Polychromatic Music

We have no words for many perceptual aspects of hearing–imagery, visualization, dimension, space, etc.–so we are faced with communicating auditory concepts in analogy or metaphor. My perspective is to link visual and auditory perceptual concepts into an idea of ‘pitch-color’.

Written By

Dolores Catherino

Music seems to be at the forefront of an increasingly pervasive process where technological simulation is cheaply and efficiently substituted for authentic human creation and expression. Further, a technological aesthetics of ‘perfection’ has arisen which values flawless quantization, pitch correction, and production as primary elements over the power of unique, imperfect vitality of human creative expression. Polychromatic music embodies a new paradigm and aesthetic: a humanistic counterbalance to rapidly emerging technological trends which, when they don’t replace human involvement, seem to minimize and/or trivialize it.

Even as a child I was aware that the chromatic/modal tonal languages were nearing the point of exhaustion as far as new areas of exploration and creation, and this stoked a curiosity and an intuitive seeking of the possibility of new dimensions of musical language. As an undergraduate music major, many of the developments of the late 19th (chromaticism) and 20th (stochastic, aleatoric, spectral, microtonal, algorithmic) centuries made sense from this perspective. Yet they seemed difficult to assimilate and understand without a conceptual framework to anchor these new perceptual experiences in a larger foundational context and aesthetic.

With the emergence of AI (artificial intelligence) ‘creativity’ now being used to ‘compose’ music, many new questions and concerns have arisen. Any process that can be formalized in rules or clear, quantifiable instructions, can be efficiently executed by a computer. To me, it seemed that the innovations of stochastic (random operations), aleatoric (chance operations; i.e. dice rolling), serialistic (predefined patterns), and algorithmic (step-by-step procedures) composition were likely candidates for being subsumed within AI generative computation systems.

The human process of creativity lies on a continuum between compositing and composing.

A further distinction is necessary here between creative ‘composing’ and ‘compositing’. Artificial Intelligence generativity (so-called “creativity”) is based on a compositing process; it’s basically all just recombinations of pre-existing data. While it is clear that the human process of creativity lies on a continuum between compositing and composing, a salient aspect of human creativity involves the creation of new ‘data’ rather than the novel recombination of prior ideas.

This leaves us with the contemporary methods of new spectral/timbral and pitch languages as wide open frontiers for exploration and creation. With respect to new timbral languages, I think of spectral music broadly as a paradigm and aesthetic where an emphasis is on the exploration of the timbral aspects and implications of complex sounds. This would encompass harmonics, harmonic (overtone) interactions, and new frontiers in harmony (polyphony). This is an immense world of its own where technology has provided endless possibilities for exploring sound design and works of sonic creation (sound arts).

Another compelling area of exploration lies within the realm of new pitch languages—the xenharmonic philosophy and microtonal/macrotonal pitch definition methods. For the past century, the creation and use of many microtonal methods has been an exciting development in music. This presents new possibilities for differing, extended explorations of ‘tonality’. It seems that the main hindrance to the wider understanding and use of these methods is the result of a lack of any underlying conceptual framework.

At present, we have a growing number of mutually exclusive microtonal pitch definition methods, each with its own notation. As a musician coming from an empirical perspective (practice vs. theory), the impractical situation of learning a new notation system for each microtonal pitch method is a persistent impediment to a larger, unified progress beyond merely creating new microtonal scales. This is where polychromatic music, as a system, comes in.

One way of understanding and distinguishing our contemporary musical terminology of xenharmonic, polychromatic, and microtonal is by a rudimentary differentiation of philosophy, system, and method:

Xenharmonic refers to a philosophy which regards the infinite pitch scale division methods applied to the pitch continuum as equally valuable. Also, it expresses an aesthetic of freedom and openness toward any and all methods of pitch scale division and the exploration of their melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, timbral, etc. implications in new musical compositions.

We have no words for many perceptual aspects of hearing.

The polychromatic system is an intuitive, unifying conceptual framework for exploring any conceivable pitch division method. Our language is grounded in visual concepts: we have no words for many perceptual aspects of hearing: imagery, visualization, dimension, space, etc. As a result, we are faced with communicating auditory concepts in analogy or metaphor. My perspective is to link visual and auditory perceptual concepts into an idea of ‘pitch-color’. The visual basis here is the color spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. From this intuitive basis, we can move from a vague flat/sharp conception of pitch to more refined and distinct conceptual ‘pitch-color’ anchors. So, with yellow as a basis of reference, orange and red would be progressively flatter, and green, blue, violet would be progressively sharper. Using a color spectrum with integrated visual/audible associations on a scale from (infra/flat)red to (ultra/sharp)violet. The distinctions of flat and sharp become an increasingly refined spectrum relative to the chromatic (macro)pitch division method, i.e. C, Db, C# etc.

The polychromatic system uses the chromatic language as a common point of departure. In this context, the chromatic language is characterized by the use of letters as pitch names, and by the representation of musical intervals numerically (and modally:  C-B as a major 7th rather that a 12th). Also, since the pitch-colors of the system are relatively defined (by the method of pitch division), it creates an intuitive bridge between differing microtonal scale derivation methods.

Microtonality consists of the various, exclusive, and divergent methods of pitch division, notation, and theory. Without a unifying conceptual framework, these methods remain mutually exclusive and excessively difficult to assimilate in a unifying and complementary manner.

A point of clarification: with respect to an integrated philosophy-system-method perspective of music, the chromatic musical language is a system, while the various temperament derivations (meantone, well, just, equal, etc.) are methods (of pitch definition).

The above categories are generalized for preliminary understanding. I see polychromatic music primarily as a system, and secondarily as an aesthetic. For me, this aesthetic involves evolving reflections on humanism in an era of increasing technology. And this is why I devote the effort to physically learn and perform my compositions: to create not only demonstrations of new musical possibilities within the polychromatic framework, but also examples of the human musician utilizing technology in a creatively assistive fashion vs. the human musician creatively assisting (editing, compositing) increasingly sophisticated technological processes.

In the next article, I will focus on describing my approach toward learning and composing within a polychromatic system.