Performing Microtonal Music With Jon Catler


I once played 3 shows with microtonal artist Jon Catler from New York City. I’ve always been an enthusiast of new music (a convenient euphemism for words like “experimental”, “avant-garde”, or simply “weird”), so this was a great opportunity to perform some mind bending music especially with someone as established and talented as Jon. That downtown music scene in NYC has a rich history of new music which gained notoriety in the 1960s with Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, The Velvet Underground, and later with Elliott Sharp, Jon Zorn, Glenn Branca, Pauline Oliveros, and of course Jon.

All of the compositions that we performed were based upon just intonation tuning. A simple explanation is that these musical octaves are not based upon our normal ‘tempered’ scale of 12 notes. These octaves are more “pure” to the naturally occurring harmonic series, and so the notes (or microtones) that occur between say, a C and C# are used. To play these microtones, Jon designs his own guitars and his fret board is not for the faint of heart:

 Photo by Joe Rosen Photo by Joe Rosen

The guitar’s tuning system starts with the familiar 12-fret octave in place. Then it adds 12 more frets in between at the natural harmonic points. This now gives that same 12-tone octave the potential for 36 different pitches.

Jon flew out for the shows with his rest of his band (sans a drummer of course): Meredith Borden (vocals), Neville Green (bass), and David Beardsley (microtonal electric guitar). Everyone was great at their craft, so the music came together real quick.

There were actually two separate bands that performed. The first was the NYC Evolution Ensemble, and we played at UC Riverside and later a TRIBE gig hosted by David Raven. For these performances, we played one microtonal music composition by Jon entitled “EVOLUTION”. It’s an intense piece written in 4 movements and lasts about 45 minutes. At times the piece intimates John Cage, Phillip Glass, and other experimental and minimalist composers, but what sets Jon’s music apart from them is his depth of composition and, of course, his instrument: A microtonal electric guitar. Jon’s a master of his instrument and plays with such a command, such effortlessness, that you easily forget that he’s playing a strangely tuned, and strange looking guitar. From exquisite Robert Fripp-ish ambient sondscapes, to raw screaming Hendrix-esque leads, Jon evoked all kinds of textures and sounds.

The second ensemble that I performed with was called Swallow and it was comprised of the same musicians (except for David Beardsley). This band played loud, energetic rock tunes (kind of like if Jimmy Page started a band with Meredith Monk and was possessed by Diamanda Galas). The songs were built upon tribal rhythms replete with a few tempo changes and some metric modulations thrown in for good measure. We invaded a place called Highland Grounds which was typically a home for singer/songwriters and their emotional acoustic guitar based music, and not progressive art rock bands. Some of the audience looked a little shell shocked, but we did get plenty of applause.

Brian Eno once criticized experimental music for having no soul and that it could only be appreciated from the neck up. Well, I have a feeling Eno would like Jon’s compositions.

Visit Jon Catler at



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