James Dalton

Boston Conservatory at Berklee

Size Does Matter: Microtonal Harmonic Distance as a Structural Determinant in Just Intonation

Historically certain aspects of just intonation such as the commas, dieses, and the need for more than one size for some common intervals, have been viewed as flaws in the system. Some theorists and composers have believed these to be insurmountable obstacles to its use, choosing various temperaments such as meantones, well-temperaments, and, more recently, microtonal equal divisions of the octave. Even Harry Partch, who championed the use of just intonation, limited the number of pitches in an effort to keep his palette manageable. More recently, some composers have chosen to make these issues into features of their compositions rather than avoid them.
In his ten quartets Johnston explores just intonation through a multiplicity of techniques, including serial procedures, control of tonality by prime limits, and a number of creative and personal approaches to form. In 2006 Johnston wrote of one of his fundamental artistic concerns: In more recent works I have been attempting to ask myself — and to answer in my compositions — such questions as: what would the music of Ars Nova and subsequent Renaissance polyphonic music have been like if not only sharps and flats but also the microtonal interval of the syntonic comma had been a conscious and deliberate part of a composer’s palette? That one I tackled in the first movement of String Quartet No. 9. In its third movement the question was: what if Beethoven had been observing just such niceties in composing a slow movement for a string quartet?
The syntonic comma and the issues surrounding it have been known and examined by theorists since antiquity. I will focus on commatic drift, the shifting up or down by a syntonic comma distance when certain passages are executed in just intonation by voices or flexible-pitch instruments. Throughout most of history this shift has not been an intentionally audible feature of Western music; rather, it has been studiously avoided. Johnston, however, makes commatic drift a structural and expressive device in the third movement of his ninth quartet. Lou Harrison’s concept of “Free Style” just intonation is recognized as a major contribution to music theory. He describes the technique of Free Style as composing “with whatever intervals one feels that he needs as he goes along” rather than arranging the intervals “into a fixed mode or gamut.” He called the latter “Strict Style.”
In his work, At the Tomb of Charles Ives, Harrison uses Free Style in combination with passages in Strict Style. He leads the listeners’ ears far from the tonic by microtonal means but uses the distance to help delineate form, though in a different way than Johnston does in his quartet.
While these approaches may have been impractical in the past, today we have the advantages of technology–and dedicated performers–to allow us to continue to explore in those directions.

Keywords: microtonal; just intonation.


American composer Jim Dalton is a professor of music theory at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. He was winner of the 1997 Toronto Camerata Competition. His works are performed by soloists and ensembles throughout the US, Canada, and in Europe, including venues such as Musique Nouvelles, Lunel, France; the Kansas Symposium of New Music; Sound: Scotland’s Festival of New Music; and Akademie der Tonkunst (Darmstadt, Germany). He has enjoyed recent premieres by Aaron Larget- Caplan, Carson Cooman, Sharan Leventhal, Stephen Altoft, Transient Canvas, and Scottish Voices. Dalton is an active performer (solo, chamber, orchestra) on guitar, mandolin, and other plucked instruments. He is a frequent guest lecturer in microtonality/just intonation, Irish music, and American music. He and his wife, soprano Maggi Smith-Dalton, perform frequently throughout the US, specializing in historically-informed performance of 19th and early 20th century American music.