Seven Sacred Names is meant as a companion album to the book Nature’s Hidden Dimension by author, astrophysicist, and modern Sufi mystic W.H.S. Gebel. The Seven Sacred Names, according to the mystical cosmology of Sufism, tell the story of “…an awakening primal Self,” as Gebel writes in the album’s liner notes.
Taken together, Harrison’s seven pieces (with the prologue and epilogue of KALIM comprising two distinct movements) foster a listening environment that is ethereal, meditative and at times almost tentative, but also rife with the anticipation and promise of glimpsing hidden truths about ourselves. The recording moves hypnotically through a subtle but ever-changing suite of tranquil moods and colors – with each stage defining a sacred or exalted state meant to inspire awareness, self-knowledge and self-expression.
Composer/pianist Michael Harrison (called “an American maverick” by Philip Glass) is one of only a few musicians with equal training and immersion in both Western classical and Indian classical music. His music forges a new approach to composition through tunings and structures that extend the ancient concept of just intonation, a form of pure tuning constructed from musical intervals of perfect mathematical proportions.
Harrison creates dedicated tuning systems for many of his works. He also pioneered a structural approach to composition in which the proportions of harmonic relationships organically determine other musical elements such as pitch, duration, and dynamics. He seeks expressions of universality via the physics of sound – music that brings one into a state of concentrated listening as a meditative and even mind-altering experience.
Harrison says of this album, “I wanted to show how beautiful simple harmonies can be, especially in just intonation. . . and [to create a work] that would serve as an introduction inviting listeners and musicians to start perceiving just intonation as an infinite harmonic system encompassing limitless possibilities on a spectrum between simplicity and complexity.”
Seven Sacred Names is composed and performed in just intonation (with the exception of MUREED which is in equal temperament). Just intonation is any musical tuning in which the frequencies of notes are related by ratios of whole numbers. According to Bob Gilmore in Maximum Clarity and Other Writings on Music, “Just intonation is the tuning system of the later ancient Greek modes as codified by Ptolemy; it was the aesthetic ideal of the Renaissance theorists; and it is the tuning practice of a great many musical cultures worldwide, both ancient and modern.” Just intonation can be contrasted with equal temperament, which dominates most Western music and instruments, and compromises the sonic beauty, clarity, harmonic integrity, and diversity in intervallic relationships for the convenience of having 12 equally spaced notes.
Seven Sacred Names begins and ends with two different versions of the seventh name or divine quality, KALIM, which is scored for violin, viola, cello and piano, and cello and piano, respectively. “Al Kalim” is the culminating capacity needed to fulfill the desire for self-knowledge – “I have the capacity to express all that is within me.” Harrison writes, “When I first conceived of KALIM, I was participating in a multi-disciplinary workshop and performance based on the theme of Constitution. Music is a miniature of universal harmony, and it occurred to me that harmony is to music as our Constitution is to democracy. I wanted to show how music has its own constitution, which can be used to create harmony out of individual notes in a similar way to how the articles of our constitution are designed to allow and limit individual freedoms to create a framework of social harmony. KALIM is inspired by the timeless qualities of Arvo Part’s Spiegel Im Spiegel, and it is a tribute to universal structures that will prevail through the test of time.”
HAYY: Revealing the Tones is the opening movement from Michael Harrison’s monumental work Revelation: Music in Pure Intonation, originally released on Cantaloupe Music in 2007. Harrison writes of the work, “Revelation retrains the ear for the world of just intonation . . . The work presents an expanded harmonic, textural, and acoustical palette that may help lead to the next evolutionary step in tonality. . . I hope these elements will help return music to its ancient roots as a sacred art based on the science of pure tones and perfect mathematical relationships.” “Al Hayy” signals the realization that “I exist” when nothing else is known.
ALIM: Polyphonic Raga Malkauns is composed for multi-track vocals, pianos in just intonation, and violin drones. It is conceived and performed by Michael Harrison on piano with Payton MacDonald and Ina Filip on vocals. “Al Alim” is a self-reflection with the discovery that “I know I exist.” Harrison writes, “Raga is almost always a single melodic line (often accompanied by percussion), and with the use of multi-track recording we created a dense polyphonic texture while maintaining the guidelines and mood of Raga Malkauns (a midnight raga).”
QADR: Etude in Raga Bhimpalasi is scored for piano in just intonation, tabla, and violin drones. It is performed by Harrison on piano, Ritvik Yaparpalvi on tabla, and Caleb Burhans on violin. As the title suggests it is a virtuosic piano etude based on Raga Bhimpalasi (a late afternoon raga with a scale similar to the Dorian mode) in a slow ten-beat rhythmic cycle known as Jhaptaal. “A Qadr” is an awakening of agency, “I have the power and will to do something.”
In MUREED an awareness of relationship unfolds as the violin and piano interact and respond to each other in an unfolding journey of contrapuntal and melody-dominated homophonic textures, eventually returning to its source. Harrison writes, “‘Al Mureed’ is the fourth of the seven names and signifies the birth of desire, the motivation needed to direct the will which awakens as a response to the dawning of relationship. The created world has become more interesting because now there is love, lover, and beloved; there is the possibility of relationship and of learning about and understanding the divine qualities as they manifest by sensing their vibration.”
SAMI, the fifth name, is the fourth movement, “The Acoustic Constellation,” from Harrison’s work Just Constellations for the incredibly versatile vocal group Roomful of Teeth. Harrison explains, “The Acoustic Constellation is based on the fourth octave of the harmonic series and uses the “acoustic” mode with the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 16th partials (I replace the 13th partial with the 27th partial transposed down an octave). Nom-tom syllables are used throughout. Although the sounds of this ancient musical language are derived from mantras, they have no literal meaning. Nom-tom has been used by Indian classical vocalists for centuries to create beautiful vocal timbres and rhythmic accentuations.” “Al Sami” is an awakening to an innate capacity for self-discovery, in this case, an ability to detect vibration, “I have the capacity of hearing.”
BASIR was recorded on Harrison’s harmonic piano, an instrument he invented in 1986 by extensively modifying a grand piano to allow for 24 notes per octave, with processing. “Al Basir” is the second capacity of discovery to awaken, the ability to detect light, “I have the capacity of seeing.”
Michael Harrison’s music has been performed at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Muziekgebouw, Park Avenue Armory, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Louvre, Centre Pompidou, MASS MoCA, Big Ears Festival, Spoleto Festival USA, the United Nations, Klavier Festival Ruhr, and the Sundance Film Festival. A Guggenheim Fellow, Harrison has been commissioned by Grammy-winning vocal group Roomful of Teeth, Alarm Will Sound, Maya Beiser, Cello Octet Amsterdam, Del Sol String Quartet, and Contemporaneous.
His evening-length work Revelation, for piano in his own tuning system, was named one of the Best Classical Recordings of 2007 by The New York Times, Boston Globe, and Time Out New York, and was called “probably the most brilliant and original extended composition for solo piano since the early works of Frederic Rzewski three decades ago” by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page. Other acclaimed works include his Time Loops album with Maya Beiser (selected for NPR’s Top 10 Classical Albums of 2012) and Just Constellations for Roomful of Teeth, from New Amsterdam (called “glacially beautiful” and “luminous” by Alex Ross in The New Yorker).
While still an undergraduate student, Harrison met composer La Monte Young. Soon Young brought him to New York as his protégé, to study composition, performance, and Indian classical music. Harrison was the exclusive tuner for Young’s custom Bösendorfer concert grand and became the only person other than the composer to perform Young’s six-hour The Well-Tuned Piano. Living in Young’s Tribeca loft during this formative decade, Harrison was immersed in the world of minimal music and art. Terry Riley became a close friend and mentor, within a broader circle that included John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Walter de Maria, Marian Zazeela, and the founders of the Dia Art Foundation (the patrons of Harrison’s work with Young). Most importantly, he became a disciple of Young and Riley’s music guru Pandit Pran Nath, traveling to India with Pran Nath and Riley for periods of extensive study and practice.
Harrison’s residencies include MacDowell, Yaddo, Camargo, McColl Center, Ucross, Djerassi, Millay, Bogliasco, La Napoule, I-Park, MASS MoCA, and the Visiting Artists program of the American Academy in Rome. In addition to the Guggenheim, his awards include a NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship, Aaron Copland Recording Grant, Classical Recording Foundation Award, IBLA Foundation Prize, American Composers Forum residency and performance in the Havana Contemporary Music Festival, and a New Music USA Grant.
Harrison received his Masters in Composition, studying with Reiko Fueting, at Manhattan School of Music. He invented the harmonic piano,” a grand piano that plays 24 notes per octave, documented in the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. His music has been recorded on Cantaloupe, New Amsterdam, Innova, New Albion, and New World Records.
Michael Harrison: Seven Sacred Names
Cantaloupe Music | Release Date: June 18, 2021
1. KALIM: Prologue (5:37)
2. HAYY: Revealing the Tones (4:35)
3. ALIM: Polyphonic Raga Malkauns (12:31)
4. QADR: Etude in Raga Bhimpalasi (13:15)
5. MUREED (6:30)
6. SAMI: The Acoustic Constellation (2:33)
7. BASIR (15:16)
8. KALIM: Epilogue (5:32)
All music composed by Michael Harrison except ALIM: Polyphonic Raga Malkauns composed by Michael Harrison, Payton MacDonald and Ina Filip. Performed by Michael Harrison, Roomful of Teeth, Tim Fain, Ashley Bathgate, Caleb Burhans, Payton MacDonald, Ina Filip, and Ritvik Yaparpalvi.