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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)
Richard Taruskin

Such a music was Julián Carrillo’s. Compared with Ives’s apparent caution, his stance with regard to microtonality was uncompromising indeed. It required an enormous investment in hardware, a new system of notation, and the pitiless sacrifice of the common practice toward which Ives showed such solicitude. It was the stance of true modernism, against which Ives’s more moderate posture can be viewed in relief.

Carrillo’s best known composition is the Preludio a Colón (“Prelude to Columbus”). It was composed in 1922, published (in 1944) in Henry Cowell’s New Music Quarterly, which had already served as showcase for Ives’s most radical music, and was even recorded in the 1940s by an ensemble called the Ensemble of the 13th Tone in Havana. It is scored for a chamber sextet consisting of a flute that has been adapted to produce quarter tones; a violin that (or rather a violinist who) is asked to play in quarter tones; a soprano who is asked to sing them (wordlessly); a harp that mainly plays pedal glissandos, some of them microtonal; a guitar with frets adapted to produce quarter tones; and an octavina (or guitarrón), a large bass guitar mainly used in Mexican urban popular music (mariachi) ensembles, with a long fingerboard fitted with frets that can produce eighth tones.

The very first sentence of Carrillo’s preface to the published score proclaims his music’s claim to fame: “This ‘Preludio a Colón’ is the first composition in the world written in 16th tones.” He proceeds immediately to an explanation of the notation, which substitutes numbers for the conventional notes on a staff, since the latter cannot show intervals smaller than the semitone (and is in any case designed with diatonic modes in mind). By letting zero equal C and dividing the tone by sixteen, it is possible to fix any pitch down to the sixteenth part of a tone. If C is zero, then D is 16 (0 + 16), and E (the tonic pitch of the Preludio) is 32 (0 + 16 + 16). Continuing by whole tones, F♯ will be 48 (32 + 16), F natural will be 40 (32 + 8 or 48 − 8), the quarter tone between E and F will be 36 (32 + 4 or 40 − 4), and the eighth tones on either side of the quarter tone will be 34 and 38. In other words, increments of 2 represent eighth tones, increments of 4 represent quarter tones, and so on. (Although the proud first sentence advertises sixteenth tones, they are apparently only theoretically available; pitch increments by 1 do not occur in the score.)

Why do the musical results seem so trivial? One could answer, Ivesianly, that the manner has utterly swamped the substance; but that presumptuously presupposes knowledge of the purported substance. Or one might notice how often the melodic lines are confined to ascending and descending scales and arpeggios. Having replaced a familiar musical idiom with an exotic one, avoiding compromise with common practice yet (apparently) unwilling to impose any arbitrary constraint on the novel material, the composer (evidently) contents himself with displaying its properties, affording the audience what amounts to an extended ear-training session.

Thus the piece opens (Ex. 5-19) with the octavina demonstrating a scale of eighth tones that (it seems) deliberately falls one-eighth short of a semitone, then proceeds to a demonstration by the violin of descending scale of quarter tones decorated with neighbors. Next, the guitar and octavina demonstrate an ascending and descending scale (or is it an arpeggio?) that proceeds by increments of 20, producing intervals of tone. Much later in the piece (16 measures from the end), the same pair of instruments performs a scale that proceeds by increments of 12, producing intervals of tone. This would seem to have interesting possibilities, since the interval in question is half of a minor third, which is half of a tritone, which is half of an octave. The resulting scale, which divides the octave into eight equal intervals, might be described as “equal-tempered octatonic,” a term that resonates with a lot of the French and Russian music written over the preceding several decades.

More Patent-Office Modernism

ex. 5-19 Julián Carrillo, Preludio a Colón

Nothing is done with it, however, except to repeat it a few bars later with doublings at the major and minor third. Seven bars before the end, the flute and guitar play scales in contrary motion that alternate increments of 20 and 12; that is, they proceed by alternating the two unusual intervals ( tone and tone) within an unequally divided major third. Carrillo seems to be feeling his way toward a new harmonic idiom, and taking his listeners with him step by step. But the composition as such, like a great deal of modernist or maximalist music that lacks (or shuns) a clear imaginal or expressive content, seems to devolve into a technical exercise, of interest only to the extent that the hearer is interested in the technique being exercised.

The situation obviously recalls Ortega y Gasset’s description, quoted in chapter 2, of modernist art as “art for artists.” One wonders whether the composer would have regarded as valid the benevolently intended reaction of one critic, reviewing the recording of the piece, who praised it not as a composition but as a collection of “weird and intriguing sounds, not unlike those one hears from insect life in a field on a hot summer afternoon.”55 One suspects, rather, that the composer would have regarded as valid only a critique of his music that addressed its technical premises. It would be difficult to imagine an attitude toward musical innovation further removed from that of Ives. But if Carrillo’s Preludio a Colón is the first unequivocal instance of Ortega’s “art for artists” that we have encountered, it will surely not be the last.


(55) David Hall, The Record Book: International Edition (New York: Oliver Durrell, Inc., 1948), p. 439.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005010.xml