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The following is the Introduction from The Just Intonation Primer by David B. Doty © 1993, 1994 The Just Intonation Network 535 Stevenson Street San Francisco, CA 94103

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... The Twentieth-Century Just Intonation Revival


Although most composers were sufficiently intimidated by the weight of eighteenth and nineteenth century musical practice, fortunately a few were not. The first twentieth century composer to make a serious commitment to Just Intonation and the person primarily responsible for the revival of Just Intonation as a viable musical resource was Harry Partch (1901-1974), the iconoclastic American composer, theorist, instrument builder, dramatist, and musical polemicist. When Partch began his compositional career, no one, to the best of my knowledge, was making music in Just Intonation. Beginning with tentative experiments in the mid-1920's, and continuing over a span of 50 years, Partch developed a system of Just Intonation with 43 tones to the octave, built a large ensemble of predominantly stringed and percussion instruments to play in this tuning system, composed and staged six major musical theater pieces, along with numerous lesser works, and produced and distributed his own records. In 1947, Partch published his Genesis of a Music, an account of his musical theories, instruments, and compositions that became the bible for subsequent generations of Just Intonation composers.

Whereas in previous centuries the goal of most intonational theorists was to find the ideal or most practical tuning for a culturally predominant scale, such as a major, minor, or chromatic scale, the approach of twentieth century composers and theorists working with Just Intonation, as exemplified by Partch, has been quite different. The goal of these artists has been, in most cases, to discover or create a tuning or tunings that best served their own particular musical goals, whether for a single composition or for a lifetime's work, rather than one that could serve the needs of the culture as a whole.


From when he began work in the mid-1920's until the mid-1950's, Partch was the only composer in the United States doing significant work in Just Intonation. In the 50's, Partch was joined by Lou Harrison (b. 1917) and Ben Johnston (b. 1926). Harrison first learned about Just Intonation from Partch's Genesis of a Music. He composed his first major work in Just Intonation, Four Strict Songs for Eight Baritones and Orchestra, in 1954. Although, unlike Partch, he does not work exclusively in Just Intonation, Harrison has written a large body of work in various just tunings. He is probably best known for the creation, in conjunction with his companion William Colvig, of a number of justly tuned American gamelan (Indonesian-style tuned percussion ensembles), and for the body of music he has composed for this medium, but he has also composed just music for a great variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles, often mixing elements from European and Asian musical traditions. Through his teaching at San Jose State University and Mills College in California and his extensive lecturing, he has introduced many younger composers to Just Intonation.

Ben Johnston discovered the possibility of Just Intonation early in life, when he attended a lecture on Helmholtz at age eleven. Later, he, like Harrison, discovered Partch's Genesis of a Music. Johnston contacted Partch and for a six month period in 1950 was his student and apprentice in the remote California coastal town of Gualala. Johnston began composing seriously in Just Intonation in 1959. Unlike Partch and Harrison, Johnston's work in Just Intonation employs mainly Western musical forms and instrumental combinations. His earlier work, through the early 1970's, generally combines extended microtonal Just Intonation with serial techniques. His later work tends to be simpler and more tonal, but still uses serialism at least occasionally. Johnston's works include eight string quartets in Just Intonation, and numerous vocal and chamber ensemble pieces. He is also the inventor of a system of notation for extended Just Intonation that is used in this primer.


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 (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.


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, [David Doty jh], Dean Drummond, Glenn Frantz, Kraig Grady, Michael Harrison, Ralph David Hill, Jim Horton, 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 non-profit 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 JUST INTONATION PRIMER

Do you want to start making music in Just Intonation, but don't know where to begin? Or do you just want to find out what all the talk is about? The Just Intonation Primer will give you the information you need, in a succinct and readable form. With 78 pages of text and over 50 charts and diagrams, The Just Intonation Primer explains the essential concepts of Just Intonation in terms that practicing composers and musicians will understand.


David B. Doty is a composer, author, instrument builder, and synthesist, and a leading authority on Just Intonation. He is a founding member of the Just Intonation Network and has edited the network's journal, 1/1, since its inception in 1984. He has worked exclusively in Just Intonation since 1975, composing primarily for American Gamelan and MIDI systems.


The Just Intonation Primer is available exclusively from the Just Intonation Network. The primer is offered free with a new membership in the network ($15.00 U.S./$17.50 foreign/$25.00 institutional), which also includes four issues of the network's journal, 1/1, and discounts on books and recordings from The Just Intonation Store. The primer is priced at $6.00 for current Just Intonation Network members and $8.00 for the general public, plus postage and handling (U.S.: $1.50./Canada and Mexico: $3.50/All others: $5.00)

Make Checks Payable to: The Just Intonation Network 535 Stevenson Street San Francisco, CA 94013

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