It is always refreshing to discover that someone you thought you knew a little bit turns out to be larger, more complex, and infinitely more courageous than you ever imagined; this is especially true when said revelation is delivered through an act of creation. “The Real Man,” wrote William Blake, is “The Imagination.”
Over the past six years, many Williamsburg residents have gotten to know Al Giusto as the friendly if peripatetic barman of various local drinking holes who has a thing for music. Less, perhaps, know him as the nimble-fingered guitarist for Blackgrass; also made up of bassist Greg Gordonn and drummer John Sullivan, Giusto’s group provides some of the more interesting and original instrumental music to be heard in these parts. Few, including myself, would have imagined the level of sheer virtuosity wed to emotional depth that is immediately apparent and wonderfully sustained in Giusto’s more serious compositions such as the slyly titled Ill-Tempered, which premiered at the American Festival of Microtonal Music this past November at the Quaker Meeting House in Manhattan.
The work, part of a day-long program of microtonal compositions, was written for the harpsichord in a temperament or tuning called Werckmeister lll; due to the ill-conceived though highly successful 18th century academic scheme to standardize musical notation, this tuning has been almost entirely lost or buried for the past two centuries. An integral element of the music of Bach, Buxtehude, and their contemporaries, in the microtonal music lost out in the process of standardization, which in effect ruled out or shrank down to size all that could not be measured or notarized within its arbitrary confines—a loss to musical development that is literally incalculable. In short, what we have been told and taught is the music of Bach is, in fact, Bach diminished. Giusto, in league with what is as yet a handful of other contemporary composers, including Johnny Reinhard, is in the process of reviving the original, far richer and more expansive tunings. And with a vengeance.
Superbly performed by harpsichordist Judith Conrad, Ill-Tempered begins with a jarring sequence of dissonant chords, which is made all the more disorienting because of the antiquity of the instrument. It could serve well as the opening of an eerie circus or the soundtrack of an anxiety attack. For the next six minutes or so, Giusto paints with notes that are the musical equivalent of a psyche suddenly and unexpectedly faced with the darker side of the emotional terrain, one constantly seeking resolution or silence or something, only to encounter an even more cleverly hidden and threatening labyrinth for which the listener has no choice but to pass through. It is a work of daunting but never overbearing complexity, and one knows within the first six bars that this is not music for the faint of heart.
Divided into at least four distinct parts, some of which threaten but never actually move into either formlessness or mere virtuosity, an unbridled urgency drives the work from beginning to end. The periodic reemergence of the opening chords suggests to the listener that resolution, if it is to be had at all, will not come easy. At times, in fact, often simultaneously, one discerns Giusto’s influences, particularly Stravinsky and Bach. In one curious passage, the lower register pounds Stravinsky-like chords while the right hand—rather desperately, as if seeking a futile escape from the relentless surrounding dissonance—plays a rapid succession of high-pitched trills reminiscent of Bach. But there is nowhere to run and no combination of beautiful notes played by the right hand can drown out the disturbing and rudimentary sounds made by the left. The combination should not work but somehow it does. So does the piece as a whole—even if there is much more going on within it than the title suggests. This is not mere ill temper, but an evocation of emotional chaos and courage of a very high order.
Giusto, a product of Berklee College of Music, and the New England Conservatory, is currently studying counterpoint at Mannes College of Music. His work has been performed at the Melbourne Festival and the Oslo Kammermusik Festival, and by the Flux Quartet in New York.
Giusto is also seeking funding in order to create a chamber ensemble based in Williamsburg. His goal is to produce a local concert series featuring Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music played in their original tunings. Such a series would be a large step toward making Williamsburg the arts community many would like it to be.
Patrick Walsh is a writer and contributor for the Brooklyn Rail.