La Monte Young

In the 1960's and 70's, interest in Just Intonation continued to slowly increase. La Monte Young (b. 1935) began working with Just Intonation in the early 1960's in the context of his instrumental/vocal performance group, The Theater of Eternal Music. In this ensemble, Young developed the practice of performing long static compositions based on selected tones from the harmonic series, played on various combinations of amplified instruments and voices. In 1964, Young began work on his semi-improvisational, justly-tuned piano composition, The Well-Tuned Piano, which can be from five to seven hours in duration, and which continues to evolve at the time of this writing. Young is also known for The Dream House, a living environment in which a number of electronically generated, harmonically related tones are sustained over a period of months or years.

Terry Riley

Terry Riley (b. 1935), who was a member of Young's Theater of Eternal Music at various times in the early 1960's, is known primarily as a keyboard composer/improvisor. He is perhaps best known as the composer of the early minimalist piece In C (1964), which is not explicitly a Just Intonation piece, although it has sometimes been performed this way. In the 1970's, Riley performed extensively on a modified electronic organ tuned in Just Intonation and accompanied by tape delays. More recently, he has been performing his work on justly tuned piano and digital synthesizers, and composing for other ensembles, especially the string quartet.

The Current Scene

In the late 1970's and early 1980's the number of composers working with Just Intonation began to increase significantly, due in part to the development of affordable electronic instruments with programmable tuning capabilities and in part to the coming of age of the post-World-War-II generation of composers. The achievements of Partch, Harrison, Johnston, Young, and Riley made it evident to these younger composers that Just Intonation was a valuable resource for composers of diverse styles and tastes, and the availability of electronic instruments with programmable tuning made it possible for the first time for composers to experiment with a variety of different tuning systems without having to invent and build novel instruments or to train performers in unusual playing techniques. Changing the pitches available on a digital synthesizer simply means changing the data values in a tuning table, or switching to a different table. If the instrument and its operating software have been designed to facilitate such changes, either of these functions can be performed virtually instantaneously by a computer running appropriate software. Hence, a conventional keyboard can be used to play a virtually unlimited number of different pitches. This capability has, for all intents and purposes, eliminated the condition that first brought temperament into being: the necessity of restricting the number of pitches used in music to the number of keys available on an affordable, playable keyboard.

Among the many composers currently doing significant work in Just Intonation are William C. Alves, Lydia Ayers, Jon Catler, Dean Drummond, Glenn Frantz, Kraig Grady, Michael Harrison, Ralph David Hill, David Hykes, Douglas Leedy, Norbert Oldani, Larry Polansky, Robert Rich, Daniel Schmidt, Carter Scholz, Jules Siegel, James Tenney, and Erling Wold. The variety of musical styles represented by this group is extremely diverse, and the use of Just Intonation may be the only feature they all share. Although more than half work primarily or exclusively with electronic media, they also include exponents of Partch's tradition of acoustic instrument building (Drummond and Grady), Lou Harrison's American gamelan movement (Schmidt), Young's and Riley's improvisational keyboard styles (M. Harrison), a harmonic singer (Hykes), and even a justly tuned rock guitarist (Catler).

The Purpose of this Publication

Although the technical barriers to the composition and performance of significant music in Just Intonation have been considerably reduced in recent years, barriers of another type remain largely in place, namely the weight of custom and the lack of accessible information on principles of Just Intonation. The colleges, universities, and conservatories continue to teach a curriculum based on music of the common-practice era, in which alternate tunings are unlikely to receive more than a passing mention. With the exception of the fortunate few who find themselves in institutions with a microtonal composer or theorist on the faculty, students who develop an interest in these matters are unlikely to receive much support or encouragement, much less practical instruction, from the academic establishment. Such students, if they persist, generally find it necessary to educate themselves, and in the process often have to reinvent or rediscover principles and structures that are well known to more experienced composers.

In an attempt to remedy this situation, in the fall of 1984, I and my associates in the experimental music ensemble Other Music, in consultation with a number of other West Coast Just Intonation composers and theorists, founded The Just Intonation Network. The Just Intonation Network is a nonprofit group fostering communication among composers, musicians, instrument designers, and theorists working with Just Intonation. Its primary goal is to make information about the theory and practice of composition in Just Intonation available to all who want or need it. The primary method for distributing this information is the network's journal, 1/1, the only current periodical devoted primarily or exclusively to Just Intonation. For the past nine years I have served as editor of this publication.

A survey of Just Intonation Network members taken a few years ago revealed that more than half were newcomers to the study of Just Intonation who found a significant portion of the articles in 1/1 over their heads. It was with the goal of assisting these readers that The Just Intonation Primer was conceived. The Just Intonation Primer, as its title indicates, is not intended to provide a complete or comprehensive course in the theory and practice of Just Intonation. Its purpose, rather, is to provide the reader with the basic information and skills necessary to read and comprehend intermediate and advanced texts such as articles in 1/1 or Harry Partch's Genesis of a Music, and to prepare the reader to begin independent study and composition.

The primer is intended for readers with at least an elementary knowledge of common-practice Western music theory, including the basic terminology of intervals, chords, and scales, and the fundamentals of harmony. The reader is not assumed to have any prior knowledge of Just Intonation or of alternative tunings in general, nor is the reader expected to be a mathematician or number theorist. The only math required to understand this book is basic arithmetic, in combination with some simple procedures explained in Chapter Three. An inexpensive scientific calculator will prove useful for comparing the sizes of intervals.