Category: In Print

In Conversation with Phil Freeman

An interview with the author of New York Is Now!: The New Wave of Free Jazz

Molly Sheridan: This was the first full-length book that you worked on. Why don’t we start by talking a little bit about how that went for you…

Phil Freeman: It went surprisingly easily because of the way the book was broken down into sections. My background is in magazine journalism, so I was comfortable working in a five to ten page format and I was able to expand that into each chapter. It was actually more helpful to do that. When I was writing features on these guys, I was always kind of bummed out that there was material that I wanted to include that I didn’t have space for. So this way I had the space. I could include as much or as little as I felt was important. The actual writing of the book for me was a welcome thing. The actual logistics of writing it were kind of a pain in the butt though.

Molly Sheridan: How do you mean?

Phil Freeman: I was on a very, very tight deadline and so for the majority of it I wrote a chapter a week. I would interview someone–and I was of course familiar with the music already–and I would just pound out the copy and then my editor and I would go over it. And it went very quickly which is probably why some parts of it read like a tirade. They are, sort of.

Molly Sheridan: Yeah, you got pretty blunt about things. Have you taken any flack for that since the book has been out?

Phil Freeman: Yeah, of course. The jazz world has its protectorates, you know, and there are certain people you’re never supposed to say bad things about, and there are certain things that are just sacred truisms. Some of them I think needed not necessarily debunking, because they’re certainly at least partly accurate, but maybe people aren’t quite as untouchable or infallible as their press agents would have you believe. And so it’s important to occasionally take a step back and look at the actual records and say, well, what is this really?

Molly Sheridan: Do you regret it at all, any of the things that you wrote?

Phil Freeman: I don’t regret anything that I said. I do think that I probably should have expanded on a few things just because I said some things and didn’t say other things. I probably came across harder on, for example, Cecil Taylor than I would have liked to, because I really think he’s an incredible musician. In the chapter on Matthew Shipp, I was attempting to emphasize the differences between the two of them and I think I probably did that a little too much at Cecil’s expense which doesn’t make any of what I said inaccurate but I probably should have expanded on it further. But you know, what can you do? Cecil doesn’t need me to salvage his reputation.

Molly Sheridan: When you were writing this book, who were you thinking of as the reader?

Phil Freeman: The ideal reader is somebody very similar to myself–an intelligent person who gets off on involving music, someone who doesn’t listen to music passively. For me that has involved listening to not only avant-garde jazz but also extreme heavy metal and also– I know your magazine is very classically oriented–I listen to a fair amount of 20th century classical. Elliott Carter and Morton Feldman are probably my favorite composers. So someone who listens to music that doesn’t involve passive reception. That’s the ideal audience–someone who doesn’t necessarily know much about this music but wants to. It is really an introductory guide.

Molly Sheridan: Is there anyone who should not read this book?

Phil Freeman: Yeah, people who are not really looking to expand themselves shouldn’t waste their time. People who come to music criticism to have their prejudices reinforced shouldn’t waste their time because obviously a book that talks about jazz from a heavy metal perspective is not for them.

Molly Sheridan: You are taking on a lot of things in the jazz establishment. How would you answer someone who maybe is irritated by something you wrote, asks who are you to speak so harshly about this?

Phil Freeman: I think it’s the fact that I’m a new guy. I’m an outsider. That permits me to speak. The expression I guess is can’t see the forest for the trees–you know the jazz establishment is too close to what they’re covering and they’re too careerist. And it’s an understandable posture. I mean you can’t be a magazine publisher and be a discerning critic because you’ve got a magazine to put out every month and it’s got to have a hundred pages of material every month. I recognize that. So the trick is to employ a whole bunch of discerning critics, each of whom will come to you with one thing, but instead they sort of lay back and just cover the usual suspects every month because it’s easy. My argument is that I’m in a better position to speak because I’m staying on the outside. I mean there are a couple of jazz magazine editors who won’t return my phone calls anymore, but there are other jazz magazines that I wouldn’t want to write for. And I don’t listen to enough mainstream jazz to really comment that much. It’s not my territory, and it’s not my territory as a freelancer. I cover the avant-garde and I cover metal. Those are my two things. I write for a couple rock magazines and I write for one jazz magazine. I write for Jazziz fairly regularly. I did one piece for Down Beat and then the book came out and [the editor] sent me this raging email that basically said, “You’ve burned this bridge, buddy.”

I’m pretty comfortable with my position in the jazz world. What happened was the book came out, there was a whole bunch of “Who is this punk kid to tell us anything,” and then a few months later the book engendered enough debate that now I’m viewed as someone that the other jazz critics have to take seriously, whether they agree with me or not, because my opinions are public. So now I see some of the people that I have violently disagreed with at public events and they’re polite to me because in the jazz world I’m a celebrity writer, or on a super, super minor level I’m a writer of some prominence. Just by virtue of the amount of attention that was paid to the book I have to be recognized. They can’t just shrug me off. So there’s a certain amount of automatic reflective politeness that comes into play.

Molly Sheridan: Any plans to write another one?

Phil Freeman: Yeah, my next book is going to be about metal, but it’s a wide-ranging book. It’s not going to be an analysis of specific musicians the way this one was. The second book is going to be sort of an analysis of some of the larger philosophical, social, and political issues surrounding metal. Because it’s a very class-based music, basically lower class whites in America and Latinos. There’s also a substantial Latino audience for heavy metal.

Molly Sheridan: Do you think that it will be harder to write this one, then, since you are a lot closer to the people involved in the industry?

Phil Freeman:
No, I’ve kept my distance as a rock critic, too. That’s one of the good things. I deal with a lot of publicists for metal bands and things like that, but none of them actually know what I look like because I deal with them all on the phone and by email. Even when I show up where their bands are playing they don’t know if I’m really there or not. No one is going to get up in my face at a club or anything.

Molly Sheridan: Right. You have to love print journalism. To finish things up then, there’s an extensive recommended listening list at the back of the book. So, playing the desert island game, if you had to pick five for someone who comes across the book with very little knowledge and says, wow, I want to hear some of this…

Phil Freeman: If I had to pick, say, a half dozen records that people should take away from the book:

Those are the records that are really sort of life changing.


Phil Freeman has been a freelance music critic since 1995, writing for newspapers and magazines such as the Aquarian Weekly, Alternative Press, Magnet, Jazziz, Don Beat, Juggernaut, and Metal Hammer. He is passionate about avant-garde jazz, but loves hardcore and death-metal as well, and writes about all of them with equal understanding and affection. His profiles of David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp in Juggernaut magazine were among the first articles to bridge the gap between free jazz and extreme metal communities. This is his first book. </p

Temperament: The Idea that Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle

An excerpt from the book by Stuart M. Isacoff. Reproduced here courtesy of the author and Alfred A Knopf, publisher.

Read an interview with Author Stuart Isacoff

Chapter 14: Coda

Hefts of the moving world at innocent gambols silently
rising, freshly exuding,
Scooting obliquely high and low.
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

The change was gradual. Mean-tone tuning continued to be used on many organs throughout the nineteenth century; for acoustical reasons, equal temperament’s impure thirds sound much coarser on organ pipes than they do on piano strings. And piano technicians continued to face practical difficulties in achieving an equal division of the octave; there were some who still found it undesirable.

In truth, equal temperament is actually impossible to attain even on today’s pianos. A modern piano’s strings are in a condition of permanent out-of-tuneness known as inharmonicity. Such factors as stiffness, width, temperature, humidity and rust all exert an influence in this direction; a further complication arises from the fact that the various materials used in the construction of musical instruments each contribute different resonating properties. All these stand in the way of a perfect tuning. Indeed, inside a contemporary grand piano there are places where a single hammer strikes two or three strings simultaneously in order to amplify the sound of a single tone, and those paired strings never produce a true unison—the sound is fuller, and more characteristic of a piano, when they don’t.

Nevertheless, with Rameau’s help, the temperament wars, after centuries of struggle, had essentially reached an end. Despite the technical challenges that remained, equal temperament settled in as the philosophical ideal. And it made all the difference in the world.

Over the next centuries, Beethoven and Schubert, Liszt and Chopin continued to dissolve the limits of musical form, producing art that would not have been possible with any other tuning. At the turn of the twentieth century, impressionists and expressionists took advantage of equal temperament’s harmonic pliancy, painting musical portraits free of references to a particular tonal center. By 1923 Arnold Schoenberg began using his twelve-tone system of composition with the aim of eliminating the distinction between consonance and dissonance altogether. Schoenberg put an end to the very idea of natural law in music. Each tone in his system became an equal entity governed only by the hierarchy imposed by an individual composer.

The Steinway overstrung piano
Photo Credit: Steinway & Sons

The piano evolved and proliferated. By the mid–nineteenth century, there were more than three hundred piano makers in England alone. In 1868, Paris boasted more than twenty thousand piano teachers. Soon, the piano craze spread to other regions of the world—brought by covered wagons to log cabins on America’s western frontier, and by camels to Arabia. As the twentieth century began, Americans were buying more than 350,000 pianos a year. And they were all tuned, more or less, in equal temperament.

Iron frames replaced wooden ones, creating a more brilliant instrument, and this was followed by other innovations. In the United States, Steinway & Sons introduced the overstrung square piano in 1855 (a new, more practical design in which the bass strings cross over the treble), and in 1859, the overstrung grand. Within years, this single piano maker would garner more than 120 patents for changes and improvements to the old designs, creating an instrument with a power and nuance unimagined in the eighteenth century.

Today’s piano is a miraculous machine: a colossus of cast iron and wood—filled with screws, hammers, and felt—weighing nearly a thousand pounds. Its frame sustains twenty-two tons of tension exerted on its strings—the equivalent of twenty medium-sized cars. Yet it can respond to the slightest whisper of a pianist’s touch, producing a sound as warm and caressing as the human voice. Concertgoers the world over still flock to hear its magical sounds, unaware of the long controversy that once brewed over the way its tones are arranged, in twelve equal steps within each octave. For most, the idea that they might be formulated another way has simply never arisen.

Yet the temperament debate never completely disappeared. Even in the twenty-first century, a sense of intrigue and excitement over the ancient tunings keeps the topic burning with partisan heat. It is particularly fertile ground for early-music specialists, of course. But there is also plenty of action in other quarters.

Musicologist Ernest G. McClain, in books such as The Myth of Invariance, probes what he sees as hidden musical meanings in the texts of the world’s religions, from the Rig-Veda and the Egyptian Book of the Dead to the Book of Revelation. McClain, in his retirement years, invests a tremendous amount of time and effort pursuing what he calls “Davidic musicology” (named for the biblical David). “It’s a little astonishing to attribute temperament theory to someone who lived in 1000 b.c.e.,” he admits. But he cites evidence in the Bible, in the Sumerian Kings list, and in Babylonian legend of a very early awareness of the mathematical calculations used for a range of musical proportions. “The oldest stories we have of gods and heroes are really about music,” he says.

Contemporary composers who place temperament at the core of their work include Lou Harrison—who has employed the mean-tone tunings of Johann Philipp Kirnberger, a student of Bach who was decidedly against equal temperament—and distinguished composer and scholar Easley Blackwood, a longtime professor at the University of Chicago. Blackwood has written music using a variety of equal temperaments, dividing the octave up into from thirteen to twenty-four slices. These “microtonal” works are stunningly strange—sometimes edgy and dark, at other times brightly boisterous, often haunting and otherworldly.

A flourishing circle of just-intonation advocates with ties to Eastern mysticism includes clusters of adherents in New York and California. One is W. A. Mathieu, whose mammoth book Harmonic Experience explores music’s inner workings and its resonance with human experience. Mathieu, who first became known as a jazz musician, studied with Blackwood, whom he credits with imparting important mathematical insights into the nature of temperament. “Then I heard Northern Indian music,” he relates, “and found in it a kind of purity that I longed for but couldn’t achieve or understand.” He studied under Indian master musician Pandit Pran Nath, became friends with innovative composer Terry Riley, and developed his own approach to the similarities and differences between pure and equal-tempered tunings.

“Each one is a complete universe unto itself,” he explains, “but they own mutual territory. Equal temperament is not a substitute for just intonation, just as adulthood is not a substitute for childhood. You could say that just intonation is like the pure child that lives inside every equal-tempered adult.” In his view (and it comes close to Rameau’s), the tonal world of equal temperament brings with it the kind of ambiguity that manages to fool the ears into thinking they are hearing pure ratios. But, says Mathieu, we are actually built to resonate with the pure musical proportions. “Human beings don’t have to know about just intonation to understand
it,” he says. “We already are it.”

New York pianist and composer Michael Harrison also studied with Pandit Pran Nath, and worked extensively with composer La Monte Young, becoming the first person besides Young to perform that composer’s six-hour just-intonation work, The Well-Tuned Piano. Harrison converted a seven-foot grand piano into an instrument he calls the “harmonic piano,” which affords him, with the shift of a pedal, the ability to play up to twenty-four different notes per octave. There are also devices for controlling which strings are free to vibrate sympathetically. In 1991 he used this instrument to record an album, From Ancient Worlds.

One cold evening at the end of November 1999, I was invited to Harrison’s brownstone for a private recital. Earlier in the month, he had participated in a festival in Rome as one of four composer/pianists in the minimalist mode—a style of writing in which brief, repeating melodic fragments undergo a process of change over time, like precious stones turned slowly under a light. The other pianists on the program were Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Charlemagne Palestine. The morning after his recital, Harrison awoke with a new tuning in mind—he calls it his “revelation tuning.” It had come to him clearly, like a revelation, he reported. When he returned home and tried it on his harmonic piano, he found the results extraordinary: “It creates undulating waves of pulsating sonic energy,” he later related. “It is a tuning of so many beautiful sounds that every time I play it I discover new harmonic regions and feel like an explorer.” The secret, he revealed, was the inclusion in the tuning of three commas—those tiny “wolf” intervals that are usually avoided as too sour. He had found a way to weave them into a unique tapestry of sound.

The private recital at his home was an opportunity for Harrison to play his new tuning for a few friends and musicians, including composer Philip Glass. Glass, an icon of contemporary music whose credits include several operas, such as Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, and collaborations with poet Allen Ginsberg and pop artists Paul Simon, David Byrne, and Laurie Anderson, arrived with a retinue. We all shared some wine and small talk before descending to a basement room, the locus of which was a glistening, ebony harmonic piano. The floor was strewn with cushions, and we each quickly settled onto one. Glass found a couch at the far end of the room and assumed a cross-legged position. And then, in the dim light, the music began.

It sounded like a jumble at first—a drone, or a room full of drones. Then, from within the din, high-pitched sounds seemed to rise and float toward the ceiling. The deeper Harrison played into the bass end of the instrument, the more he seemed to free an angelic choir above. Were these sympathetic vibrations? I wondered. Overtones? The clashing of strings just slightly out of tune? I couldn’t tell.

Now the texture changed. The pianist’s fingers engaged in a furious rhythmic interplay, and a groaning mass of sound in the low end of the piano gave birth to more phantoms above. Musical concords seemed to emerge and shake hands above the fray.

After a considerable amount of time, the music stopped. No one moved. Someone on the floor said, “My whole body is resonating.” The piano was silent, but we were all still spinning in a musical vortex. I looked at Glass on the couch; his eyes were closed. My mind wandered to the lamps in the room, the decorations on the walls. . . .

And then I thought fleetingly of Renaissance seekers like Bartolomeo Ramos and Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. I remembered the kabbalistic masters who described the sympathetic resonance between what is above and what is below. I contemplated the curious story of Huai Nan Tzu, his temperament theories and his ascent to heaven.

And I once again recalled the latest trend in modern physics, known as string theory, which holds that everything in the universe is composed not of atoms, but of infinitely thin vibrating strings—filaments that wriggle and oscillate incessantly in a great cosmic dance. What were once described as different elementary particles are, say physicists, really just different notes in an enormous celestial symphony.

And I thought: Perhaps Pythagoras was right after all.

Stuart M. Isacoff, a recipient of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music, is a pianist, a composer, and the editor in chief of Piano Today magazine. He has contributed to The New Grove Dictionary of American Music and has written for The New York Times. He lives in Bergen County, New Jersey.

Six Questions with the Author: Stuart Isacoff on Temperament

Stuart Isacoff
Photo courtesy Alfred A. Knopf
  • Excerpt from Temperament: The Idea That Solved Music’s Greatest Riddle

Stuart M. Isacoff, a recipient of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music, is a pianist, a composer, and the editor in chief of Piano Today magazine. He has contributed to The New Grove Dictionary of American Music and has written for The New York Times. He lives in Bergen County, New Jersey.

Molly Sheridan: To start out, what made you want to write a book on this topic in the first place?

Stuart M. Isacoff: I had come across the topic of ancient keyboard tunings on a number of occasions during the course of my work as a writer and editor of Piano Today. For example, I interviewed composer Lou Harrison for The New York Times when his Piano Concerto was being premiered in New York by Keith Jarrett and The American Composers Orchestra. At the time, Lou spoke a great deal about his affection for a tuning by Kirnberger, a student of J.S. Bach. But every time I looked into the subject I ran headlong into a series of mathematics treatises. I knew that people had fought very heatedly over this subject, but I couldn’t find the source of the heat.

Molly Sheridan: Why all the violence, I wondered—after all, some people went so far as to destroy each other’s instruments and reputations during the course of these tuning disputes—when the issue seemed to rest on a lot of dull minutia about pitch relationships? I knew there had to be a human drama behind the history of this seemingly arcane subject.

Stuart M. Isacoff: As it turned out, the more I looked into it, the more I was drawn into a human saga that embraced art, music, philosophy, religion, science, and more.

Molly Sheridan: Can you talk a bit about the process of writing the book—the research involved, the amount of time, surprise discoveries?

Stuart M. Isacoff: The process involved educating myself thoroughly in many areas I had never pursued before. For example, to learn about the roots of musical consonance, I had to study the theoretical contributions of Pythagoras. But to truly understand Pythagoras (including what motivated him) I had to immerse myself in the ways of ancient Greece. Similarly, to understand the cultural atmosphere in which musical temperaments came to the fore, I had to learn about Renaissance philosophy, the development of perspective in painting, and the changing view of planetary motion in the time of Kepler and Galileo. This process repeated itself throughout the writing of the book, which in the end encompasses a cultural history of the western world from the 6th century B.C.E. to the late 18th century (with a coda covering our current era). It took about four years, and I had to read some 300 books and articles to complete the project.

As for surprises, there is one on nearly every page of the finished product. I am now convinced that art and music developed in exactly the same ways in every period—that musical temperament, for example, is the equivalent of perspective in painting. For me, that was a surprise. I stumbled on connections that amazed me: I found parallels, for example, between the ideas of Pythagoras, the philosophy of Giordano Bruno (who was burned at the stake by the Church for heresy), and the radical, pro-equal temperament musical ideas of Galileo’s father, Vincenzo. I also learned about Isaac Newton‘s belief that the natural tones of the musical scale match the distances between the colors of a rainbow, and probed his earnest attempt to settle the temperament argument (which ended in failure). I watched Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who managed to extend his anti-authoritarian social theories into the realm of music, gain the support of many eighteenth-century scientists in his fight against Rameau, the greatest advocate of equal temperament in his day. Following the trail of musical temperaments into every corner and side alley was like being on a mind-expanding roller coaster.

Molly Sheridan: Like politics and religion, there seems to have been an intense passion surrounding the temperament argument (enough to write a whole book about) that crossed religious and scientific disciplines. Do you think a musical argument could ever take on that scope today?

Stuart M. Isacoff: I think the closest we come is in the fight between those who write and appreciate 12-tone music and those who don’t. Arnold Schoenberg attempted to eliminate the distinction between consonance and dissonance—concepts that served as the foundation for hundreds of years of western musical composition. Those concepts are based on the idea of “natural law” in music.

Schoenberg felt he could substitute his own will for nature’s. And that philosophical argument very much mirrors the kind of dispute that took place over the introduction of equal temperament.

Molly Sheridan: Who do you expect to read this book? What audience were you writing it for?

Stuart M. Isacoff: I was writing for an audience that likes an intellectual adventure story. Basically, I wrote a book that I would have enjoyed reading if someone else had done it. There were, of course, some underlying messages I wanted to convey, such as my point of view that every facet of life’s experience is connected to every other facet. I think most writing about music fails to take that larger context into account. And I also wanted to get across to as many people as possible the idea that music is so much more than mere entertainment. It is as deep and vast as the universe itself.

Molly Sheridan: Have you played around with various tunings much yourself?

Stuart M. Isacoff: Very little. Only in the course of doing research for the book.

Molly Sheridan: You mention several composers working today using different tunings. What do you think the future
holds for piano music using these variations? Would you expect more composers to be exploring this area?

Stuart M. Isacoff: In some ways, the modern piano is designed for equal temperament, and I love the sound of it. But there is plenty of room for experimentation. Michael Harrison is doing some amazing things on his “harmonic piano,” using tunings and temperaments of his own design. Other composers, such as Easley Blackwood, are writing fascinating music for equal temperaments that divide the octave into many more than 12 parts. And I know there are many other musicians working in the area of microtonal tuning. Especially with the proliferation of inventive software, I think there will be even more exploration in this area. Indeed, as the tonal vs. serial fight loses steam, temperament may be the next big thing.