Music Festivals

Microstock 11 Shows That Microtonality Engages the Emotions and Intellect

This Saturday at Cameron Church, avant-garde guitarist Neil Haverstick is holding Microstock 11, wherein he and Ned Evett, an associate of Joe Satriani, will demonstrate their own microtonal compositions in individual sets. Microtonality, or microtonal music, has been around since humans started making music. Generally speaking, a microtonal music is that which contains tiny intervals between notes, making it different from the twelve tone, equal-temperament scales we hear in a lot of popular or even classical music. Often the concept is associated with non-Western music, but it has long been a part of gospel, blues and jazz where the inflection and manipulation of standard use of the strings is employed with bends and pulling on strings with one hand as they are struck with a pick in the other.

Haverstick moved from St. Louis to Boulder in 1973, and to Denver in 1974. Since then, he has played a wide variety of musical styles. His fascination with microtonality came out of his listening to Howlin' Wolf and Jeff Beck, as well as his discovery of a 1967 album called Hard Rock From the Middle East, by a band called the Devil's Anvil. That album introduced him to Felix Pappalardi, who had done production work for Cream, and also introduced him to the oud. The latter is an ancient stringed instrument more commonly heard in Middle Eastern and North African music, where microtonality is as much of a feature as compound time. “The word 'microtone' is kind of misleading,” says Haverstick. “It means that the Western tone is the standard and we're going to have a smaller one. Go back a thousand years in Arab and Persian countries, [and] there was no name for it — it was just the tonal system they used.”

That splitting of notes into smaller, equal sections, often by ten, gives you the shift in sound that separates a Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie from fourth-generation imitators who merely play the proper notes while not really considering the nuance of the tone. “Blues is a deep form,” says Haverstick. “Lots of guys can play it, [but it's] deceptively simple, like country or any folk music. The rhythms are difficult.”

Haverstick recently completed a sort of definitive user-friendly book on microtonality called Harmonics and Spirals: The Code of Music, which you can order by contacting him through his website. It includes the revolutionary research of tuning-theory genius Ervin Wilson, and it's an intellectual dissection of microtonal theory — a tome Haverstick started researching in 1989. “You get into this field, dude, and these guys are eggheads supreme,” says Haverstick. “Incredible math skill, but there's not a lot of good composers or musicians in the field.”

For Haverstick, knowing that theory is not essential to creating respectable musical work that demonstrates the theory. And Haverstick demonstrated a deep knowledge of it, even though as a musician he allows his chops to augment his intuition rather than serve as the basis. For the performance at Cameron Church, Haverstick will perform songs written on fretless guitar, oud and a 22-tone guitar he invented. And it's not just for the music-theory nerds; listeners can expect something far more expressive than abstract. Recently a friend of Haverstick's composed the music for the film Southside With You — a cinematic version of Barack Obama's first date with Michelle Robinson — using a 32-tone baritone guitar.

“It's not intellectual microtones,” says Haverstick. “Albert King couldn't sit down and give you the ratios. It's more intuitive, more emotional.”

Microstock 11, featuring Ned Evett and Neil Haverstick, Saturday, November 12, 7:30 p.m., Cameron Church, 1600 South Pearl Street, 303-231-0063, donation requested.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.