As listeners’ ears become more receptive to microtonal music, the Beyond Microtonal Music Festival shows what the genre can offer

By February 25, 2020 No Comments


By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer

In the five years since Music on the Edge presented its first Beyond Microtonal Music Festival, the perception of that music has evolved. Unlike typical Western music, which is built on a scale of 12 notes, microtonal music often features a wider number of pitches, from 17 up to 43 notes, depending on the scale. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the music will sound harsh to Western ears. Composers can evoke more color and emotion in a piece by drawing on a wider array of sounds. 

At the same time, the “Beyond” in the third festival’s title implies that this approach to composition has become more than just an experimental subgenre. “It’s becoming more of the musical language in general in new music. People don’t even think of it as microtonal anymore,” says Mathew Rosenblum, co-director of Music on the Edge and chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Music Department. “It’s just sort of embedded in what we think of as new music language. But we want to shine the light on that aspect of things and pieces that use microtonality as the basis for what it’s about.”

The festival includes international composers and performers as well as an array of Pittsburgh ensembles such as NAT 28 and Alia Musica Pittsburgh. MikroEnsemble, from Finland, utilize accordions and keyboards equipped to play quarter tones, the notes that their Western counterparts can’t produce. Rosenblum mentions FretX Guitar Duo as an act which can challenge expectations. Their 20-minute piece by Helmut Lachenmann “is kind of noisy and a very interesting piece. Is it microtonal? Yeah. But It’s what comes out as a result of playing an instrument in a non-standard way,” says Rosenblum.

Concerts take place at the New Hazlett Theater, the Andy Warhol Museum and the Frick Fine Arts Building in Oakland. The latter event is a free, three-hour matinee while the other two events are ticketed. The theater concerts also feature video projections, which can enhance the impact of the music. A symposium session also takes place at the University of Pittsburgh’s Music Building. 

Rosenblum says this convergence of local, national and international performers is due in part to connections made at the previous Microtonal festivals. “We kind of lit the fire involving a lot of the groups in the festival. Some of them have commissioned composers that they met on our [2018] festival,” he says. 

While other cities have hosted festivals showcasing microtonal music, the scope of the one in Pittsburgh is making it one of the more prominent ones in the country, which suits Rosenblum. “I really wanted to develop this thing so Pittsburgh becomes a hub for this kind of activity,” he says.  

BEYOND 2020: MICROTONAL MUSIC FESTIVAL. Friday, Feb. 28 through Sunday, March 1.

Various locations. Visit for a complete schedule. 412-624-7529

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