Author: Josh Modney

Just Intonation as Orchestrator

I place “in tune” and “out of tune” in quotes because these are highly subjective terms.

Just Intonation has become an essential part of my practice as a violinist. I initially came to it from the perspective of contemporary music and from working with composers on particular projects, but I’ve found that Just Intonation has crept into almost everything that I do and has proven to be an immensely useful tool. Just Intonation (JI) is a broad term for tuning intervals according to the natural relationships of the harmonic series. In practical use as a string player, it provides a grid (really, many distinct grids) that can be mentally/aurally overlaid onto the framework of the open strings, providing precise measurements of whether something is “in tune” or “out of tune” using only the instrument and your ears, without the aid of piano, digital tuner, etc. (I place “in tune” and “out of tune” in quotes because these are highly subjective terms – what is “in tune” using the grid of JI would be “out of tune” using the grid of Equal Temperament. It depends on which grid you are measuring with and that depends on the goals of the music you are playing, the preferences of your fellow musicians, and myriad other factors that must be negotiated fluidly in any musical situation.) JI tunings can be verified with great precision by ear by listening for difference tones and aiming for a pure sound without beats (that is, the acoustic interference between sound waves). The great potential of JI as a teacher and tool in the practice room is not really part of Western classical conservatory training, and I think it should be.

I don’t intend to go deeply into the practicalities of JI on the violin here. I’ll just say that, given all of the complexities and emotional insecurities that come with tuning on a fretless instrument, the realization that I had under my own fingers the means to precisely measure tuning was a hugely empowering revelation. Beyond that, there is the multifaceted beauty of JI, which is what has brought me back to the well again and again. JI can function harmonically, melodically, timbrally, and as a means of heightening the character and emotional qualities of the music.

I’ve generally always been more interested in harmony than melody. I can’t easily recall the words of songs – I suppose my ear is elsewhere. I love a good melody, but the power of the motion from one harmonic field to another, that undercurrent that supports the tune, is what really makes me excited about a piece of music. As a violinist, I have devoted myself to an instrument made for melodic playing and celebrated for its vocal qualities. So I’ve found myself looking for any opportunity to engage with the instrument in a more harmonically (and timbrally) driven way. Performing contemporary music offers many ways to do this, as does playing string quartets and solo Bach.

I can’t easily recall the words of songs – I suppose my ear is elsewhere.

J.S. Bach’s solo violin music strongly implies fully voiced harmonies, and though the modern violin can only sustain two pitches simultaneously, Bach’s music when played expertly gives the impression of polyphonic counterpoint, a sleight-of-hand illusion of polyphony. When I first started getting into performing music in JI, the realization that changed everything for me was that JI gives the violinist the ability to virtually access the bass register and to sustain three pitches simultaneously. This is made possible by the psychoacoustic phenomenon of difference tones. Sustain any two pitches and our brains fill in the fundamental of those pitches. Sustain two pitches that are tuned in a ratio that corresponds exactly to the harmonic series (say the 5:4 major third, which is the ratio between the fourth and fifth partials of the harmonic series), and the fundamental may be perceived clearly and strongly. If you know which fundamental you’re listening for and aim for a pure sound without beating, you can find almost any ratio on the violin involving up to the 17th partial or so. In the mid to high register of the violin, either standing up close or in a small room, the difference tone comes across as being extremely loud and resonant. It’s hard to believe that it’s just in our heads and not a real sound in the room.

As a treble instrumentalist, gaining access to the bass register was huge. It changed the way that I listen to the violin, expanding my focus downward to include a much broader range of frequencies. It also changed the way that I play, especially in solo and ensemble improvisation – empowered by the knowledge that inflections of pitch in double stops can have a real sway on the direction of the music. (Plus, playing JI intervals makes the instrument sound louder, an added benefit in an ensemble setting.)

Playing JI intervals makes the instrument sound louder.

JI intervals are used as a harmonizer to great effect in my Wet Ink Ensemble colleague Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire” for violin and prepared piano, a duo that Eric wrote for us in 2012 that I count among my greatest influences as a musician. In a strikingly meditative moment in the middle of the piece, the violin plays a series of three dyads, each derived from a different prime of the harmonic series (three, five, and seven). The intervals expose a ghostly psychoacoustic bassline while tugging the listener from a complex, “minor” feeling to a simple “major” one. Wubbels then reinforces the function of the harmony by doubling the bassline on the piano. This motive is recontextualized in many colorful ways throughout this extraordinarily inventive piece, but it is in this particular moment of poignant austerity that the psychoacoustic underpinnings of the harmony are laid bare.

Eric Wubbels: “the children of fire come looking for fire” (excerpt – “tuning”), performed by Josh Modney and Eric Wubbels on Engage (New Focus Recordings)

From a technical standpoint, it is a short journey from harmonic JI violin playing to melodic. Double-stops, with the aid of the fixed points of the open strings, provide a clear way to measure intervals precisely. Decouple the notes of the double-stop and you have a melodic interval. Memorize the sound and physical feel of the interval and you can begin to construct scales accurately.

Taylor Brook is a composer who has a great affinity for melodic JI string writing. I first got to know Taylor’s music through his wonderful solo violin piece Vocalise, which has been a favorite of my repertoire for nearly a decade, and Taylor and I have since worked together on many different projects (another of my favorites is El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan for string quartet, which we recorded with the Mivos Quartet in 2016). Vocalise, for violin and drone, presents a familiar vision of the violin, but one in which its traditional “beauty” is delicately teased and pulled into strange and surprising realms. In what Taylor describes as an “honorific recontextualization” of structural and theoretical elements of Hindustani music, the characteristically lush sound of the violin is heard over a drone, weaving through an intricate JI pitch space. As the pacing of the music evolves from reflective meditation to ecstatic action, the pitch relationships become increasingly adventurous and the tone of the violin shifts from sweetness to a big, bright, extremely colorful palette.

Taylor Brook: Vocalise (excerpt), performed by Josh Modney on Engage (New Focus Recordings)

Timbre is an important component of Vocalise, especially as it relates to the overall form, but the melodic pitch relationships are the prime movers of the piece, vivifying individual gestures, while timbre functions as a distinct layer on top. A different and equally rich use of JI is to employ the timbres inherent to the intervals themselves as an orchestrational device.

Intervals derived from different primes of the harmonic series have remarkably distinctive characters.

When sounded simultaneously (e.g., as double-stops), intervals derived from different primes of the harmonic series have remarkably distinctive characters. For example, ratios of three might sound “earthy,” ratios of five “sweet,” ratios of seven “restless,” and ratios of eleven “screamy.” Regardless of which subjective terms one might choose to describe them, the ear can readily identify these fields of harmony, and the fields are defined by prime number families. The idea of using JI dyads as color is employed beautifully in the recent works of Alex Mincek, another of my Wet Ink Ensemble colleagues whose artistry has inspired and shaped my musical practice. Alex is a superb saxophonist, and his relationship to musical material as a composer is rooted in the tactile immediacy of his experience as a performer. Alex often talks of instrumental “malfunction” as a gateway to finding novel forms of expression. For example, playing a simple scale on the saxophone while depressing one extra key such that, instead of notes, a string of shimmering multiphonics is manifested.

Performing JI dyads on the violin is not exactly a “malfunction,” but it is a filtering of something rather simple (that is, diatonic intervals) that yields a widely varied and extremely colorful result. In the first movement of Mincek’s Harmonielehre for violin and piano, the harmonic progression that drives the form of the piece is filtered by JI inflections of violin dyads up to the 11th partial. This relationship is further enlivened by the equal tempered tuning of the piano – ET intervals that are inherently complex and beating interact with the violin’s JI intervals in fascinating and unpredictable ways. The range of timbral possibilities opened up by these myriad combinations allow Mincek to richly orchestrate using spare musical means.

Alex Mincek: Harmonielehre I (excerpt), performed by Josh Modney and Eric Wubbels on Mincek’s Torrent album (Sound American Publications)

Parsing JI into these components – harmonic, melodic, timbral – is helpful for me as a performer and enriches my appreciation for the music, though I acknowledge that attempting to parameterize something as unified as JI is somewhat arbitrary, and in another sense each of the pieces I’ve used as examples employ JI in an immersive, all-inclusive way. But what I really appreciate is how these composers have used JI with such intention. Far from a catalog of arcane tunings or a compendium of “crazy sounds,” each of these pieces by Wubbels, Brook, and Mincek uses JI as a means of human expression and as a tool for musicality rather than as an academic exercise.

The expressive potential of JI is perhaps what draws me to it most.

The expressive potential of JI is perhaps what draws me to it most. The timbre-characters of the primes are so strong, so affecting. I imagine that this is part of our nature, some fundament of the universe that is embedded in us on an evolutionary scale. But there is also almost certainly a cultural component – as modern listeners and musicians we are steeped in Equal Temperament from an early age, and the differentness of JI intervals combined with their unimpeachable internal logic may be what makes them so moving.

This expressivity is a big part of what makes the pieces by Wubbels, Brook, Mincek, and many other of my favorites by composers such as Kate Soper and Sam Pluta so compelling. I think practices like JI that add such life and interest to pioneering contemporary works can be a part of a holistic musical approach, an overarching performance practice that has just as much to offer when projected back on established repertoire—as trumpeter/composer Nate Wooley writes, a “model of how the new cannot only move forward, but to be active in 360 degrees and three dimensions.” For the past six years, I’ve been working on applying my study and practice of JI to a reinterpretation of Bach’s famous Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. My Just Intonation Bach project began as an analytical challenge, a search for tuning ratios that would reinforce harmonic motion already implied by the notation. This intellectual exploration quickly developed into an intuitive, creative process that considers how juxtapositions of tunings and timbres might heighten the emotional qualities of the music, and how a contemporary approach to sound production on the violin might illuminate hidden details. The fissures that form between prime interval families open up endless expressive possibilities. When applied to Bach on a micro level, dissonances are heightened, resolutions sweetened. On a phrase level, zones of light and dark are revealed. Globally, the shift between key areas takes on a wrenching immediacy.

J.S. Bach: Ciaccona (1720) with Just Intonation, performed by Josh Modney on Engage (New Focus Recordings)

Just Intonation holds great potential for string players, both as a creative and pedagogical tool. It has certainly changed the way I think about my instrument and music in general. The techniques described in this writing, and the artists who are so creatively employing them, have wonderfully enriched my own musical practice and are contributing beautifully to the kind of broad and inclusive approach to musicmaking that I’d like to see define the role of the 21st-century classical musician.

Polyphony and Storytelling: A Conversation with Nate Wooley on Solo Improvisation

As a listener, I’ve long found myself seeking musical experiences that generate a kind of sustained ecstatic energy from a foundation of rigorous thought and technique. Gaining access to that plane as a solo improviser is a particularly challenging task. It takes a special type of artist who engages deeply with the details of sound, upending instrumental conventions while setting boundaries and reference points (as if to say, “Here is a trumpet, unadorned—let’s see what I can do with it.”) and who is able to transfer an emotional experience through the instrument to the listener. Part of what makes trumpeter/composer/writer Nate Wooley such an extraordinary musician is his ability to achieve all of those things in performance. He is a true sonic explorer who has redefined the capabilities of his instrument while making profound spiritual connections with his listeners.

Nate Wooley’s music and relationship to his instrument has been a huge inspiration to me as a violinist.

Nate’s music and relationship to his instrument has been a huge inspiration to me as a violinist. Nate wrote an eloquent introduction to the liner notes of my debut solo violin album, Engage (New Focus Recordings – August 3, 2018), and graciously agreed to have a conversation with me about solo improvisation for NewMusicBox. I’m very grateful to Nate for taking the time to offer his take on some thoughts I’ve had since recording the solo improvised material on Engage, and to share a veritable masterclass on improvisation as part of my series of posts.

Nate Wooley playing a trumpet (photo by Ziga Koritnik)

Nate Wooley (photo by Ziga Koritnik)

Josh Modney: Polyphony is something I think about a lot in solo playing. The violin is not really built to realize densely polyphonic textures, so there’s a natural curiosity to want to do more with it. I’ve also in a very broad sense always been more interested in harmony than melody. So those are two factors pulling me away from the traditional role of violin as a singing, melodic instrument. The traditional role of trumpet is quite similar, so I’m wondering if you could share some thoughts about your relationship to polyphony in your solo work.

Nate Wooley: That’s consistently been an area of my playing that has provided the particular kind of frustration that can generate new directions—kind of a positive within a negative. I have also always loved harmony, but my sense of how (and when) dissonance should resolve has never fallen within a certain tradition of counterpoint or polyphony. Even when I was concentrating on the linear playing that is expected of a jazz player, I liked to stretch the tension as far as I could, or find a place to resolve that was awkward or uncomfortable. That always felt so much more human to me than pounding a chord tone on the strong beats; nothing in life is that foursquare, so why would music—which is inherently supposed to be an expression of life—be so rigid in the way it ebbed and flowed?

“Nothing in life is that foursquare, so why would music be so rigid…”

When I started playing solo, of course, the whole conception of harmony and polyphony had to change, as I didn’t have a rhythm section or other line to play against. It took me a long time to come to grips with that. It takes an incredible mind to captivate an audience with the brilliance of their harmonic mind through monophonic playing…and my mind ain’t one of those. I grappled with it in a lot of different ways: through electronics/feedback, extreme extended technique, use of the voice or other parts of my body. But, a certain breakthrough came during a tour with percussionist Paul Lytton. Someone told me after the show that they appreciated the way I could unfold a single sound and present the micro-events within that single note. I hadn’t thought about the way a note on the trumpet wavers in its timbral quality or overtone production, but after that comment (and certainly playing music by Eliane Radigue and Annea Lockwood in recent years) I started paying attention to a certain harmonic motion contained in those micro-movements. The motion, density, and velocity of those small details produce their own tension and release, and that became the center of how I think—not only in solo playing, but in every situation. Of course, the playing becomes broader than just that, and solo playing encompasses all the techniques I listed above (feedback, et al.) but everything now is really filtered through an attempt to give the inner workings of every sound, no matter how short or long it may be, the attention it deserves.

Nate Wooley solo at Something Else! Festival of Creative Music 2017

JM: The idea of harmonic motion contained in micro-movements totally resonates with me, and I love the way that you work with those kinds of textures. I remember in particular being inspired by the way you are able to make an extraordinarily long and continuous drone by circular breathing and using a harmon mute with a metal plate. The sound is modified unpredictably by the circular breathing while you make specific modifications with the metal plate. It sets up a feedback loop between things that you are controlling and things that can’t be controlled, generating a wealth of musical possibilities.

Hearing you do that was one of the musical experiences that sent me down a path looking for ways to translate or “map” brass and wind sounds onto the violin. The violin is such an old and thoroughly researched instrument, it can be a challenge to find means of expression that aren’t tied to the lineage of Western classical music from Bach to Lachenmann and beyond. That lineage is really important to me and forms the backbone of my practice, but I also want to fold in new possibilities for musical expression. By mapping things like the micro-variation of a trumpeter’s circular breathing and the intensity of a saxophonist’s multiphonics onto the violin, what started as an attempt to make a copy of something develops into something different and, hopefully, fresh on the instrument.

The violin is such an old and thoroughly researched instrument.

I keep on coming back to this thought about the ways that attempts at polyphony dating back to Bach may have informed my own improvisation practice, like a “spiral” of influences being mapped onto one another. This idea was spurred by a conversation with an improviser from a jazz background who told me that Bach’s solo cello suites were his inspiration for cultivating the technique to make chorale textures on the saxophone using multiphonics. Bach’s solo string music is itself a mapping of contrapuntal keyboard textures onto violin and cello. The evolution of polyphonic writing for the violin can be traced directly through the lineage of classical repertoire from Bach through Paganini, Bartók, etc. But as an improviser on the violin, I find it interesting to look at this alternate trajectory or “spiral”—Bach maps keyboard polyphony onto strings, which is in turn mapped onto winds by adventurous players, and finally mapped back onto violin after many layers of translation.

I’m not sure if there is an analog to this “spiral” idea in your experience as a trumpeter, but would love to hear your thoughts. I’m also curious to what extent, if at all, you might consider the genesis of your own highly detailed sounds to represent a “mapping” of polyphony onto your monophonic instrument?

“My grandmother could make me feel more loved by tunelessly humming just under her breath than when she would use the words ‘I love you.’”

NW: Part of that answer probably lies in my above comments about the polyphony inherent in micro-events but, in my history, there has been a different approach to mapping. I had a period when I worked at mapping piano (which I played for years before playing trumpet) or other polyphonic instruments onto the trumpet, but the real moments of change happened for me when I stopped trying to think of music at all and, instead, started mapping the soundworld that had the most physical impact on me onto the horn instead. It’s very rare for me to be moved by musical means alone. I have a deeper relationship to the sound of the human voice. And, by that, I mean the complete human voice inclusive of all that is not the stylized singing voice within any genre (as beautiful as that can be). I am most touched by the way people express ideas through speech, and the ideas they express through vocal sounds when the words escape them, and the sounds they make when they are experiencing those magnificent emotions that humans can only articulate through their individual taxonomy of hums, screams, small sighs, snorts, clicks, pops…anything like that. It has amazed me since I was small, that my grandmother could make me feel more loved by tunelessly humming just under her breath than when she would use the words “I love you.” It’s that phenomenon that I’m interested in mapping onto the instrument. I want to make it express in that way.

So, in a way, there is a “spiraling” in the way you describe it above, but it takes place a little differently in the way I articulate it to myself. In a very bastardized version of a Marcuse idea, I try to look outside the dialectic to see what may be of interest. I try to look at the process from outside and see if there’s a way to sidestep the whole cycle. And, in hindsight, that’s what I did with taking the vocal sounds as a model as opposed to the tradition of music on the trumpet. Granted, it just sets up its own dialectic, but I work within that until I become bored and then—hopefully I’ll get there before I die—I start to look outside of that cycle or “spiral.”

Josh Modney: Range (excerpt), from Engage (New Focus)

JM: The way you describe using vocal sounds as a model is beautiful. It makes total sense knowing your music, but I hadn’t thought of it in that way. I’d like to ask you a bit more about elements of trumpet tradition, since you hail primarily from a jazz background. For example, some traditions and practices on the violin related to classical lineage include straight-ahead “romantic” playing, noise-based music, post-Lachenmann timbral studies, and Just Intonation/drone music. What are the elements of creative improvisation that are within a shared space, regardless of background and training?

“The real moments of change happened for me when I stopped trying to think of music at all.”

NW: I have a lot of the same influences you do, I guess. I got as much from listening to Lachenmann or Bernhard Lang as I did from Clifford Brown or Booker Little. It’s just where that information presents itself that may be different from you to me. The jazz stuff is way deeper in my psyche at this point and has a lot of relationships to nostalgia and family, which means it has a different context for me and is generative in a base way, which I may manipulate or filter through more recent interests like hard noise, contemporary classical, David Tudor, or Ba-Benzele pygmy recordings. It’s like a rough artistic version of base and superstructure. I will always have a desire to build phrases and performances from the eighth-note grid of swing music, but everything I have in my mind that comes from outside that (the superstructure) distorts that base information in a way that makes me an individual. Just like what makes you Josh Modney (musically) is the base of the classical training and the superstructure of noise, Just Intonation, and timbral study.

JM: I’m curious about the ways that you engage with material in your solo playing, or the ways that you think about/categorize the material that forms, as you put it, the superstructure of your musical aesthetic. Do you see the various techniques that you employ coming from families of sound, or different reservoirs of musical practice?

NW: I did think that way for a certain time, but then I started feeling like I was trapped inside the technique. One of my greatest fears about the way I play is that it will be perceived as a set of parlor tricks. I always cringe when someone tells me they were impressed by all the “crazy sounds” after a solo show. To me, that means I did a poor job of putting the technique in the service of some sort of human expression. At a certain point, I felt like my approach to solo playing was too rooted in the architecture of the sound at the risk of losing the human component, so I abandoned that kind of taxonomic approach.

“One of my greatest fears about the way I play is that it will be perceived as a set of parlor tricks.”

Now, I think of each solo concert as storytelling. I come from a place where people still hold forth over beers and tell long and, mostly false, stories of their past or the history of where they are from. It’s a grand tradition that takes many forms and is something I have always loved. My process of solo playing, at its best, takes its cue from that tradition, from sitting in the chair and wanting to have the audience close, to the recent use of the singing and speaking voice unfiltered by the trumpet, to flat out telling a story as I change to the amplifier. Every choice I make now has to do with a kind of storytelling now that’s not strictly narrative or meant to paint a picture, but tries to get at the core of what a great storyteller does, which is slowly pry open their chest and show you everything that’s inside them, if only for a brief second. The hope being that, at the end, I’ve given a small, actually living, piece of myself and the audience feels like they know me a little better. I can’t do that if I think of any taxonomy or groups of sounds, if that makes sense. And, I don’t mean this as a diatribe for what solo playing should be. It’s just what communicates for me.

JM: Love the storytelling analogy! And I totally agree that the perception of “crazy sounds” is sometimes counterproductive to musical ideals. Could you talk a bit about your expressive goals in your solo music? Are there particular elements of your music that you feel act as a gateway to personal expression?

NW: It’s perhaps a little contemporary and I don’t intend to deal in politics (for my own reasons) but this has been on my mind lately and this seems like an apt place to put it in print. I think that we are in a moment of immense, prolonged trauma. There was a time when I believe people could feel intertwined with their fellow human beings in a way that—not discounting humanity’s ability to treat others with coldness and extreme evil—felt safe. That has been chipped away, and I see people everywhere I go that are just trying to figure out how to handle it—some in better and healthier ways than others. My way is to attempt to live. That sounds stupid, but how many people are trying to do that in any conscious way. Not survive, but LIVE. Breathe air, notice the world, bathe in a piece of music, freak out on an amazing turn of phrase in a piece of literature, recognize beauty, recognize ugliness, be glad that they’re both there. Say hello to people, appreciate when they say hello back, be empathetic when they tell you to fuck off. Just sit in your family, your culture, your world, and be a part of it. To that end, when I play solo, I want to be a part of an experience with the people in the room. They actually made an attempt to come out and do something, so I want to live in that room with them for 30 minutes or an hour or whatever. I want us all to feel like something happened, so that we have a renewed faith in the ability to intertwine on any level with our humanity again and fight the trauma. It’s small and, I admit, it’s not a grand political gesture, but I’m not a grandly political person. I just want to give that one period of time to the people in the room as a moment when someone shows themselves and is, maybe uncomfortably, human.

JM: Yeah, I feel from both sides of the stage, as performer and audience member, that the most affecting and memorable experiences are when people are close, usually in a small room, and you can feel the energy of everybody together. Those have always been my favorite musical experiences, but I share your sense that it all has more urgency and immediacy now.

What you describe is also a beautifully non-hierarchical way of thinking about what makes a successful musical performance, which brings me to my final question. I’ve been noticing that, at least within the relatively small community of new music in NYC, we’re moving toward a hybridized scene that operates on a continuum between composition, improvisation, and interpretation. I’m not sure if this represents an overall shift in American contemporary music culture, but there does seem to be good momentum in this direction. I can at least say that the work that comes out of this hybridized model is the music that I’m most interested in listening to and making! I’d love to hear your perspective on this. Do you think we’re experiencing a significant shift away from the “top down” hierarchy of musicmaking from the last century?

“We’re seeing a shift toward the holistic mixture of composition, improvisation, collaboration, and interpretation.”

NW: On the street level, definitely! I am not sure it’s leaked to the organizational or funding branches necessary for our world yet, but that’s completely understandable given their inherently decisive task. And, even within those institutional bodies, I think we’re seeing a shift toward the holistic mixture of composition, improvisation, collaboration, and interpretation. I’m a bit of a cynic, so I hope that it isn’t just the pendulum’s apex before it swings back but, as you say, there’s so much in that way of making music that one can invest themselves in, that I do have a little hope that it’s just the beginning of a new model of how to make music.

A Holistic Approach to Sound

Depending on who you talk to, “extended techniques” can be a loaded term. To one person, the presence of extended techniques makes a piece of music weird and unlistenable, while to another, their absence would indicate music that is regressive and uninteresting. In either case, ears are closed, and a blanket judgment is being made about the quality of the art using a term that should really only be a quantifier. So, first of all, I’d like to clear away some of the subjective baggage that has built up around extended techniques. The most objective way I can think of to define it is this: an extended technique is any action that produces a result outside the fundamental parameters of sound that an instrument was designed to make. This still leaves some ambiguity as to the designers’ intentions, especially when it comes to an instrument as old as mine, the violin. But it’s clear that on the violin, an execution that causes the string to vibrate with maximum consistency and overtone-rich resonance is the primary function of the instrument, which luthiers have worked very hard to cultivate over the centuries. On the other hand, playing very close to the bridge to create a broken, inconsistent sound that reinforces high overtones, while just as beautiful aesthetically, is one example of the great many techniques that fall outside the instrument’s intended function. This distinction is very important for students, since getting the string to resonate consistently is the most difficult thing to master, and is the foundation of most other physical movements on the instrument.

An extended technique is any action that produces a result outside the fundamental parameters of sound that an instrument was designed to make.

As useful as I’ve found this definition as a player and a teacher, it still sets up a dualism that I find troubling. For one thing, it would seem to support the idea that all sounds outside of the core practice of Western classical music represent an extension of that practice, and not a separate identity. To an extent I agree with this – it is very difficult to understand how to play Lachenmann if you haven’t studied Beethoven, as they are strongly connected along the lineage of German music – but this way of thinking excludes artists who have arrived at novel ways of creating sound along a different trajectory. Furthermore, by lumping an incredibly broad array of musical tools into the single category of extended techniques, the implication is that any given sound outside “normal” playing is a shallow, one-dimensional artifact, rather than a component of one of any number of deep reservoirs of practice that have just as much potential for nuanced human expression as the standard technique of the instrument’s original design.


IMAGE: Alexander Perrelli and Emma Van Deun

As my own practice on the violin has evolved to a point where the majority of the sounds I make on the instrument could be defined as extended techniques, I wonder if there is a better way to frame instrumental performance practice for the 21st century that, while respecting and continuing traditions, makes room for a deeper engagement with other avenues of expression. I’ve begun to think of this as a holistic approach to sound.

The idea of a holistic approach to sound started to coalesce when I was preparing to record Violin Solos, a series of improvised solo violin pieces for my debut album, Engage (New Focus Recordings, August 3, 2018). I had been working this way for a long time in various contexts, from interpreter to collaborator to improviser, but didn’t have the words for it yet. Planning and practicing for that recording session, and then working to break it all down afterward to write the liner notes for the album, gave me the impetus to look under the hood of my practice and really examine what was happening.

In thinking about my approach to sound, I kept on coming back to the idea of reservoirs. The standard, “romantic” style of violin playing that has been dominant since at least the mid-20th century and that every violin student learns is one reservoir. It utilizes the sounds that the modern violin, paired with the modern bow, were designed to produce – rich and luminous, causing the string to vibrate in a manner that is consistent and sustained. Another, equally deep reservoir encompasses the highly specific timbral study that has been so thoroughly researched by composers like Helmut Lachenmann, Mathias Spahlinger, and many others since (though on a musical level the compositions of Lachenmann and Spahlinger remain deeply connected to the same Germanic tradition that begat “romantic” string playing, on a technical level the sounds represent a radically different engagement with the instrument, requiring an entirely different skill set as a player). Another reservoir is Just Intonation, a practice that has made its way into just about everything that I do. Another might broadly be described as noise-based music. Another that is specific to my individual path would be the sounds and techniques that grew out of collaborative work with my composer colleagues in the Wet Ink Ensemble (Alex Mincek, Kate Soper, Eric Wubbels, and Sam Pluta). Far from a comprehensive list, those are just a few examples of reservoirs that have spoken strongly to me and that I have incorporated into my playing, colored by my unique experiences as a musician. Another violinist would no doubt have some similarities and some differences.

One can dive deeply into any single reservoir and find more than a complete set of tools for musical expression. I think that a piece based completely in scratch tones and pitchless noise has just as much potential to be beautiful as a piece based in fully voiced notes. It’s only a matter of whether it is done well. For me, a mode of personal expression on the violin that feels rich and fulfilling involves drawing from many of these reservoirs and then quickly cutting between them. By engaging with material in this way, the relationship to sound feels less like the ornamentation of a monolithic practice, and more like personal conversations with distinct musical entities.

A mode of personal expression on the violin that feels rich and fulfilling involves drawing from many of these reservoirs and then quickly cutting between them.

All of this reminds me of a quote from Sam Pluta’s writing about his own work, in which he proposes a type of musicmaking where “anything and everything is possible and acceptable at any moment.” It’s an attitude that embraces adventure and innovative modes of expression without demanding an outright rejection of established practices. And it represents a kind of openness to the universe that makes the music of composers like Sam and Anthony Braxton so compelling and inspiring. This isn’t to say “everything is good” – curation and self-criticism must be valued for art to be successful – but that a nondogmatic engagement with sound can yield beautiful results. Never mind whether an artist hails predominantly from one aesthetic camp or another. If there is a sound or gesture that is right for the music, do it.

The music that resonates with me tends to be aesthetically adventurous and open-minded, yet tightly curated. I’ll use a few works that were written for me by some of the Wet Ink composers as examples. Sam Pluta’s Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit, for violin and electronics, lives mostly in a world of carefully sculpted noise, but in rare and special moments, when the music needs it, calls on the violin to produce fully resonant pitched sonorities. Kate Soper’s Cipher, for soprano and violin, winds up traversing an incredibly diverse array of musical terrain, from timbral study to art song to psycho-acoustic phenomena, all in the service of a thoroughly logical exploration of language and meaning. Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire,” for violin and prepared piano, begins with an extremely long overpressure sound on the violin, setting up expectations in the listener about the style and form of the work, which are then subverted as it is revealed that the scratch tone functions as a metaphorical well of sound from which the rest of the highly articulate and virtuosic materials for the piece are drawn. In the case of each of these works, when you pull back and take in the big picture, musical choices that are unexpected or surprising in the moment work together beautifully in the larger context.

Sam Pluta: Portraits/Self-Portraits, performed by Josh Modney and the Wet Ink Large Ensemble. This work begins with a version of Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit scored for violin and ensemble.

A successful performance of multifaceted music like this demands a fluency of movement between strongly defined sonic identities. Another way of expressing that is that the music demands versatility. The idea of versatility loomed large as the ultimate goal of my classical training, the key to unlocking a successful career as a concert violinist. I agree with that in spirit, except that the traditional conservatory approach defines versatility very narrowly as the ability to play in the styles of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Debussy. The idea is that if you can master the techniques required to play those composers, you can play anything. As a teacher, I still think those things are important. The study of classical music is an excellent way to gain fluency in the sounds that the instrument was designed to make, and fluency in the instrument’s primary functions are critical to artistry. But those sounds represent only a small fraction of the tools necessary to thrive as a 21st-century musician.

The music that resonates with me tends to be aesthetically adventurous and open-minded, yet tightly curated.

As a classically trained violinist, I’d like to propose that we expand our concept of versatility on the instrument. What if a new versatility included improvisation, adventurous reinterpretations of antique music, deep engagement with more recent traditions on the instrument, and collaborations with artists on new compositions, sounds, and techniques? Rather than regarding all sounds as extensions of a single dominant practice, let’s treat the established norms of Western classical music as just one of many reservoirs of musical thought in a holistic approach that values many kinds of expression.

Collaboration as Performance Practice

There’s a moment in Kate Soper’s duo for soprano and violin, Cipher, that tends to stick in people’s minds. The soprano, delivering spoken text, moves toward the violinist and places a mute on the instrument, filtering the tone color. As the violinist continues to play, the soprano moves closer still and places several fingers on the strings, activating specific pitches along the fingerboard. With intricately choreographed movements, the two musicians play the instrument together, creating harmonies that would be otherwise inaccessible to a solo violinist. Simultaneously, the violinist begins to speak. The roles of voice and instrument, which up to this point have been vying for primacy, have become equal and intertwined.

The physicality of it all is striking. It brings the violin into sharp focus. The expressive and sonic capabilities of the instrument have been tested throughout the first half of the piece, and now, in a radical extension of instrumental technique, the violin sings in an entirely new way. It’s also personal, drawing attention to the relationship between two performers and embodying the spirit of openness essential to adventurous musicmaking.

By crossing over into the visual realm, that moment illuminates an intensely personal, non-hierarchical creative process that is embedded throughout the sonic fabric of Cipher, a process that is a galvanizing force behind the extraordinary invention and experimentation in the piece. As the musicians converge on the violin, it is apparent that open dialogue must have been integral to developing the mechanics of the playing technique, and that the process must have involved a great deal of time and trust.

I’d like to take the opportunity here on NewMusicBox to talk about the genesis of Cipher and another work that is based on this kind of open process—Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire”—and the profound impact both of these works have had on my relationship to creativity as a classically trained violinist. Both of these artists have turned away from the hierarchical paradigm of classical music, where the composer works in isolation on a piece before handing the final product to one or more interchangeable performers, in favor of a holistic approach that allows for creativity and learning from both sides of the composer/performer relationship.

Kate originally wrote Cipher for the two of us over an extended period of workshop in 2011. We premiered it in December of that year, and then started to perform it extensively in 2012 after a significant revision. The workshop process started at the very first stages of material generation. These early sessions drew on Kate’s sketches, initial ideas about how to share roles and subvert the traditional hierarchy of soprano with accompaniment (in part, building on ideas from Kate’s soprano and flute duo with Erin Lesser, Only The Words Themselves Mean What They Say), our burgeoning interest in Just Intonation (JI), Renaissance choral tuning exercises, and more. Our workshops were about posing questions and musical puzzles and seeing what we could do with them. For instance, is there a precise JI alternate tuning of the violin that can yield both a complex, “colored” unison across all four strings as well as pure intervals? How palpable are psycho-acoustic difference tones between soprano and violin, and how precisely can they be controlled? Can the instrument be readjusted to standard tuning in the middle of a piece without a pause in the action? (Through a team effort, yes!) Can novel sonorities on the violin be conjured if both performers play the instrument simultaneously? Historically, there is a great deal of overlap between the performance practice of violin and voice (the violin’s vocal qualities are widely celebrated, as in Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise), however the extended techniques of each diverge from one another dramatically. The long workshop process of Cipher allowed us to discover an extended soundworld with fields of sameness and difference, enabling the material in Cipher to morph into myriad extremes and then realign in uncanny unison.

Kate Soper and Josh Modney performing on a violin with four-hands

Kate Soper and Josh Modney navigating a passage for “violin four-hands” (Photo by Spencer McCormick, courtesy New Music USA)

A key element in all of this musical experimentation is trust. Trust encourages adventurous musical choices while laying groundwork for the performance practice of the final work. Every great chamber musician knows the critical importance of trust. For a great performance to happen, the musicians must inhabit a higher plane, a communal version of Robert Pirsig’s “high country of the mind,” interdependent and tethered together in Alpine-style ascent. An open creative process rooted in long-term collaboration allows that bond of trust to be forged right from the beginning, reinforcing every step of the piece’s development from premiere to revision, reinterpretation, touring, memorization, and recording.

A high level of trust opened up the potential for Kate and me to develop the technique for “violin 4-hands,” which involves a sharing of the extremely personal space of the violin’s physical surface and immediate aura. That trust eventually led to the refinement of a performance practice that is as much an integral part of the piece as the notes on the page, and ultimately, I think, bridges a gap that has been artificially opened in our musical culture. The gap between the paradigm of contemporary music composition and performance, which allows for experimentation but too often stops dead after the premiere, and of classical music, which demands refinement and deep engagement with individual works but all too easily falls into entrenched ways of thinking, at the expense of novel and creative approaches.

In classical music practice, the extremely high standards of refinement allow virtuosity to coalesce into a conduit for the expression of the spirit. I think that an important reason many listeners prefer classical music over contemporary music is that a great deal of energy has been put in over a great deal of time such that classical performers are able to transcend the technical demands of the music and communicate with audiences from the “high country.” A desire to bridge the gap and bring this level of refinement and detail to the creative space of a contemporary work is one of the things that drove the process behind Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire” for violin and prepared piano.

Eric wrote “the children of fire…” for the two of us over the course of several months in early 2012. We met weekly, experimenting with sounds and, as the material began to solidify, learned the piece in chunks, building it up gradually from week to week. It was extremely rewarding to learn the piece in small sections in this super detailed and developmental way. By the time the week of the premiere arrived, each section of the piece felt innately familiar.

A recurring feature in Eric’s music is the idea of “translation”—that is, translating a sound that is idiomatic to one instrument into the language of another instrument, and then fusing the two sounds together. Blending the timbres of the modern violin and the modern piano is a particularly challenging task. Much of the famous repertoire for violin and piano duo was written for very different instruments – softer and warmer, built for intimate spaces, the characters of different keys brought to life by the piano’s meantone tuning, a system to which the violinist can easily adapt.

The situation these days is much different. The equipment of violins and pianos has been adapted for projection over an orchestra, such that it is difficult for the percussive attack of the piano and the tenacious sustain of the violin to blend. And the tuning system of equal temperament is a challenging fit for the violin. (For an informative and entertaining read on this, check out How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony: And Why You Should Care, by Ross W. Duffin.)

All of this is to say that the timbre of the instruments (i.e., the instrumental technology) that forms the basis of a piece matters. A lot. The fresh ways that Eric has written for the peculiarities of the modern violin and the modern piano are a big part of what makes “the children of fire…” such a special and extraordinary piece. In “the children of fire…”, there are many instances where Eric uses the idea of translation to bring the instruments together. The piece begins with a sustained noise wall produced by overdriving the top string of the violin. Far from a generic scratch tone, it is a sound so complex and layered that it gives a sense of “everythingness,” a singularity from which the material for the rest of the piece is generated. This functions both metaphorically in the structure of the piece and as a practical generator of material – Eric made a spectral analysis of the sound and used that to find chords on the piano that would blend seamlessly.

Another example of translation sources a sound so idiomatic to the violin that it has become cliché: descending left hand pizzicato a la Paganini. It’s a sound associated with a certain brand of corny violinistic showmanship that Eric beautifully repurposes by combining it with a unison pizzicato gesture inside the piano (an evolution of the “pizz fail” section of Eric’s earlier work for Wet Ink, katachi).

Eric Wubbels: katachi – “pizz fail” section (as performed by Wet Ink Ensemble on Relay, Carrier Records)

There is a passage at the heart of “the children of fire…” that is effectively a double translation, reconciling the violin’s inability to play sustained chords with the piano’s inability to play in Just Intonation. It employs difference tones, which I learned how to precisely control on the violin through the process of collaboration with Eric. Difference tones are a psycho-acoustic phenomenon. When we hear two or more pitches simultaneously, our brains fill in the fundamental of those pitches. When the pitches are tuned in a manner that corresponds exactly to ratios of the harmonic series, we perceive the fundamental strongly. If you play a series of intervals formed from different strata of the harmonic series, a ghostly psycho-acoustic “bassline” emerges. In “the children of fire…”, Eric realizes this virtual bassline on the piano. It is a passage of striking beauty that solves the problem of violin/piano blend without using any extended techniques. The violin reinforces the upper partials inherent to the piano pitches, while the piano undergirds the fundamental that is psycho-acoustically implied by the violin dyads. The instruments blend perfectly, a meta-instrument, and akin to the far ranging terrain of Cipher, the possibility is opened up for the players to shape sounds that are starkly differentiated and then return to a place of absolute unity.

Eric Wubbels: the children of fire come looking for fire [excerpt] (performed by Josh Modney and Eric Wubbels on Engage, New Focus Recordings)

Making music this way, from the ground up, is incredibly rewarding and empowering, especially from the perspective of the relative confines of classical performance training. Being a participant and partner from the early stages of the development of a work, with generous collaborators who are willing to share their creative agency, has been liberating for me and has fundamentally changed my relationship to music. It has allowed me to connect the dots and see the potential for my own mobility along a continuum that ranges from interpretation, through collaboration and creative partnership, to being the primary creator myself as an improviser/composer. And, in the case of these duos by Kate and Eric, we have found a path that has no end date, and grows richer with each performance.

Aside from the great musical and spiritual rewards of such a process, it is also—perhaps counterintuitively—an incredibly efficient way to bring a new piece from the early stages of composition to the ultra-refined performance standard that is expected of classical music. Again, it has to do with an innate familiarity with each timbre and gesture (built on the process of elimination that happens when honing a sound in workshop, habitualizing your brain to the details of production, “not this, or this, but THIS”), and with the trust that is forged between collaborators which can then be brought onto the concert stage. Classical music performance, while fraught with its own challenges, benefits from pre-established practices cultivated over centuries and the framework of the common practice period. As new music performers, we must create our own performance practice before we may hope to transcend technical execution and strive toward that high country where the real, sustained ecstatic communication between performers and listeners can take place.