly.

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About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell has been classical music editor at Willamette Week since 2008, music columnist for Eugene Weekly since 1996, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal since 2000. He is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities and has also written for The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer. He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

One Response.

  1. Mitch Ritter says:

    BC’s piece on new music composer and pianist Michael Harrison’s unique approach to such a
    wide variety of work and collaborators, glad you mentioned those alternative tunings and that early “ear changing experience” , along with some other muses and his new work with Roomful of Teeth finds a fresh seam to profile a lesser known Oregonian resource named Michael Harrison.

    Rather than our better known more middle of the road middle name identified and dearly loved popular local composer Michael Allen Harrison, whose name and career tend to get so much more ink and exposure given his popularity and accessibility. I’m looking forward to seeing whether I can access this
    newest of Michael Harrison’s work with Roomful of Teeth (which certainly illustrates a sense of humor somewhere behind the serious music theory. I’ve loved Roomful of Blues most of my life…)

    Keep on doing
    Health and balance

    Mitch Ritter\Paradigm Sifters, Code Shifters and Song Chasers
    Lay-Low Studios, Ore-Wa (Refuge of Atonement Seekers)
    Media Discussion List and Looksee

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