Chicago is home to the Midwest Microfest. Founded by Aaron Krister Johnson and Chris Bailey, the organization is dedicated to the exploration and promotion of music that uses microtonality. As you might surmise from its name, microtones are tones that are "found in between" the tones that we have come to accept as the universe of tones for all Western music. Twelve tones to the octave and nothing more: C, C-sharp/D-flat, D, D-sharp/E-flat, E, F, F-sharp/G-flat, G, G-sharp/A-flat, A, A-sharp/B-flat, and B. If you look at this list, you might be wondering why a D-sharp would sound the same as an E-flat, etc. Well, to those composers who use microtones, they don't.
Needless to say, other cultures have used all kinds of tones for as long as there has been music. But in the Western Tradition, a decision was made long ago that tones that are mathematically precise in their distances from other tones sounded the best to our ears and so should be used, the rest discounted. Thank you Pythagoras. So, we ended up with a chromatic scale of twelve notes. But, using those twelve doesn't mean that a sound won't be produced if a violin student doesn't place his or her finger at the precise position. The question comes, "Why is that flubbed note any worse than the ones we're used to?" In a sense, that is what microtonality tries to answer - there isn't anything wrong with that note.
I found out about the Midwest Microfest by listening to NPR. You can find a link to an interview with co-founder Aaron Krister Johnson at their homepage linked above. In it he makes a statement that stuck with me and compelled me to write this entry. They were discussing the Second Viennese School's crisis with tonality and how Schoenberg and Berg felt that everything had been done already. Johnson said that Schoenberg's abandonment of tonality entirely was a direct response to the strict definition of tonality in use in Western music. If you are only allowed to use twelve notes in any combination, eventually you will run out of ideas, even if you make precise rows of twelve notes. What Johnson states convincingly is that instead of atonality, a different approach to Schoenberg's dilemma would be to expand tonality beyond the twelve. In the interview, Mr. Johnson mentions new compositions that have used as many as 18 or 19 tones to the octave. I think Schoenberg could have done something with that.
The only problem is that these new notes sound really off key, and our Westernized brains demand the tuning we are comfortable with. That is thanks to another discovery - equal temperament. If you don't know about that, just research and listen to the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach, and his adoption of that tuning scheme. There were others, and the one used in microtonal composition is called "pure tuning." Just listen to the interview for more details. The point is that if the sounds are there, and if there is a composer out there who can convincingly use them in a true piece of musical art, we just might be on the brink of a whole new universe of music.