Twelve Etudes in Extended Modality with Seven Solo and Duo Improvisations (2016)
Listen to “Magic Mode Etude in D” from The Magic Clavier, Book I
Noam Lemish, piano
W. A. Mathieu, piano
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The title The Magic Clavier is borrowed from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, a lavishly monumental work from the 1730s in which Bach displays the efficacy of his special tuning system for all twelve keys. The evolution from Well-Tempered to Magic is a rich story that mirrors the recent evolution of our musical ear.
Over the eons, human ears have somehow learned to recognize the subtle harmonies opening out from the energies of a chosen single tone. A family of tones arises from the parent tone, and we are able to sense how each family member has its own autonomy — its own harmonic personality. A small collection of such related tones is called a mode (Latin, modus, a limit). Yet through all this swirl of sound, the parent tone, called the tonic (Latin, tonus) attracts us as if it were our native-born home. And this yearning for home is the engine that drives tonal music. Since before memory, we’ve responded to the primal dynamics of these family relationships, and sung their verities to our lovers, our children, and our peers.
Not long ago, however, crucial events happened in our harmonic Eden: the telescope, the telegraph, the telephone, and television, to name a few. As the complexity of our music has mirrored the increasing complexity of our lives, we’ve learned to change home tones happily and often, a musical journey called modulation. Early on it became evident that such expansive practices resulted in an unmanageably large family of tones. With the appearance of fret boards (lutes, guitars) and keyboards (clavichords, organs, harpsichords, pianos), it became physically necessary for a limited number of tones to stand for all possible tones. Our ancient, pure tuning system needed to evolve into a more practical one.
We decided eventually to settle for only twelve tones within an octave. But which ones? There ensued much tampering with (or tempering of) the tones. An intrinsic result of all such solutions was a not-quite-equal spacing between successive tones of the scale. Sebastian Bach proposed one such temperament that he named “well-tempered,” a pun on human behavior in his language as well as ours. After generations of anguished bickering and grudging compromise, musicians decided finally on precisely equal spacing between the tones, such that the notes of the scale lined up like pickets in a fence. It was as if all the tones had been issued a government-approved uniform; personality was bleached from individuals so that they could march in step. The twelve uniform tones had to stand for the dozens formerly in use. Now, although nothing was exactly harmonious — in tune — most things did sort of work, and many new, intriguing possibilities emerged. For well over a century we’ve employed this system of “twelve-tone equal-tempered tuning” to play our modern music on our modern instruments.
As we learned to modulate our equal-tempered music farther and farther from home, we learned also to wrest from the new beast an amazing beauty. We discovered how its ambiguous harmonies could take on divergent meanings as a function of context, much as syllables do in spoken language (to, two, too, tutu). Context became the criterion of harmonic meaning. As musical contexts change, the cumulative shifts in meaning result in a kind of sonic shimmering, and a sense of supernatural possibility. From a brutal compromise has evolved a powerful magic.
I’ve composed two volumes of The Magic Clavier. In the first, the magic consists in how the twelve equal-tempered tones can take on the meaning of the thirty-or-so tones sensible from a given parent tone. “Extended modality” (the term in the subtitle) investigates how far the ear can travel from home without actually leaving it — a maximally expansive view of home. The possibilities that arise, taken all together, I call the Magic Mode. I’m not the first — more like the ten-millionth — composer to use these materials in one way or another. Aside from the compositions themselves, what is unique here is the presentation of a set of studies focused on the ambiguities intrinsic to a modern, nonmodulating musical language. There are twelve pieces, each in a different key, hundreds of clearly contextualized harmonic meanings — but only twelve tones within the octave to cover this vast territory. What could possibly account for such sustained, exalted deception in the ear of the listener? It must be some very clever, spooky magic. My book Harmonic Experience details, among its various discursions, a rigorous method behind this particular magic.
Over the decades I’ve coached students to acquire facility in the Magic Mode in each of the twelve keys, so that their music could learn, eventually, to modulate freely and sensibly among all of them. Recently I had the bright idea of carrying through the assignment myself, thus modeling the process. It was, of course, more difficult than I’d expected, but immensely instructive and gratifying. The Magic Clavier Book II (subsequently to be released as a separate album in 2018) demonstrates how these practices carry forward into modulation.
As his performances of The Magic Clavier and his piano improvisations attest, Noam Lemish is a refined musician with a deep understanding of harmony; I wrote these studies with the sound of his warm and sensitive pianism in my ear. As a fillip to the composed set, we’ve included Noam’s improvised solos, as well as some duos with me. Six of these are in a chosen key, perhaps highlighting the dialectic between composition and improvisation within the Magic Mode. In one, though, Noam, alone, roams free.
– W. A. Mathieu
At the age of 20, in 2002, I moved from Israel to California to study with Allaudin Mathieu. During eight wonderful and formative years, Allaudin became a most important musical influence in my life, and my teacher in the deepest sense. In 2012, when Allaudin asked if I would be interested in premiering and recording The Magic Clavier, I felt it as the best kind of gift, not only because I’d be entrusted with his music but also because it would allow me to live more deeply inside his musical world. As I was learning the work, the depth of the pieces unfolded continually, revealing ever more compositional and harmonic beauty along the way. Performing and recording The Magic Clavier has been one of the great joys and privileges of my musical life, and I’m deeply grateful for the experience. Onward to Book II!
– Noam Lemish
Noam Lemish is a pianist, composer, scholar, and educator. He has appeared in numerous performances across the US, Canada, Europe, Israel, and in Bhutan. His compositions include chamber, choral, piano, and numerous jazz works. Noam completed his BA in music at Sonoma State University in California. After a year of teaching music in Bhutan, he began graduate studies at the University of Toronto. While completing his master’s degree in composition he served as 2011–2012 composer-in-residence for “gamUT” – the University of Toronto Contemporary Music Ensemble, and is presently completing his doctoral studies in the jazz performance program. (Please visit noamlemish.com)