Steve Lantner: An Introduction
While at Berklee, I was exposed to a lot of great music and spent a great deal of time listening to Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and Eric Dolphy. I absorbed it mostly through osmosis, since I didn't have the ears to really understand what it was they were doing. I just liked the way it sounded.
It was around this time that I started studying with Charlie Banacos, who is the person responsible for teaching me how to play the instrument, which was a long and difficult process. Most importantly Charlie taught me how to abstract the components of any style so as to incorporate them without merely copying.
After Berklee, I went to New England Conservatory and studied primarily with Joe Maneri. Far more influential than the microtonal work were the studies of harmony and counterpoint, for which he was singularly qualified in my view. I otherwise kept to myself at NEC, finding that most of coursework I took was an exercise in taxonomy, rather than what I thought would be good to learn, such as what makes great music great.
It was while I was studying with Joe Maneri that I was introduced to his son Mat, who I believe was nineteen at the time. We started playing together, and I introduced him to the drummer Randy Peterson, with whom I was also playing. We started playing all together, first with some others, than just as a trio. It was with this group Persona that I started playing the quarter-tone keyboards, which Mat owned from the previous incarnation of the band. We played together for a couple of years, but eventually disbanded. The difficulty we found was that our music was difficult to categorize for presenters. We were improvising, but weren't really playing jazz; we were playing contrapuntal contemporary chamber music, but we had a drummer which kept us out of the concert halls.
My first CD, Reaching , is a set of duos with Mat Maneri, basically doing the music we developed during this period. It was on this recording that I played both an acoustic piano and a digital piano, whose pitch I was able to change. The desire was to employ microtones, basically sixth tones (a 36-note octave), and this was the only means available to me at the time, as awkward as it was.
It was during my next recording Voices Lowered, that I first worked with Joe Morris. On this recording I use two acoustic pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. While I prefer the softer sound of the sixth tones as heard on Reaching, I will always prefer to play acoustic pianos, and incredibly, the recording studio agreed to have their second grand piano tuned downsomething I never expected them to do.
It was after Voices Lowered that I started playing just the piano again, leaving the microtones behind. I felt there was too much I couldn't do in that style that I wanted to do and I felt like I was hiding behind a novelty. What I wanted to do was play the piano in a larger world, and to play it as best as I could, and be compared to my peers. Since switching my focus back to the single keyboard, my understanding of the instrument has continued to grow, as has my love of it.
AAJ: For someone who may not be wholly familiar with classical music or music theory in general, describe the concept of "microtonal music, where this concept comes from, how it influences you...
SL: The standardized pitch language in western music is the equal tempered scale, which divides the octave into twelve equal pitches, like inches on a ruler. In the broadest definition, microtonality is the use of any pitch other than those twelve. I have come across three different schools of use for microtonality: borrowing pitches from non-western scales, the use of just intonation, which is in many respects a reaction to the impurities produced by our modern equal-tempered scale, and lastly those who use it to expand the number of notes in the equal tempered scale (examples being a 24, 36, or 72 note scale).
I was drawn to microtonality as a teenager, being drawn to explore places beyond what are considered the usual choices. I studied this more during my time at New England Conservatory under the direction of Joe Maneri. What I found most appealing were the harmonic possibilities it offered.