The Thirteenth Sound

Julián CarrilloThe unpublished string quartets of microtonalist Julián Carrillo are on the program for a noontime concert featuring the Momenta Quartet. 

By Sasha Barish ‘20

What notes do you build music from? Traditional Western concert music uses major and minor scales made up of half and whole steps, while Central American folk songs follow a scale of only five notes, South Asian classical music has various ragas that each provide a different tonal framework, and pre-baroque European music had intervals that perfectly fit mathematical ratios but couldn’t play the same way in any key.

It’s easy to get fixated on a single set of notes used in a single musical tradition and say that the notes in between are out of tune, but the “microtonal” composers of the 20th century played with tones less than a half

Momenta Quartet
step apart: quarter-tones, eighth-tones and other pitches between the keys of a piano. Now the Momenta Quartet and Alejandro Madrid, a professor of musicology at Cornell University, are working with the unpublished string quartets of microtonalist Julián Carrillo. The quartet will be performing his work during a free concert, noon Oct. 12 at Paine Concert Hall as part the Harvard Music Department’s fall concert series.

Carrillo, who lived from 1875 to 1965, is something of a cult figure – beloved for his solos, masses, and symphonies – in his home country of Mexico, as well as an inspiration to experimental composers. His string quartets, however, are frustratingly hard to find. Momenta Quartet discovered this in 2011, when the members were invited to play an all-Carrillo concert at the Americas Society in New York.

“Carrillo wrote 13 string quartets,” said Stephanie Griffin, violist for Momenta, “and when we first discovered Carrillo’s music, only two of those quartets were published.”

Those two weren’t readily available, either; the quartet had to travel to the University of Indiana to get the scores from one of the world’s largest libraries of Latin American music. The concert was a great success and the musicians discussed the possibility of playing more Carrillo, but they soon realized the other 11 quartets had never even been published.

Through luck, Youtube and a mutual friend, Madrid, who was looking for musicians to help him bring Carrillo’s quartets to light, heard about Momenta Quartet’s performance and reached out to the group.

The project was tough. Carrillo had his own theory of microtones, describing his obsession with the pitches between as a Sonido 13 (Thirteenth Sound). He had his own type of musical notation; Madrid was already familiar with this, but the musicians were not. This slowed their process of learning to play the microtonal pieces. Since most of the quartets had never been published, there were discrepancies from one of Carrillo’s manuscripts to another, and since the composer was dead, Madrid had to make decisions about what he thought Carrillo meant to write.

The group has further plans for their work, such as learning all of the Carrillo quartets, recording the pieces and publishing the scores. Already, however, their hard work is paying off. Madrid has published a book on the life of Carrillo and Momenta Quartet is playing the Carrillo pieces they’ve learned in various venues. Since Madrid is teaching at Harvard this semester, that includes Harvard University.

The Oct. 12 concert will feature String Quartets No. 3, 6 and 8, which showcase some of the styles and explorations of Carrillo’s career.

The third quartet, Dos Bosquejos (Two Sketches), is one of Carrillo’s first microtonal pieces. It was written in 1928, when the composer was beginning to break away from the Beethoven-esque genre of his earliest work.

“It’s beautiful,” said Griffin. “It’s kind of romantic music; the music sounds kind of like quote-unquote ‘normal’ music, but he plays with bending the pitch. He plays with your perception of pitch by repeating phrases but up a microtone.”

The sixth quartet is only a single movement, and it doesn’t use microtones, but it does explore pitch from another perspective with atonal and modal tonalities.

Carrillo “loves to play around with sequences,” said Griffin. “That’s his form of rhetoric; he has to say something and then say it again a little differently.”

The eighth is a grand microtonal quartet in four movements. It has much in common with the third, including endings that make use of overtone series.

“Again, on the surface, without the microtones, the music could be a post-romantic string quartet,” Griffin said. “But again he uses this rhetorical language of repeating things and sequences.” Griffin described “one part with triplets, with a flurry of microtones in little increments,” adding that Carrillo is “in love with pitch” and “kind of in love with scales.”