The Just Intonation Guitar Works of Lou Harrison, James Tenney, and Larry Polansky
Compositions in alternative tuning systems constitute a significant repertoire in twentieth-century U.S. music. A closely-related group of composers further specialized in just intonation--a particular kind of tuning system that utilizes whole-number relationships between pitches, resulting in a near infinite variety of interval sizes. Composers writing in just intonation often had to design their own instruments (or adapt traditional ones) for the performance of the precise ratios they required; somewhat surprisingly, a substantial number of their works employ the guitar, an instrument most often associated with equal temperaments. The purpose of this dissertation is to document and analyze the range of musical results achieved by a selection of closely-related U.S. composers who brought the guitar from one intonational context to the other.
This study is based on archival research; organology; musical and tuning analysis; and oral histories. After establishing the relevant historical and critical precedents in the Introduction, the dissertation develops as a series of case studies. Chapter One analyses the genesis and legacy of a uniquely-tuned resophonic guitar, devised by Lou Harrison (1917-2003) for the composition of his last completed piece, Scenes from Nek Chand. After Harrison's death, more than a dozen additional composers were inspired to write for this organologically puzzling, yet beautifully resonant instrument. Chapter Two focuses on the guitar music of composer and theorist James Tenney (1934-2006), who created works of staggering harmonic complexity without the requirement for custom-made or refretted instruments. Chapter Three traces the influence of both approaches in the numerous guitar works of composer, performer, and theorist Larry Polansky (b. 1954), who was a student, colleague, and lifelong friend of both Harrison and Tenney. Finally, the concluding chapter assesses the current status of intonation experiments involving the guitar, documenting a scene that transcends the confines of the U.S. avant-garde into the domain of popular musics around the world.