Friday, December 02, 2011

Recognizing the Midtone

Berkeley, December 2, 2011—
SITTING IN A CAFÉ over a cappuccino I have no time to write here properly, but I want to call attention to an important paper by my friend Douglas Leedy, who as well as being a composer of significant and often beautiful music is a scholar of the first rank.

His area of specialization is of course music, and his knowledge of the subject extends far and wide. He has at various times and places been a player of French horn (including stints with symphony orchestras in Oakland, California, and Caracas, Venezuela); a keyboard player (chiefly harpsichord); a conductor (chiefly of music of the Baroque era); and of course a composer.

He made extensive visits, often amounting to residencies, in Poland, India, and Venezuela. He has taught at Reed College and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he founded the electronic music studio.

In recent years he has pursued an intensive study of ancient Greek, which has led him to conclude that among the early Greek poets, certainly through Pindar, poetry and music are essentially synonymous; and that our fuller understanding (or, better, awareness) of their work requires an attempt to reconstruct the sound of their sung poetry.

This has led him to a determined, highly disciplined, and to my limited understanding quite persuasive account, still evolving hence not yet publicly available, of exactly how to go about singing Homer today, accompanied by instruments readily available in our own time.

Alas, I can't share his Reconstructing Greek Music yet. I can however announce that an example of Leedy's thorough scholarship and gracefully persuasive writing on another subject is available.

Recognizing the Midtone addresses a musical interval important throughout history and across continents but lost to the familiar Western European "classical" tradition. Leedy presents an abstract of his essay:
Recognized as a melodic interval in the musical scales of the ancient Greeks, the three- quarter tone, or so-called “neutral” second, is a fundamental melodic interval, along with the tone and semitone of the Western diatonic scale, in present-day musical cultures that extend eastward in an arc from northwest Africa along the Mediterranean to Egypt and the Near East, the former Burma, much of southeast Asia, and Indonesia. For this interval, which is incommensurate with the tone and semitone (and which is, for example, considered to exert a powerfully expressive effect in classical Arab melody), the more autonomous name of midtone is here proposed, along with a parallel renaming of other “neutral” intervals. An overview of the use and significance of the midtone in a number of musical cultures is presented, with references to recordings, published studies, and musical notation, as well as to its occasional, exotic appearance in Western classical music.
I am pleased to have participated a bit in the presentation of this important essay, and I hope that its online publication will be followed by other papers of his.


Bill Alves said...

Thanks, Charles, for a well-deserved update on the valuable and beautiful work of Douglas Leedy. One quibble: Douglas founded the electronic music studio at UCLA, not at USC (where it was founded by Frederick Lesemann).

Charles Shere said...

I'll correct that. I'm embarrassed. I'm a northerner; USC and UCLA always confuse me.

David Sherr said...

UCLA is better, except for music. Doug's colleagues there included Joseph Byrd and Paul Chihara and a lot of angry older guys who were determined to get rid of them and succeeded, except for Paul.

I worked with Doug (in his French horn capacity) at the Cabrillo Festival and spent time with him when he lived in LA but lost track after that. Where is he now? David Sherr