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The creation and development of the polychromatic system came as part of a process of practicing and exploring musical possibilities with the Tonal Plexus keyboard. The Tonal Plexus is a microtonal keyboard controller with 211 programmable key-switches (buttons) per octave, designed and manufactured by Aaron Hunt of Hpi Instruments.
I needed to find an intuitive and efficient way to work with 106 notes per octave.
After creating different ergonomic note layouts for the buttons and programming the pitch values for each note assignment, I needed to find an intuitive and efficient way to work with 106 notes per octave. Rather than create another chromatic notation with an overwhelming number of pitch modifier symbols, I expanded chromatic notation into the micro-pitch color dimension and generalized the idea of pitch-color so that it could be used with any pitch division method. As a result, I can use the same polychromatic framework for my practice with 106 and 72 equal divisions of the octave—the values, in Hertz, of each pitch-color vary with each pitch derivation method, while the foundational system remains the same.
The layout of octave (with 106 steps differentiated by color) on the Tonal Plexus.
The next task was to explore different note layout configurations to simplify the technique required to gain a musical proficiency in playing hundreds of key-switch buttons. An option I decided on, was thinking of the keyboard as several horizontal multi-note regions. So, a region (module) of five key switches could be thought of as a kind of ‘string’ on a violin, with each pitch of the module transposed up a fifth from its vertically adjacent module. This is more clearly described in the video below:
This layout pattern greatly expanded the possible fingerings for scales and chords and made more intervals accessible within the reach of a hand span. The Tonal Plexus layouts I use have an advantage of redundant chord/scale fingerings (like the multiple position patterns of each scale on the guitar). These options allow for increased technical flexibility.
The Microzone u648 is built by Starr Labs and has 72 hexagonal key-switches per octave, It is a highly programmable microtonal keyboard which supports overlapping and uniquely shaped ‘zones’ of note layout. However, the type of redundant polychromatic note layout structures that are possible on the Tonal Plexus can’t be implemented on the Microzone u648 without severely limiting its pitch-resolution (i.e. 36 edo with two sets of 3 note ‘modules’, programmed a fifth apart). Instead, I program the Microzone with a simple note layout of stacked chromatic scales. This layout is far easier for conceptualizing the polychromatic system and transferring standard keyboard technique. But it is much more restricted in terms of playing technique, flexibility, and scale/chord possibilities within the hand span.
Keyboard layout on a Microzone u648
Once a note layout is created for the keyboard, I have to create a pitch layout for each note. To create the micro-pitch tuning layouts for these keyboards, I use the Custom Scale Editor (CSE) software developed by Aaron Hunt. The CSE provides an intuitive user interface with many diverse modes of micro-pitch programming functionality (i.e. ratios, Hertz, cents, user definable algorithms, functions, and constants). I have been using fractions in my tuning layouts—so, 72 edo would be programmed as a sequence from 1/72…72/72.
So far, I have been primarily focused on the exploration and composing process and have not had the time to delve into the expansive areas of sound design and MIDI editing. Currently, my primary sound sources include Omnisphere (with 8 channels of channel-independent pitch bend per instance/track) and Kontakt (with 16 channels of channel-independent pitch bend, per instance/track, in omni mode). I edit the sounds I use to have rich harmonic content without sounding brittle or harsh, and to be relatively free of modulation and detuning effects. I do like the sound of a very slow LFO (low frequency oscillator) because, at times, it seems to intensify the qualities of micro-harmonic interactions and structural movement.
My Composing Process
The immensity of new musical possibilities can seem overwhelming.
The immensity of new musical possibilities within the polychromatic system can seem overwhelming. My approach to working within this new paradigm is to continue mastering chromatic rudiments (intervals, scales, chord voicings), and then use this as a basis to begin exploring the vast pitch-color modifications possible within the polychromatic system. I also make sure to practice in all 72 keys so I can continue developing better pitch discrimination, technical fluency, and a sense of the unique qualities of each key.
In this early exploration stage, I orient my polychromatic compositions toward bringing out the sonic qualities of micro-pitch combinations and harmonic/overtone interactions within a musical context of integrated harmony/polyphony and contrast. This is achieved by focusing initially on complex harmony/harmonic qualities over rhythmic, melodic, and sound design/timbral complexity.
As I am working on a composition, I use pencil and paper to transcribe my musical ideas and develop the piece. This handwritten sketch is what I memorize for audio and video recording of the composition. After the performance is recorded, I use Finale notation software to transcribe it into a monochromatic score. Finale only supports the assignment of a single color per pitch, per score. Because of this, I need to export the score as individual image files into Illustrator, a vector graphics editor, to create the polychromatic pitch and symbol coloration of the composition. Finally, these colorized image files are exported into PDF (portable document format) for publishing the polychromatic score on the internet.
I don’t think of polychromatic music as an enhancement of monochromatic music. It is a new musical system and aesthetic that uses the older chromatic framework as a point of departure. The point of these polychromatic explorations is to develop a new, expanding aesthetic within which, the monochromatic framework is only one tonal perspective of many.
Trying to explain what specific new emotions polychromatic music expresses is like trying to describe the color indigo to a person who has never seen it.
I have been asked what specific new emotions or auditory experiences polychromatic music expresses. Seeking an answer to this seems similar to the inevitable difficulty of describing, in words, a process that must be experienced perceptually. It’s like trying to describe the color indigo to a person who has never seen it: maybe as a color ‘in between’ blue and violet. But this, in turn, presumes a prior perceptual experience of blue and violet as well as an understanding of a conceptual color-space which frames the idea of ‘in between’.
So I try to express the new perceptual experiences of polychromatic music by using elements of monochromatic tonality as a foundation to diverge from and contrast with. My composition process is intuitive and guided by exploring new audible qualities and dynamic structures. The ear guides the process, with the secondary assistance of conceptual musical forms and theory. In this sense, monochromatic training, practice and theory are an important foundation and can be effectively used as a starting point – a musical basis to expand from. This is part of the process of expressing new experiences by comparison and through contrast. An established context (tradition) of understanding seems essential as a ‘bridge’ toward expanding musical awareness, perceptual experiences, and paradigms of understanding. And in a larger sense, the awareness, insights, and understanding gained through artistic exploration and expression of micro-pitch music and sound design may also assist in the development of new awareness and insights in the sciences.
In the next and final article in this series, we will explore potential implications of the polychromatic system – for future developments in music, technology and science.
A very important aspect of music composition is, of course, that of consonance and dissonance. Consonant chords sound clean and smooth, whereas dissonant chords sound harsher and generally have an audible “beating,” like a fast tremolo. Dissonance lends the feeling of an unanswered question (such as a dominant 7th chord), and consonance gives us the feeling that it has been answered (such as a major triad). This basic concept of various musical passages leading us through question-and-answer or tension-and-release feelings should be as valid in xenharmonic music as it is in standard twelve-tone music. But it’s a challenge!
Let’s begin with the fact that you can throw most of the harmony lessons you’ve ever had right out the window when composing xenharmonic music. We don’t necessarily hear standard concepts like “major” or “minor” or “dominant” in other tunings. Instead, each tuning is its own alien world ripe with unexplored territory, each with its own set of melodies, chords, and progressions waiting to be discovered and theorized. When we do stumble upon note combinations that remind us of standard chords, they may sound a bit “off,” or else the transition from one chord to another may feel slightly different than what we’re used to. That kind of push and pull on our traditionally trained music brains is what I personally enjoy.
You can throw most of the harmony lessons you’ve ever had right out the window when composing xenharmonic music.
Xenharmonic purists tend to focus on the mathematics of tunings, expressing tonal relationships as interval ratios. They generate beautiful mathematical charts, entropy maps, and latices, which deeply inspire xenharmonic composers, including those of us who aren’t purists! However, many xenharmonic musicians take the desire for pure ratios to an extreme, wanting everything to be perfectly in tune. This leads to an interest in “just tunings” (unequal temperaments based on pure ratios), or using a zillion-notes-per-octave or even “dynamic tunings” that offer a constant stream of perfect chords–as free as possible from any beating. The more pure the ratios (low number integer ratios are purest), the cleaner and smoother the sound.
Harmonic entropy is plotted for triads. See the original post on The Xenharmonic Alliance.
In my mind, however, the more important angle to consider is how we perceive one note or chord leading into the next. We hear music over time as a series of notes and chords, after all. Harmonic movement is where emotion and meaning comes alive in a composition. That is far more important to me than whether each individual snapshot in time is in tune or not. It is all a matter of taste and aesthetic, but I don’t usually enjoy music that is based on pure ratios throughout, because it sounds one dimensional to my ears. It misses the boat on dissonance, which is just as important as consonance. Yin and yang, light and dark, tension and release!
Dissonance is just as important as consonance.
Beating or not, partly what contributes to our sense of consonance and dissonance is simply what we’re used to. In the Western world we’ve heard our imperfect twelve-tone equal temperament all our lives, and therefore may perceive perfectly in-tune 3rds and 6ths as sounding worse than their tempered counterparts, which have more beating. That simple fact has sparked much curiosity and debate about how our brains actually perceive consonance and dissonance.
It may be a surprise to learn that modern research shows strong evidence that beating is not the best measure of whether chords and intervals sound pleasant or in tune (Edward Large et al.). Our brains don’t directly decipher in tune-ness from beating. What actually happens when we hear musical sound is that our neurons begin oscillating, and this “neural resonance” dynamically “pulls” intervals into tune, as long as the frequencies are within proximity to ratios of the harmonic series. In chaos theory speak, our neural oscillations become an “attractor.” In musician speak, if it’s close enough for rock’n’roll, it will sound in tune!
In musician speak, if it’s close enough for rock’n’roll, it will sound in tune!
I think this is good news all around. For one, the research shows that our sense of consonance is indeed driven by our preference for the harmonic series, and therefore all of our traditional musical ideas still stand. But more profoundly, it shows that our traditional harmony is a mere branch of something larger. With every new research paper in this field, we can begin to see the outlines of a universal harmonic theory, implying that we can develop unique but related “harmonic rules” for any tuning.
Now enter my world as an equal-temperament composer. I believe that music composition in equal temperaments is easier and simpler than using “just” tunings or other options and that it’s an entirely legitimate means of music composition. For me, personally, equal temperaments have offered decades of fascinating exploration—messy ratios and all. I prefer to fully explore equal-tempered tunings that have a very limited number of notes, such as 10edo, 16edo, 17edo, or 19edo, and discovering their particular “flavor”, as opposed to working with something like 53edo that has so many choices of frequencies that it doesn’t, in itself, offer a distinct flavor.
What are these flavors I speak of? In general, microtonal scales (smaller than half steps) offer a tenser vibe, and macrotonal scales (larger than half steps) have a more open and alien feel. Any tuning can just as easily sound ugly or exotic or beautiful. It really truly depends on how it is used. When I’m trying out a new tuning, it always starts off on the ugly end of the spectrum until I mess around for quite a while, eventually discovering chord combinations and nifty melodic lines, and what intervals to avoid.
Any tuning can just as easily sound ugly or exotic or beautiful.
It really helps to have a proper instrument to discover your new tuning on. Even if you aren’t a piano player, keyboard “controllers” (meaning no internal sounds–just keys) are a very flexible and relatively inexpensive way for anyone to get into xenharmonic composition or to expand the setup you may already have. And this goes hand in hand with the “virtual instrument” synthesizers I reviewed last week. I have collected several keyboards over the years and have rearranged the black/white keys for each of my favorite tunings.
The current trend is to use M-Audio Keystations (49, 61, or 88 keys), which can be had for anywhere from $50-$200 on eBay and other online stores. If you can afford it, buy more than one so that you will have extra keys. You’ll need them if you’re going to dive in and rearrange the keys! Some tunings will need extra black notes, and some will need extra white notes. It’s cheaper in the long run to buy extra keyboards rather than extra individual keys, which are usually marked way up in price.
Here is a video that shows how I remove and rearrange keys on an 88 note Keystation–in this case, for a 15-note tuning which requires lots of black keys! As you’ll see, you only need a screwdriver, needle nose pliers, and possibly a sander of some sort.
One deciding factor in choosing a tuning is the level of difficulty in building a keyboard. Scales that require a smaller ratio of white notes than normal are easier to put together. White keys have a wider area to contend with and trying to squeeze more of them on the keyboard causes a need for them to be thinner. I have sanded many white keys thinner in my day. It works but is not ideal, as pianists are used to uniformly sized white keys. On the other hand, using more black keys than normal results in gaps between the keys, and thus a wider spacing than normal.
I will show a few keyboard examples here along with music links for each, and perhaps you’ll see/hear something that attracts you. Then you can either build one yourself, or ask one of us to build one for you!
10edo is one of my all-time favorites, and yet it gets a bad rap for its impure ratios. Here is something I wrote in 10edo. The diatonic scale in 10edo has larger half and whole steps than 12edo, and the thirds are right in between Major and minor, lending to its alien feel. The diatonic scale has a harmonic minor vibe to it. In a perfect world, a ten-tone keyboard would look like this:
However, putting three white keys in a row would involve skipping some of the keyboard contacts where there would normally be a black note. One solution is to make the C a black note painted white. However, it would be a bit strange since C is the first note of the diatonic scale.
Otherwise, here is my “cheater way,” as I call it: Sawing off the wide part of the white keys allows any desired black/white key arrangement. For this style of keyboard, I remove the entire keyboard cover and build my own handle onto the back. It looks prettier than having a big gap where the white keys are chopped off, but fashioning the handle itself is work! I would not judge anyone who leaves it in the original casing.
19edo is highly recommended for anyone who feels a bit intimidated by xenharmonic music composition and would like to ease into it. It is a good “transition tuning,” as it offers something close to our 12-tone diatonic scale but with more pure 3rds and 6ths. Mind you, it has worse 4ths and 5ths–there is always a tradeoff. The experience of 19edo is like an exotic version of 12edo, with some extra black notes for ornamentation. Here is one of my 19edo songs from the ‘90s.
The most typical 19edo keyboard, however, requires doubled up black keys, which leaves unsightly gaps. But again, who’s going to judge? Not I! Simply play a whole step instead of a half step, and a minor third instead of a whole step, and you’ll see the relationship to 12edo!
19-tone keyboard by Darren McDougall. Having more black notes than usual creates gaps between the white keys.
The 17edo keyboard is easy to make, as it has the same ratio of black:white keys as 12edo. It looks like a surreal piano. I thought 17edo sounded terrible until I got used to it, and now it is one of my favorites. 17edo is also a clear favorite in the xenharmonic community. Here is something I composed in 17edo.
17-tone “Insanetar” Vertical Keyboard by Elaine Walker. The keys fit perfectly since it has the same ratio of white and black keys as a standard piano.
Here is a 13edo keyboard which has some white keys shaved thinner. 13edo music is neuron-bending since it is just slightly off from 12edo. Enjoy this 13edo music by Aaron Andrew Hunt. I would not suggest trying this at home. I mainly wanted to show this crazy keyboard with the squished white keys around the single black notes.
13-tone keyboard by Elaine Walker. Having more white notes than normal causes them to not fit. Some white keys are sanded thinner.
When you start looking around The Xenharmonic Alliance and other websites, you will notice many other keyboard options, such as isomorphic keyboards, although they tend to be quite pricy and largely unavailable. My favorite of these is a specific type of hexagon keyboard, known as a sonome (which is like saying “hexagon piano”). If you can get your hands on something cool like this, do it! It will open up a world of xenharmonic improvisation that isn’t as easy on a regular keyboard. Having a five octave reach, seeing chords as “shapes,” and being able to transpose while maintaining the same fingering, can make xenharmonic composition a much smoother experience.
I suggest that you not worry about theory.
Whichever tuning or instrument you choose to compose with, I suggest that you not worry about theory and just improvise by ear for as much time as you can spare. Don’t fret over the specifics of your timbres beyond whether they sound good to you–that is, if you want to compose truly beautiful xenharmonic music. At some point you will want to see what theory is “out there” for your tuning, if any, and it will be interesting to compare it to what you come up with on your own. Share your music and findings with the xenharmonic community. It is always exciting when someone posts new music. Don’t be shy about asking questions. We’re all happy to help and we even build keyboards for each other.
I will leave you with some more informative links:
Are you itching to dive in and compose some xenharmonic music, that is, to use scales that have more, or less, notes per octave than our standard twelve-tone tuning? I sure hope so because it is a largely unexplored musical universe with a lot of room for composers to find their niche.
There are many directions to explore, and it really depends on the mindset of each musician as to where to begin. One area is that of “just tunings” where most intervals are perfect ratio combinations of the harmonic series, so that chords are as in tune as possible with very little beating. This is where the mathematically inclined musical purists gravitate.
Another direction to explore is that of equal temperaments where tunings consist of an octave divided equally by any number of scale degrees. We say “19edo” to mean 19 equal divisions of the octave. (Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, it was more popular to say “19-tone equal temperament” or “19tet”.) My favorites are 10edo, 16edo, and 17edo. This is my world, where there is no need to sweat over ratios or technicalities, but to just play by ear and enjoy the distinct flavor of each tuning.
In the past it was easier to find synthesizers that could be tuned to equal temperament than ones that allowed for the full tuning of individual notes across the keyboard. But nowadays many synthesizers will do either one just as easily. Technology is certainly further along than when I began composing xenharmonic music. In 1990, I used hardware synthesizers and standard keyboards. It was so exciting that it didn’t seem like too much trouble at the time, but nowadays it is a far more streamlined experience.
For example, it used to seem normal to put stickers on my keyboard keys to keep track of where the octaves were for any given tuning. It’s easy to see where octaves are on a piano because of the black/white note pattern of the keys–a well-thought-out decision of long ago. Xenharmonic tunings would not only need a greater or lesser number of keys per octave, but the musician has a choice as to which keys are the “diatonic keys” (white keys) and which should be “accidentals” (black keys), and therefore what the black/white note pattern should be. I will talk more about this in my final post next week, but just imagine staring at a regular piano keyboard and trying to write 17-note-per-octave music. It was strange, but we used to do it that way–with stickers!
And I used to patiently navigate through the maze of editing pages on my hardware synthesizers’ tiny screens to access the “slope” or “keytracking” or “keyfollow” of each oscillator, in order to adjust how much the pitch rises as one plays up the keyboard. Depending on the synthesizer, the slope might anchor on a different arbitrary “root note” (such as middle C or A440). So different synths wouldn’t be in tune with each other until their individual “master tuning” was adjusted by ear, tuning the whole keyboard up or down uniformly until it audibly matched every other synthesizer. “It’s close enough for rock’n’roll,” I would say. And it was! But the whole experience was not for the weak willed. Only we musicians who were determined and slightly eccentric thought it was fun.
The old days of hardware synths. Or maybe you’re a geek like me. I sometimes still use them!
But things are way easier now! These days many of us rearrange the black and white keys on our keyboards to match each specific tuning. Inexpensive lightweight keyboard controllers didn’t exist back in the day, nor did eBay, but now it’s not hard for someone with a tight budget to eventually collect a few $50 keyboards and arrange them for their favorite tunings (or ask one of us in The Xenharmonic Alliance community to rearrange a keyboard for you). As for sounds, now we simply call up a “tuning file” on any number of software synthesizers that can be had for a fraction of what we used to pay for hardware synthesizers–and the tunings are accurate!
Nowadays anyone can dive right in and give xenharmonic music a shot.
Indeed, nowadays anyone can dive right in and give xenharmonic music a shot. But before you get started, you’ll need a starting place. Are you a just intonation-minded person, or an equal temperament type? Are you an acoustic musician, an electronic musician, or interested in both? Many xenharmonic composers intermix with different types of musicians, partly because there are so few xenharmonic musicians around, but also because the mix of electronic production and the organic expression of the acoustic world can mesh very nicely.
Let’s start with your own acoustic instrument if you have one that doesn’t have fixed frets or keys, such as a violin, cello, harp, trombone, slide guitar, or your voice, etc. For advice on what tunings would be best to try for your specific instrument, and advice for how to tune your instrument if need be, I would highly suggest posting a note to The Xenharmonic Alliance on Facebook. You will get answers fast. Don’t be shy! It is a very friendly and helpful community. Perhaps you want to try building a custom instrument? The community can help you with that, too.
For acoustic instruments, you will need a list of frequencies for whichever tuning you’d like to try. If you don’t manage to get this info directly by asking The Xenharmonic Alliance community, software such as Custom Scale Editor for Macintosh, or Scala for Windows or Linux, will allow you to generate tuning charts. Once you figure out what tuning you want to try, and how best to tune your instrument, I suggest using a hardware or software Hertz-reading tuner and a microphone to tune your instrument. A laptop with a built-in microphone would be most handy for that. Another approach is to use a VST synthesizer with your tuning loaded, and with a clean sound, tune your acoustic instrument by ear to match the synthesizer notes.
What is a VST synthesizer? It’s an opportunity to get free xenharmonic-friendly synthesizers, that’s what! It stands for Virtual Studio Technology and is an audio plugin standard created by Steinberg in 1996 that allows third parties to create their own software plugins for free or commercial use, so there are a gazillion of them out there. There are other virtual synthesizer formats, but none have as many free instruments available or work with as many different music programs, so I will just list VST-capable synths here.
I suggest expanding your xenharmonic universe into the digital world because there will be more choices of tunings and sounds.
Even if you are an acoustic musician, I suggest expanding your xenharmonic universe into the digital world because there will be more choices of tunings and sounds. And vice versa. Synthesizers are my world, but I very much enjoy the organic nature of performing alongside acoustic musicians.
You’ll need a VST host software application in order to load and play VST synths. Normally this would be a sequencing program such as a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). Ableton Live, Logic Pro (Macintosh-only), and FL Studio (PC-only) are highly recommended. These programs will not only allow you to record MIDI tracks (also known as Instrument tracks) but will also allow you to record audio tracks of your acoustic instruments. Here is a bigger list of VST host music software. I personally use Ableton now, and it’s nice because it has a built-in tutorial that steps you through the learning curve using its own demo song. I used Pro Tools for a number of years, and Ableton is a bit different, but the tutorial made it easy to make the transition.
Ableton Live (the VST host software, or “DAW” that I use) and the options page of LinPlug’s Morphox synthesizer, showing where the tuning file is selected.
And below I will list a few VST synthesizers that I either own myself or that have gotten great reviews from trusted musician friends. As I mentioned earlier, you can simply call up a tuning file (.tun) from each synthesizer, which will automatically tune it. No more fiddling around with the individual controls to get each synthesizer microtuned in addition to getting each synth in tune with the rest. With tuning files, all of your synths will have the same “root note” frequency from which the entire tuning is based, and therefore your synths will match each other.
Many synthesizers can navigate to any directory to grab tuning files (such as 19edo.tun, bohlen-pierce-scale.tun, etc.), so I recommend having one master “Tuning Files” folder for all of your synths to share, except for the ones that need the tuning files to be in a specific directory. While we’re on the topic, go ahead and download this folder of Tuning Files and put it somewhere that you’ll remember, such as your music directory. For the more picky synthesizers, I will include the directory path where you’ll need to place your tuning files, because that piece of the puzzle can be hard to find in any documentation or online search.
Linplug’s Morphox is my current favorite VST. When you open Morphox you will see the main synthesizer controls, which you can ignore for now. Simply click on the “Options” button on the bottom right to open the back panel. Here you will find the “Microtonal Scale” section. Click the “Open” button next to it and navigate to your tuning files folder, then select the tuning you want. On the main page, click on “Demo Presets” at the bottom and explore the different factory sounds! Some of the arpeggiated sounds may sound a bit off because they were programmed for twelve tones, but this can all be adjusted once you get to know the synth a bit better. For now, just stick to the ones that sound good.
U-He’s Zebra2 is another favorite of mine. Zebra needs a tuning folder to be located here for PC: /program files/u-he/Tunefiles, or for Macintosh: /Library/Application Support/u-he/Tunefiles. When you open Zebra, you will see the “Voice MicroTuning” menu in the “Global” section on the bottom left. Click to open that window, and if it looks blank or you’re having trouble seeing the tuning file that you want in particular, control-click on “User” and select “Reveal in Finder”. The directory where the tuning files need to be will pop up. Copy your .tun files from you master tuning files folder here, and you’ll be good to go.
Alchemy is the most powerful sample-manipulation instrument in Logic Pro. Load your micro tuning files into the tuning folder located here: Program Files/Camel Audio/Alchemy/Libraries/Tuning.
Spectrasonics Omnisphere2 is highly recommended by my brother who is a top notch Las Vegas musician, composer, and producer. Omnisphere is one of his favorites. Load your micro tuning files for Windows here: Program Files/Spectrasonics/STEAM/Omnisphere/Settings Library/Presets/Tuning File. Or, for Macintosh: Library/Application Support/Spectrasonics/STEAM/Omnisphere/Settings Library/Presets/Tuning File/. Make a new folder in this tuning file folder, and place your .tun files there.
So there you have it. Get hold of a music-sequencing program that works for you and a synthesizer or two that reads .tun files. And if you are an acoustic musician, get ready to experience your instrument in a whole new way. Next week I will talk more about specific tunings that are great for the beginner and xenharmonic composition techniques. I will also show you how to rearrange the keys on an affordable MIDI keyboard controller and more.
One might think that by this day and age, musicians on the whole have explored just about every aspect of music and pushed every thinkable musical boundary. Over the centuries, and especially in modern times, composers have experimented with every crazy rhythm, every unconventional time signature, every possible chord and chord combination, and every exotic new sound using every possible synthesis technique and sample manipulation. But one aspect that most musicians overlook is the prospect of using a completely new tonality–a different number of notes per octave.
Imagine squeezing extra keys in between other piano keys, or scooting the frets on a guitar closer together or farther apart and attempting to make music with it. It would be impossible to play any standard songs because the normal notes and note relationships have been shifted. “Xenharmonic” is the generic term that we use to refer to scales that have more, or less, notes per octave than our standard twelve-tone tuning. The pitches in xenharmonic scales are either too close together or too far apart to fit any familiar melody we’ve ever known. However, it is possible to write new music with new harmonic relationships that humankind has never heard before.
It is possible to write new music with new harmonic relationships that humankind has never heard before.
In the early ’80s, I was a curious teenager getting into writing pop songs. I had that typical feeling of wanting to push the boundaries. The tools of the time, for the most part, offered limitless potential. The sounds that came out of my synthesizers seemed unlimited, and clearly there was nothing stopping anyone from composing any possible rhythm. Nothing was stopping any musician from inventing new musical genres. I had no qualms about writing weird chord progressions and unnaturally leaping melodies to push the boundaries of pop music tonality. Being weird fit with the times after all.
But during the course of composing two music albums, I began to feel the monotony of using the same twelve notes over and over, no matter what quirky combinations I came up with. And that felt like an actual boundary. It was such a hard boundary brainwashed into my musically trained mind that I’m not sure I realized it was an artificial one. It felt more like an inevitable law of physics. After all, there were only twelve notes that I knew of in the world. There were twelve notes per octave on pianos, electric keyboards, guitars, and most instruments in the Western hemisphere. There were twelve notes per octave on any sheet music that I had ever seen. Surely there was a fundamental scientific reason for it.
It’s true that I could slide to any note with my voice or cello, and my mom could slide notes on her viola and even do some cool slides on her clarinet. But anyone with any sense would surely land on a regular note after inserting a bluesy slide here and there. I recall asking my mother, “What about the notes in between piano notes?” She explained that of course there are an infinite number of pitches, but that for historical and acoustical reasons a twelve-tone scale was derived long ago and we have used it ever since. So pianos and most other instruments are fixed in that tuning. Mom’s answer was satisfying enough–until some years later when I was hit over the head with xenharmonic music!
At Berklee College of Music in 1990, my professor, Dr. Richard Boulanger, played and sang a piece he had written in a xenharmonic tuning. My professor’s music washed over me like an exotic alien atmosphere, and my hair stood on end. I decided almost instantly that I would never write in a twelve-tone tuning ever again. I didn’t entirely keep that promise to myself, as I inevitably experienced the difficulties involved in re-tuning my synthesizer sounds, the fact that any new tuning was unrelated to the black and white keyboard pattern, and the bewilderment of writing music with no theoretical knowledge of the tuning. I had spent my life learning “music theory,” and there was no theory that I knew of for any other tunings. For all these reasons, it was much faster to write with only twelve tones. But eventually I would come to write exclusively in xenharmonic tunings.
I started with 19 notes per octave since it contains 12 notes that closely resemble our regular tuning. That makes it easier! I tried the Bohlen-Pierce scale. I tried 10 notes per octave, 16, 17, and—to my horror—13. I have been composing xenharmonic music for more than 25 years and haven’t even tried all of the tunings I’d like to try. It’s an endless universe.
Elaine (right) and friend with xenharmonic Vertical Keyboards.
Take some time now to listen to some xenharmonic music to let the very idea of it sink in. In my long experience of subjecting new listeners to xenharmonic music, I find that it usually takes 30 seconds to a minute for someone’s ears to relax enough to accept the new notes and chords. Some begin to enjoy the music at this point, and some reject it. Some hear it as amazing notes from outer space, some just hear it as “normal,” some hear it as being out of tune, and some are utterly repulsed by it. I assure you, this music is indeed fully in tune, according to the scale it is written in. But it can be a shock to uninitiated ears.
Like everything else, we are all different in the way we perceive music. When I was getting my master’s degree from New York University, I conducted a number of listening tests for a particular xenharmonic tuning. The subjects were asked to listen to a series of chord progressions and rate how well each one resolved, whether the first and last chords sounded like a tonic, how well they could decipher a key change, etc. They were also asked to rate similar aspects of composed xenharmonic music. The opinions on almost every question were all across the board. It depends on what we’re used to, what culture we are from, what musical styles we’re into, whether we are musically trained, whether we have perfect pitch, and generally how musically open-minded or adventurous we are. Psychoacoustics is a very complicated field.
There are enough musicians in the world composing music with twelve tones that the world does not need me to write more of it.
The way I see it is that there are enough musicians in the world composing music with twelve tones that the world does not need me personally to write more of it. I seem to have a rare knack for composing in xenharmonic tunings, and I am personally drawn to it, so I feel that it’s my calling.
In general, it is the most ignored possibility in musical composition. Western composers over the ages have made many attempts to break out of our tonal system, but usually opted to do so by using unconventional compositional techniques with the same old twelve notes. Twelve-tone serialism, atonal composition, and randomly generated music all manage to completely erase our sense of tonality or “key” that we are accustomed to. But the point of xenharmonic music is not to do away with tonality, but to try new and different tonalities.
Elaine Walker is an electronic musician, microtonal composer, and builds new types of music keyboards. She is also the author of a physics/philosophy book, Matter Over Mind: Cosmos, Chaos, and Curiosity.
Despite his fascination with extremely dense structures, California-based composer Chris Brown is surprisingly tolerant about loosely interpreting them. Chalk it up to being realistic about expectations, or a musical career that has been equally devoted to composing and improvising, but to Brown “the loose comes with the tight.” That seemingly contradictory dichotomy informs everything he creates, whether it’s designing elaborate electronic feedback systems that respond to live performances and transform them in real time or—for his solo piano tour-de-force Six Primes—calculating a complete integration of pitch and meter involving 13-limit just intonation and a corresponding polyrhythm of, say, 13 against 7.
“I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer,” Brown admitted when we chatted with him in a Lower East Side hotel room at a break before a rehearsal during his week-long residency at The Stone. “It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new. It’s not easy to get there. It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.”
Yet despite Brown’s dedication and deep commitment to uncharted musical relationships that are often extraordinarily difficult to perform, Brown is hardly a stickler for precision.
“If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good,” he explained. “I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. … It’s not about getting more purity. There’s always this element that’s a little out of control. … If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there.”
Brown firmly believes that the human element is central and that computers should never replace people. As he put it, “It’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually.”
So for Brown, musical complexity is ultimately just a means to an end which is about giving listeners greater control of their own experiences with what they are hearing. In the program notes for a CD recording of his electro-acoustic sound installation Talking Drum, Brown claimed that he reason he is attracted to complex music is “because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.”
Brown’s aesthetics grew out of his decades of experience as an improviser—over the years he’s collaborated with an extremely wide range of musicians including Wayne Horvitz, Wadada Leo Smith, and Butch Morris—and from being one of the six composers who collectively create live networked computer music as The Hub. Long before he got involved in any of these projects, Brown was an aspiring concert pianist who was obsessed with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto which he performed with the Santa Cruz Symphony as an undergrad. Now he has come to realize that even standard classical works are not monoliths.
“Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained,” he pointed out. “It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done. Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.”
Chris Brown’s first album was released in 1989, ironically the same year as the birth of another musical artist who shares his name, a Grammy Award-winning and Billboard chart-topping R & B singer-songwriter and rapper. This situation has led to some funny anecdotes involving mistaken identity—calls to his Mills College office requesting he perform Sweet Sixteen parties—as well as glitches on search engines including the one on Amazon.
“These are basically search algorithm anomalies,” he conceded wryly. To me it’s yet another reason to heed his advice about machines and not to overly rely on them to solve all the world’s problems.
Chris Brown in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded at Off Soho Suites Hotel, New York, NY
June 22, 2017—3:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu.
Frank J. Oteri: Once I knew you were coming to New York City for a week-long residency at The Stone and that we’d have a chance to have a conversation, I started looking around to see if there were any recordings of your music that I hadn’t yet heard. When I did a search on Amazon, I kept getting an R & B singer-songwriter and rapper named Chris Brown, who was actually born the year that the first CD under your name was released.
Chris Brown: Say no more.
FJO: I brought it up because I think it raises some interesting issues about celebrity. There is now somebody so famous who has your name, and you’ve had a significant career as a composer for years before he was born. But maybe there’s a silver lining in it. Perhaps it’s brought other people to your music who might not otherwise have known about it—people who were looking for the other Chris Brown, especially on Amazon since both your recordings and his show up together.
CB: These are basically search algorithm anomalies, but the story behind that is that when the famous Chris Brown started to become famous, I started getting recorded messages on my office phone machine at Mills, because people would search for Chris Brown’s music and it would take them to the music department at Mills. They would basically be fan gushes for the most part. Sometimes they would involve vocalizing, because they were trying to get a chance to record. Sometimes they would ask if he could play their Sweet Sixteen party. There were tons of them. At the beginning, every day, there were long messages of crying and doing anything so that they could get close to Chris Brown in spite of the fact that my message was always a professorial greeting. It didn’t matter. So it was a hassle. Occasionally I would engage with the people by saying this is not the right Chris Brown and trying to send them somewhere else.
It’s a common name. When I was growing up, there weren’t that many Chrises, but somehow it got really popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Anyway, these days not much happens, except that what it’s really meant is kind of a blackout for me on internet searches. It’s hard to find me if somebody’s looking. Since I started working at Mills, the first thing that David Rosenboom said to me when I came in is there’s thing called the internet and you should get an email account. Everybody was making funny little handles for themselves as names. From that day, mine was cbmuse for Chris Brown Music. I still have that same email address at Mills.edu. So I go by cbmuse. That’s the best I can do. Sometimes some websites say Christopher Owen Brown, using the John Luther Adams approach to too many John Adamses. It’s kind of a drag, but on the other hand, it’s a little bit like living on the West Coast anyway, which is that you’re out of the main commercial aspect of your field, which is really in New York. On the West Coast, there’s not as much traffic so you have more time and space. To some extent, you’re not so much about your handle; you still get to be an individual and be yourself. I could have made a new identity for myself, but I sort of felt like I don’t want to do that. I’ve always gone by Chris Brown. I’ve never really attached to Christopher Brown. Maybe this is a longer answer than you were looking for.
FJO: It’s more than I thought I’d get. I thought it could have led to talking about your piece Rogue Wave, which features a DJ. Perhaps Rouge Wave could be a gateway piece for the fans of the other Chris Brown to discover your music.
CB: I don’t think that happens though. That was not an attempt to do something commercial. I could talk about that if you like, since we’re on it. Basically, the DJ on it, Eddie Def, was somebody I met through a gig where I was playing John Zorn’s music at a rock club in San Francisco and through Mike Patton, who knew about him. He invited Eddie to play in the session and he just blew me away. I was playing samples and he was playing samples. I was playing mine off my Mac IIci, with a little keyboard, and he was playing off records. He was cutting faster than I was some of the time. Usually you think, “Okay, I’ve a got a sample in every key. I can go from one to the other very quickly.” He just matched me with every change. So we got to be friends and really liked each other. We did a number of projects together. That was just one of them. He’s a total virtuoso, so that’s why I did a piece with him.
FJO: You’ve worked with so many different kinds of musicians over the years. From a stylistic perspective, it’s been very open-ended. The very first recording I ever heard you on, which was around the time it came out, was Wayne Horvitz’s This New Generation, which is a fascinating record because it mixes these really out there sounds with really accessible grooves and tunes.
CB: I knew Wayne from college at UC Santa Cruz. He was kind of the ringmaster of the improv scene in the early ‘70s in Santa Cruz. I wasn’t quite in that group, but I would join it and I picked up a lot about what was going on in improvised music through participating with them in some of their jam sessions. Wayne and I were friends, so when he moved to New York, I’d sometimes come to visit him. Eventually, he moved out of New York to San Francisco. I had an apartment available in my building, so he lived in it. He was basically living above us. He was continuing to do studio projects, and this was one of them. He had his little studio setup upstairs and one day he said, “Would you come upstairs and record a couple of tracks for me?” He played his stuff and he asked me to play one of the electro-acoustic instruments that I built, so I did. I didn’t think too much more of it than that, but then it appeared on this Electra-Nonesuch record and there was a little check for it. It was my little taste of that part of the new music scene that was going on in New York. Eventually Wayne moved out and now he lives in Seattle. We still see each other occasionally. It’s an old friendship.
FJO: You’ve actually done quite a bit of work with people who have been associated with the jazz community, even though I know that word is a limiting word, just like classical is a limiting word. You’ve worked with many pioneers of improvisational music, including Wadada Leo Smith and Butch Morris, and you were also a member of the Glenn Spearman Double Trio, which was a very interesting group. It’s very sad. He died very young.
FJO: So how did you become involved with improvised music?
CB: Well, I was a classically trained pianist and I eventually wound up winning a scholarship and played the [Robert] Schumann Piano Concerto with the Santa Cruz Symphony. But I was starting to realize that that was not going to be my future because I was interested in humanities and the new wave of philosophy—Norman O. Brown. I got to study with him when I was there, and he told me I should really check out John Cage because he was a friend of Cage’s: “If you’re doing music, you should know what this is.” So I went out and got the books, and I was completely beguiled and entranced by them. It was a whole new way of listening to sound as well as music, or music as sound, erasing the boundary. So I was very influenced by that, but almost at the same time I was getting to know these other friends in the department who were coming more out of rock backgrounds. They were influenced by people like Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the free jazz improvisers. These jam sessions that Wayne would run were in some way related. There were a lot of influences on that musical strain, but that’s where I started improvising.
To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world.
I was also studying with Gordon Mumma and with a composer named William Brooks, who was a Cage scholar as well as a great vocalist and somebody who’d studied with Kenneth Gaburo. With Brooks, I took a course that was an improvisation workshop where the starting point was no instruments, just movement and words—that part was from the Gaburo influence. That was a semester of every night getting together and improvising with an ensemble. I think it was eight people. I’d love if that had been documented. I have never seen or heard it since then, but it influenced me quite a bit. To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world. Why wouldn’t a musician want to do it? Then, on the other side of this, people from the New York school were coming by and were really trying to distinguish what they did from improvisation. I think there was a bit of an uptown/downtown split there. They were trying to say this is more like classical music and not like improvisation. It’s a discipline of a different nature. Ultimately I think it’s a class difference that was being asserted. And I think Cage had something to do with that, trying to distinguish what he did from jazz. He was trying to get away from jazz.
I didn’t have much of a jazz background, but I had an appreciation for it growing up in Chicago. I had some records. At the beginning I’d say my taste in jazz was a little more Herbie Hancock influenced than Cecil Taylor. But once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same. This is music of the same time. It may have been made in totally different ways, and it results from a different energy and feeling from those things, but it’s not that different. And it seems to me that there’s more in common than there is not. So I really never felt there was that boundary. So I participated in sessions with musicians who were improvising with or without pre-designed structures. It was just something I did.
Once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same.
The first serious professional group I got involved with was a group called Confluence. This came about in the late 1970s with some of my older friends from Santa Cruz, who’d gone down and gotten master’s degrees at UC San Diego. It was another interesting convergence of these two sides of the world. They worked with David Tudor on Rainforest, the piece where you attach transducers to an object, pick up the sound after it’s gone through the object, and then amplify it again. Sometimes there’s enough sound out of the object itself that it has an acoustic manifestation. Anyway, it’s a fantastic piece and they were basically bringing that practice into an improvisation setting. The rule of the group was no pre-set compositional design and no non-homemade instruments. You must start with an instrument you made yourself and usually those instruments were electro-acoustic, so they had pickups on them, somewhat more or less like Rainforest instruments. The other people in that group were Tom Nunn and David Poyourow. When David got out of school he wanted to move up to the Bay Area and continue this group. One of the members of it then had been another designer, a very interesting instrument maker named Prent Rodgers. And he bailed. He didn’t want to be a part of it. So they needed a new member. So David asked me if I’d be interested, and I was. I always had wanted to get more involved with electronic music, but being pretty much a classical nerd, I didn’t really have the chops for the technology. David, on the other hand, came from that background. His father was a master auto mechanic, from the electrical side all the way to the mechanical side. David really put that skill into his instrument building practice and then he taught it to me, basically. He showed me how to solder, and I learned from Tom how to weld, because some of these instruments were made out of sheet metal with bronze brazing rods. I started building those instruments in a sort of tradition they’d begun, searching for my own path with it, which eventually came about when I started taking pianos apart and making electric percussion instruments from it.
So, long story short, I was an improviser before I was a notes-on-paper composer. That’s how I got into composing. I started making music directly with instruments and with sound. It was only as that developed further that I started wanting to structure them more.
FJO: So you composed no original music before you started improvising?
CB: There were a few attempts, but they were always fairly close to either Cageian influence or a minimalist influence. I was trying out these different styles. Early on, I was a follower and appreciator of Steve Reich’s music. Another thing I did while I was at Santa Cruz was play the hell out of Piano Phase. We’d go into a practice room and play for hours, trying to perfect those phase transitions with two upright pianos. I was also aware of Steve’s interest in music from Bali and from Africa. These were things that I appreciated also.
FJO: I know that you spent some time in your childhood in the Philippines.
CB: I grew up between the years of five and nine in the Philippines. It wasn’t a long time, as life goes, but it was also where I started playing the piano. I was five years old in the Philippines and taking piano lessons there. I was quite taken with the culture, or with the cultural experience I had let’s say, while I was there. I went to school with Filipino kids, and it was not isolated in some kind of American compound. I grew up on the campus of the University of the Philippines, which is a beautiful area outside of the main city, Manila.
FJO: Did you get to hear any traditional music?
Being an improviser is a great way to get into a cultural interaction.
CB: Very little because the Philippines had their music colonized. It exists though, and later I reconnected with musicians at that school, particularly José Maceda, which is another long story in my history. I’ve made music with Filipino instruments and Filipino composers. One of the nice things about being an improviser is that collaboration comes much easier than if you’re trying to control everything about the design of the piece of music, so I’ve collaborated with a lot of people all over the place, including performances before we really knew what we were doing. It’s an exploratory thing you do with people, and it’s a great way to get into a cultural interaction.
Chris Brown in performance with Vietnamese-American multi-instrumentalist Vanessa Vân-Ánh Võ at San Francisco Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum on April 13, 2017
FJO: I want to get back to your comment about your first pieces being either Cageian or influenced by minimalism. I found an early piano piece of yours called Sparks on your website, which is definitely a minimalist piece, but it’s a hell of a lot more dissonant than anything Reich would have written at that time. It’s based on creating gradual variance through repetition, but you’re fleshing out pitch relations in ways that those composers wouldn’t necessarily have done.
CB: I’m very glad you brought that up. I think that was probably the first piece that I still like and that has a quality to it that was original to me. From Reich I was used to the idea of a piece of music as a continuous flow of repetitive action. But it really came out of tuning pianos, basically banging on those top notes of the piano as you’re trying to get them into tune. I started to hear the timbre up there as being something that splits into different levels. You can actually hear the pitch if you care to attend to it. A lot of times the pitch is hard to get into tune there, especially with pianos that have three strings [per note]. They’re never perfectly in tune. They’re also basically really tight, so their harmonic overtones are stretched. They’re wider than they should be. They’re inharmonic, rather than harmonic, so it’s a kind of a timbral event. So what I was doing was kind of droning on a particular timbre that exists at the top of the piano, trying to move into a kind of trance state while I was moving as fast as I can repeating these notes. The piece starts at the very top two notes, and then it starts widening its scope, until it goes down an octave, and then it moves back up. It was a process-oriented piece. There wasn’t a defined harmonic spectrum to it except that which is created when you make that shape over a chromatically tuned top octave of the piano. It didn’t have the score. It was something that was in my brain. It would be a little different every time, but basically it was a process, like a Steve Reich process piece, one of the earliest ones.
FJO: So when did you create the notated score for it?
CB: Well, I tried a couple of times, but it wasn’t very satisfactory. I made the first version for a pianist who lives in Germany named Jennifer Hymer. She played it first probably around 2000. Then 15 years later, another pianist at Mills—Julie Moon—played it, and she played the heck out of it. So now there is a score, but I still feel like I need to fix that score.
FJO: I think it’s really cool, and I was thrilled that there was a score for it online that I could see. You also included a recording of it.
CB: I just don’t think the score reflects as well as it could what the piece is about. I always intended for there to be a little bit of freedom in it that isn’t apparent when you just write one set of notes going to the next set of notes. There has to be a certain sensibility that needs to be described better.
FJO: Bouncing off of this, though it might seem like a strange connection to make, when I heard that piece and thought about how it’s taking this idea of really hardcore early minimalist process music, but adding more layers of dissonance to it, it seemed in keeping with a quote that you have in your notes for the published recording of Talking Drum, which I thought was very interesting: “I favor densely complex music, because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.” I found that quote very inspiring because it focuses on the listener and giving the listener more choices about what to focus on.
CB: I think I still agree with that. I’m not always quite going for the most complex thing I can find, but I do have an attraction to it. Most of the pieces that I do wind up being pretty complicated in terms of how I get to the result I’m after, even though those results may require more or less active listening. I was kind of struck last night by the performance I did of Six Primes with Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley. The harmonic aspect of the music is much more prominent and much more beauty-oriented than the piano version is. When I play the piano version, it’s more about the intensity of the rhythms and of the dissonance of the piano, as opposed to the more harmonious timbre of the harp or the continuous and purer sound of the trumpet; the timbre makes the way that you play the notes different.
An excerpt from Chris Brown, Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley’s trio performance of Structures from Six Primes at The Stone on June 21, 2017.
FJO: But I think also that this strikes to the heart of the difference between composition and improvisation. I find it very interesting that you’ve gravitated toward these really completely free and open structures as an improviser, but your notated compositions are so highly structured. There’s so much going on, and in a piece like Six Primes, you’re reflecting these ratios not just in the pitch relations, but also in the rhythmic relationships. Such complicated polyrhythms are much harder to do in the moment.
CB: Of course. But that’s why I’m doing it. I’m interested in doing things that haven’t been done before. I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer. Sometimes that motivation is going to get warped by the marketing of the music or by the necessity to make a career, but that was always what I was attracted to about it. From the first moment that I heard Cage’s music, I said, “This is an inventor. This is somebody who’s inventing something new.” It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new. It’s not easy to get there. It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.
I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer.
This is the third cycle of me learning to play these pieces. At first, I just wanted to know it was possible. And next, I wanted to record it. This time, I’m looking to do a tour where I can perform it more than once. Each time I do it, it gets easier. At this point, I’m finally getting to what I want, for example with 13 against 7, I know perfectly how it sounds, but I don’t have to play it mechanically. It can breathe like any other rhythm does, but it has an identity that I can recognize because I’ve been doing it long enough. It seems strange to me that music is almost entirely dominated by divisions of two and three. We have five every once in a while, but most people can’t really do a five against four, except for percussionists. There are a lot of complex groupings of notes in Chopin, but those are gestures, almost improvisational gestures I think, rather than actual overlays of divisions of a beat. Some of this is influenced by my love and interest for African-based musics that have this complexity of rhythm that is simply beyond the capability of a standard European-trained musician, actually getting into the divisions of the time and executing them perfectly and doing them so much that they become second nature so that they can be alive in performance, rather than just reproduced. It’s a big challenge, but I’m looking for a challenge and I’m looking for a new experience that way.
An excerpt from Chris Brown’s premiere solo piano performance of Six Primes in San Francisco in 2014.
FJO: So do you think you will eventually be able to improvise those polyrhythms?
CB: Maybe, eventually, but I think you have to learn it first. The improvising part is after you’ve learned to do the thing already. Yesterday I was improvising some of the time. What you do is you start playing one of the layers of the music. In Six Primes part of the idea is you have this 13 against 7, but 13 kind of exists as a faster tempo of the music, and 7 is a slower one. They’re just geared and connected at certain places, but at any one time in your brain, while you’re playing that rhythm, it might be a little bit more involved in inflecting the 13 than the 7. Sometimes, when things are really pure, you get a feeling for both of them and they’re kind of talking to each other. As a performer, I would say that that’s the goal. It’s probably rarer than I wish at this point. But the only way you can get there is by lots of practice and eventually it starts happening by itself. I think it’s the same as if you’re playing the Schumann Piano Concerto. You’re not aware of every gesture you’re making to make that music. You’ve put it into your body, and it kind of comes out by rote. You know you’re experiencing the flow of the music, and your body knows how to do it because you trained it. So it’s the same with Six Primes, but it’s just the materials are different and the focus is different.
FJO: And similarly to listen to it, you might not necessarily hear that’s what’s going on. But maybe that’s okay.
CB: Yes, that goes to the quote that there’s a multi-focal way of listening that I’m promoting; the music isn’t designed to have one focal point. It’s designed to have many layers and that basically means that listeners are encouraged to explore themselves. It’s an active listening rather than that you should be listening primarily to this part and not aware of that part.
The music isn’t designed to have one focal point.
FJO: In a way, this idea of having such an integral relationship between pitches and rhythms is almost a kind of serialism, but the results are completely different. I also think your aesthetics, and what you’re saying about how one listens to it, is totally different.
CB: I wouldn’t say it’s modeled on that, but I do like the heavy use of structure. It’s a sculptural aspect of making music. I do a lot of pre-composition. This stuff isn’t just springing out of nowhere. Six Primes actually has a very methodical formal design that’s explained in the notes to the CD. The basic idea is that you have these six prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13. Those are the first six prime numbers. They’re related to intervals that are tuned by relationships that include that number as their highest prime factor. I know that sounds mathematical, but I’m trying to say it as efficiently as possible. For example, the interval of a perfect fifth is made of a relationship of a frequency that’s in the ratio of 3 to 2. So the highest prime of that ratio is a 3. Similarly, a major third is defined by the ratio of 5 to 4. So 5 is the highest prime. There’s also the 2 in there, but the 5 is the higher prime and that defines the major third. There are other intervals that are related to it, such as a 6 to 5, which is a minor third, where the 5 is also the highest prime. And 5 to 3, the major sixth, etc. Basically Western music is based around using 2, 3, and 5 and intervals that are related to that. Intervals that use 7 as the highest prime are recognizable to most western music listeners, but they’re also out of tune by as much as a third of a semi-tone. Usually people start saying, “Oh, I like the sound of that. I can hear it. It’s a harmony, but it sounds a little weird.” Particularly the 7 to 6 interval, which is a minor third that’s smaller than any of the standard ones that Western people are used to, is very attractive to most people but also kind of curious and possibly scary. When you take it to 11, you get into things that are halfway between the semitones of the equal tempered chromatic scale. And 13 is somewhere even beyond that. Okay, so there are all these intervals. The tuning for Six Primes is a twelve-note scale that contains at least two pitches from each of these first six prime factors, which results in a total of 75 unique intervals between each note and every other one in the set.
Last year, New World Records released a CD of Chris Brown performing Six Primes. .
FJO: Cellists and violinists tune their instruments all the time and since their instruments have an open neck, any pitch is equally possible. The same is true for singers. But pianists play keyboards that are restricted to 12 pitches per octave and that are tuned to 12-tone equal temperament. And since pianists rarely tune their own instruments, 12-tone equal temperament is basically a pre-condition for making music and it’s really hard to think beyond it. As a classically-trained pianist, how were you able to open your ears to other possibilities?
CB: It was hard. It was very frustrating. It took me a long time, and it started by learning to tune my instrument myself. The first thing was what are these pitches? Why do I not understand what everybody’s talking about when they’re talking about in tune and out of tune? I’m just not listening to it, because I’m playing on an instrument that’s usually somewhat out of tune. Basically pianists don’t develop the same kind of ear that violinists have to because they don’t have to tune the pitch with every note. So I was frustrated by my being walled off from that. But I guess not frustrated enough to pick up the violin and change instruments.
While I was an undergraduate and started getting interested through Cage in 20th-century American music, I discovered Henry Cowell’s piano music, the tone cluster pieces, and I loved them. I just took to them like a duck to water, and I got to be good at it. I had a beautiful experience playing some of his toughest tone cluster pieces at the bicentennial celebration of him in Menlo Park in 1976. I really bonded with that music and played it like I owned it. I could play it on the spot. I had it memorized. The roar of a tone cluster coming out of the piano was like liberation to me.
FJO: And you recorded some of those for New Albion at some point.
CB: That came out of a concert Sarah Cahill put together of different pianists playing; it was nice that that came out.
FJO: It’s interesting that you mention Cowell because he was another one of these people like Wayne Horvitz who could take really totally whacked out ideas and find a way to make them sound very immediate and very accessible. It’s never off-putting, it’s more like “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” It might consist of banging all over the piano, but it’s also got a tune that you can walk away humming.
CB: I like that a lot about Cowell. He’s kind of unaffected in the way that something attracted him. He wrote these tunes when he was a teenager, for one thing. But he wrote tunes for the rest of his life, too. Sometimes he wrote pieces that have no tune at all. The piece Antimony, for example, is amazingly harsh. There’s definitely some proto-Stockhausen there, but it’s not serial. I think that the ability to not feel like you need to restrict yourself to any particular part of the language that you happen to be employing at the moment is something that is really an admirable achievement. There’s something so tight about the Western tradition that once you start developing this personal language, you must not waver, that this is the thing that you have to offer and it’s the projection of your personality, how will you be recognized otherwise? I think that’s ultimately a straightjacket, so I’ve always admired people like Cowell and Anthony Braxton. Yesterday I was talking to Nate Wooley about the latest pieces that Braxton is putting out where he’s entirely abandoned the pulse; it’s all become just pure melody. He’s changing. Why do we think that’s a bad idea? Eclecticism—if you can do it well and can do it without feeling like you’re just making a collage with stuff you don’t understand—is the highest form, to be able to integrate more than one kind of musical experience into your work.
FJO: It’s interesting that you started veered into a discussion about discovering Cowell’s piano music after I asked you about how you got away from 12-tone equal temperament. Most of Cowell’s music was firmly rooted in 12-tone equal, but he did understand the world beyond it and even tried to explore synchronizing pitch and rhythmic ratios in his experiments with the rhythmicon that Leon Theremin had developed right before he was kidnapped him and brought back to the Soviet Union.
CB: I was definitely influenced by [Cowell’s book] New Musical Resources. As I read about the higher harmonics and integrating them into chords, I would reflect back on what it sounds like when you play it on the piano. It is very dissonant because of the tuning. And I realized that. So I thought, “Well, okay, he just never got there. He didn’t learn to tune his own piano, maybe I should do that, you know.” I get that some in Six Primes, I think, because there’s an integral relationship between all the notes. Even though the strings are inharmonic, there’s more fusion in the upper harmonics that can happen. So these very dissonant chords also sound connected to me. They’re not dissonant in the same way that an equal tempered version of it is. They have a different quality.
I’m also noticing from the other piece we played the night you attended that was using the Partch scale, if you build tone cluster chords within the Partch scale, you get things that sound practically like triads, only they buzz with a kind of fusion that you can only have when the integral version of major seconds is applied carefully. You get all kinds of different chords out of that. It’s wonderful.
FJO: Now when you say Partch scale, we’re basically talking about 11-limit just intonation, in terms of the highest primes, since the highest prime in his scale is 11.
CB: Right, but it’s more than that. He did restrict himself to the 11-limit, but he didn’t include everything that’s available within that. He made careful, judicious selections so that he could have symmetrical possibilities inside of the scale. It’s actually more carefully and interestingly foundationally selected than I knew before I really studied it closely.
FJO: But he worked with his own instruments which were designed specifically to play his 43-note scale whereas you are playing this score on a standard 7-white, 5-black keyed keyboard.
CB: I took an 88-key MIDI controller and I was using it to trigger two octaves of 43 notes. So I’ve mapped two octaves to the 88 keys. It winds up being 86, but it is possible to do that. I’m thinking in the future of figuring out a way to be able to shift those octaves so I’m not stuck in the same two-octave range, which I haven’t done yet, but that’s kind of trivial programming-wise.
FJO: Of course, the other problem with that is the associations the standard keyboard has with specific intervals.
CB: You have to forget that part, and that’s why I didn’t do it in Six Primes. And also, if I’d done it on an acoustic piano, it really messes up the string tension on the piano.
FJO: Julian Carrillo re-tuned a piano to 96 equal and that piano still exists somewhere.
CB: Yeah, but you can’t re-tune it easily, let’s put it that way. And it loses its character throughout the range because the character of the piano is set up by the variable tension of the different ranges of its strings.
FJO: But aside even from that, it changes the basic dexterity of what it means to play an octave and what it means to play a fifth. Once you throw all those relationships out the window, your fingers are not that big, even if you have the hands of Rachmaninoff.
CB: It becomes a different technique for sure. I’m not trying to extend the technique. What I’m doing with this is essentially I’m making another chromelodeon, which was Partch’s instrument that he used to accompany his ensemble and to also give them the pitch references that they needed, especially the singers, to be able to execute the intervals that he was writing.
FJO: Well that’s one of the things I’m curious about. When you’re working with other musicians obviously you can re-tune the keyboard. You can re-tune a piano, you can work with an electronic keyboard where all these things are pre-set. But the other night, you were working with a cellist who sang as well and an oboist. To get these intervals on an oboe requires special fingerings, but most players don’t know them. With a cello there’s no fretboard, so anything’s possible but you really have to hear the intervals in order to reproduce them. That’s even truer for a singer. So how do those things translate when you work with other musicians, and how accurate do those intervals need to be for you?
CB: Those are two questions really. But I think the key is that you’ve got to have musicians who are interested in being able to hear and to play them. You can’t expect to write them and then just get exactly what you want from any musician. Until we wake up 150 years from now and maybe everybody will be playing in the Partch scale so you could write it and everybody can do it! That’s a fantasy, but I think we’re moving more in that direction. There are more and more musicians who are interested in learning to play these intervals and all I’m doing is exploiting what’s there. I’m interested in it. I talk to my friends who are, and they want to learn how to play like that and that’s what’s happening. It’s a great thing to be able to have that experience, but it’s not something you can create by yourself. You have to work with the people who can play the instruments. For example, you mentioned the oboe. I asked Kyle [Bruckmann] what fingerings he’s using. “Shouldn’t I put this in the score?” And he said, “Most of the time what I’m doing is really more about embouchure. And it’s maybe something that’s not so easily described.” So it comes down to he’s getting used to what he needs to do with his mouth to make this pitch come out; he’s basically looking at a cents deviation. So I’ll write the note, and I’ll put how many cents from the pitch that he’s fingering, or the pitch that he knows needs to be sounded. He’s playing it out of tune with what the horn is actually designed to create and he’s limited in the way that notes sound. He can’t do fortissimo on each of these notes. He’s working with an instrument that’s designed for a tuning that he’s trying to play outside of. It’s crazy. But so far, I would say it’s challenging, but not frustrating so much if I’m translating his experience correctly. He seems to be very eager to be able to do it, and he’s nailing the pitches. Sometimes I test him against my electronic chromelodeon and he’s almost always right on the pitch. He’s looking at a meter while he’s playing. It’s something that a musician couldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago before those pitch meters became so cheap and readily available.
More and more musicians are interested in learning to play these intervals.
FJO: James Tenney had this theory that people heard within certain bands of deviations. If you study historical tunings like Werckmeister III, the key of C has a major third that’s 390 cents. In equal temperament, it’s 400 cents which is way too sharp since a pure major third is 386. You can clearly hear the difference, but a third of 390 is close enough to 386 for most people.
CB: I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good. For example, last night, we had to re-tune the harp to play in the Six Primes tuning. Anybody who knows about harp tuning realizes there’s seven strings in the octave and you get all the other notes by altering one semitone sharp or flat on one of those strings. So it was a very awkward translation. Basically we had a total of 10 of the 12 Six Primes pitches represented. Two of them we couldn’t get. And the ones that we had were sometimes as much as 10 cents out, which is definitely more than it should be to be an accurate representation. But again, this is where the loose comes in with the tight.
In certain cases that wouldn’t work, but in a lot of cases it does. A slight out-of-tuneness can result in a chorus effect as part of the music, and I like that; it gives a shimmer. It’s like Balinese tuning. If that’s what we have to accept on this note, well then so be it you know. It actually richens the music in a way. It’s not about getting more purity. That’s what I feel like. There’s a thing I never quite agreed with Lou Harrison about, because he was always saying these are the real pure sounds. These are the only right ones. But they can get kind of sterile by themselves. He didn’t like the way the Balinese mistuned things. But from all those years of tuning pianos, I love the sound of a string coming into tune, the changes that happen, it makes the music alive on a micro-level. It’s important to be able to hear where the in-tune place is, but to play around that place is part of what I like. I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune. Maybe it’s because I play a piano and on the extreme ranges of the piano, you can’t help that the harmonics are out of tune. They just are. There’s always this element that’s a little out of control, as well as the part that we can master and make truly evoke harmonic relationships.
FJO: Now in terms of those relationships, is that sense of flexibility and looseness true for these rhythms as well? Could there be rubatos in 17?
I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune.
CB: Yeah, I think that’s what I was saying about being able to play the rhythm in a lively way. They can shift. They can talk to each other. Little micro-adjustments to inflect the rhythm. If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there. That’s how you give energy to the piece. I think that it’s hard to get there with these complex relationships, but it’s definitely possible.
FJO: So is your microtonal music always based on just intonation? Have you ever explored other equal temperaments?
CB: I’ve looked at them, but they don’t interest me as much because I’m more attracted to the uneven divisions than to the even ones. Within symmetrical divisions, you can represent all kinds of things and you can even make unevenness out of the evenness if you like. But it seems like composers get drawn to the kind of symmetrical kinds of structures, rather than asymmetrical ones. Symmetry is fine, but somehow it reminds me of the Leonardo figure inside the triangle and the circle. It’s ultimately confining. I like the roughness and the unevenness of harmonic relationships.
FJO: We only briefly touched on electronics when you said that you had a rough start with it as a classical music nerd. But I was very intrigued the other night by how Kyle Bruckmann’s oboe performance was enhanced and transformed by real-time electronic manipulations the other night in Snakecharmer, and was very curious after you mentioned that you had figured out how to make this old piece work again. I know the recording that Willie Winant made of that piece that was released in 1989, but to my ears it sounds like a completely different piece. I think I like the new piece even more because it sounds more like a snake charmer to me this time; I didn’t quite understand the title before.
CB: There are three recorded versions of that old piece.
FJO: That was the only one I’ve heard.
CB: They’re on the Room record.
FJO: I don’t know that record.
CB: Okay, that was rare. It was a Swiss release. But that’s kind of an important one for me in my development with electro-acoustic and interactive music. I should get it to you. Anyway, the basic idea is any soloist can be the snake charmer, the person who’s instigating the feedback network to go through its paces and sort of guiding it. Probably the strangest was when Willie did it because he can’t sustain. He’s basically playing percussion, and he’s just basically playing whatever he hears and interacting with it intuitively. But another version of it was with Larry Ochs playing sopranino saxophone so that’s probably closer; you might hear the relationship there. It’s more the traditional image of the snake charmer. It sounds an awful lot like a high oboe; that was a good version. There’s also the version that I performed, singing and whistling as the input. Those were three different tracks, but they all start out in a similar way. Basically the programming aspect is that it goes through a sequence of voices. And each of those voices transposes the input that it’s receiving from the player in different intervals as the piece goes on. So there’s a shape of starting with a high transposition going down to where it’s no transposition and below and up again. It’s a simple sinusoid-type shape. The next voice comes in and does the same thing with a slightly different rhythmic inflection, then two voices come in together and fill out the field. That’s the beginning of Snakecharmer in every version so far. There are about six different voicing changes which are in addition to transposing in slightly different ways to provide rhythmic inflections. They only respond on the beat. Whatever sound is coming in when it’s time for them to play, that’s the sound that gets transposed. There are four of these processes going on at once. Once again, it’s that complexity going on in the chaos created by these different orderings, transpositions of the source. The other thing is the reason it’s a feedback network is that there comes a point where the player is playing, the sound responds to it, and then the sound that it responds with is louder than what the player’s doing, and that follows itself. So you start getting a kind of data encoded feedback network that I think of as the snake, an ouroboros snake that’s eating its own tail.
FJO: How much improvisation is involved?
CB: Quite a bit. I’ve never provided a score. I just tell the person what’s going on and ask them to explore the responsiveness of the network. Usually I’m tweaking different values in response to what they’re doing, so it’s a bit of a duet.
FJO: Taking it back to Talking Drum, you have these notes explaining how people are walking around in this environment. There are these field recordings, and then there are musicians who are responding to them. I can partially hear that, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m hearing. Maybe that’s the point of it to some extent.
CB: That’s not quite right. We have the recording called Talking Drum. That is a post-performance production piece that uses things that were recorded at different Talking Drum performances. That uses field recordings. In a performance of Talking Drum, there are no field recordings. Basically, the idea is that there are four stations that are connected with one MIDI cable. That cable allows them to share the same tempo. At each of the stations is a laptop computer, and a pitch follower, and somebody who’s playing into the microphone. So, the software that’s running is a rhythmic program I designed that I can give a basic tempo and beat structure to that can change automatically at different points in time, but that also responds to input from the performer, the basic idea being that if the player plays on a beat that’s a downbeat, that beat will be strengthened in the next iteration of the cycle. It basically adjusts to what it hears in relationship to its own beat cycle. The idea of the multiplicity of those stations where that’s happening, is that they are integrated by staying on the same pulse through the cable. The idea is that the audience is moving around the space that this installation is in and the mix they hear is different in each location. As they move, it shifts. It’s as if they were in a big mixing console, turning up one station and then turning down the other. What I was trying to do was to create a big environment that an audience can actively explore in the same way that I’ve talked about creating this dense listening environment and asking people to listen to different parts on their own. That actually came about from the experience of going to Cuba in the early ’90s, and being at some rumba parties where there were a lot of musicians spread out in different places. I wandered around with a binaural recorder and I recorded the sound as I was moving. Then when I listened to the recording, I was getting this shifting, tumbling sound field and I thought: “There’s no way you could ever reproduce this in a studio. It’s a much richer immersive way of listening. Why can’t I use this as a way to model some experience for live performance or for live audiences?”
In 2005, Pogus Productions issued a CD realization of Chris Brown’s Talking Drum .
FJO: It actually reminds me of when I first heard Inuksuit, the John Luther Adams piece for all the percussionists. It was impossible to hear everything that was going on at any one moment as a listener. That’s part of the point of it which, in a way, frustrates the whole Western notion of a composition being a totality that a composer conceives, interpreters perform, and listeners are intended to experience in full like, say, the Robert Schumann Piano Concerto. Interpretations of the Schumann might differ and listeners might focus on different things at different times, but it is intended to be experienced as a graspable totality, and a closed system. Whereas creating a musical paradigm where you can never experience it all is more open-ended, it’s more like life itself since we can never fully experience everything that’s going on around us. But I have to confess that as a listener I’m very omnivorous and voracious so it’s kind of frustrating, because I do want to hear it all!
Compositions are more or less instructions, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.
CB: Sorry! I think that’s part of the Cage legacy, too. You don’t expect to have it all and what you have is a lot. Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained. It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done. But I think the ritual aspect of making music is something that really interests me and I would hate to be without it. Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time. Maybe some of them think they do, but I don’t think performing artists do that really. It’s mostly about making something that’s appropriate to the moment even if it’s coming from something that’s entirely determined in its tonal and rhythmic structure. That to me is what makes live music always more interesting than fixed media music. It’s actually not an object. It’s not something that doesn’t change as a result of being performed. Of course, fixed media depends on how it’s projected.
FJO: Perhaps an extreme example of that would be the kinds of work that you do as part of the Hub—electronic music created in real time by a group of people who are physically separated from each other yet all networked together but it’s really there’s no centralized control and that’s kind of part of the point of it.
CB: That’s right. The idea is to set up the composition process, if you can call it that. It’s not really the same as composing, but it’s a designing. You’re designing a system that you believe will be an interesting one for these automated instruments to interact inside of. What we do is usually a specification; each piece has verbal instructions about how to design a system to interact with the other systems. Then we get it together and get them working and they start making the sound of that piece which is never the same exactly, but it’s always recognizable to us as the piece that it is, because it’s a behavior. I would say within our group we get used to the kinds of sounds that everybody chooses to use to play their role in the piece, so it starts to get an ad hoc like personality from those personal choices that each person makes.
An excerpt of a networked computer performance by John Bischoff, Chris Brown and Tim Perkis (co-founders of the legendary computer network band The Hub) from the Active Music Series in Oakland’s Duende, February 2014.
FJO: In terms of focusing listening, and perhaps you’ll debate this with me, it seems that, as listeners, we’re trained to focus on a text when a piece has a text. If someone’s singing words, those words become the focal point. I hadn’t heard much music of yours featuring a text, but I did hear your new Jackson Mac Low song cycle the other night.
CB: I don’t write a lot of songs, but when I do I find it’s usually a pleasure to work with a pre-set structure that you admire; it’s like you’re dressing up what’s already there rather than having to decide where it goes next. Of course, you’re making decisions—like what is this going to be, is it going to be different, how is going to be different, how is it going to be the same?—but it’s nice to have that kind of foundation to build on. It’s like collaboration.
FJO: I thought it was beautiful, and I thought Theresa Wong’s voice was gorgeous. It was exquisite to hear those intervals sung in a pure tone and her diction was perfect, which was even more amazing since she was simultaneously playing the cello. But, at the same time, the Stone has weird acoustics. It’s a great place, but it’s a hole in the wall that isn’t really thought out in terms of sound design so it was obviously beyond your control. I was sitting in the second row and I know Jackson Mac Low’s poems. So when I focused in, I could hear every word she was pronouncing. But I still couldn’t quite hear the words clearly, as opposed to the vocals on Music of the Lost Cities where I heard every word, since obviously, in post-production, you can change the levels. But it made me wonder, especially since you have this idea of a listener getting lost in the maze of what’s going on, how important is it for you that the words are comprehensible?
CB: Maybe it’s just me, but even in the best of circumstances, I have trouble getting all the words in songs that are staged. Maybe it’s because I’m listening as a composer, so I’m always more drawn to the totality than I am just to the words. Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words. But I’m not sure Mac Low’s words work that way anyway. I think they are musical and they are kind of ephemeral in the way that they glow at different points. And if you don’t get every one of them, in terms of what its meaning is, it’s not surprising. It’s kind of a musical and sonorous object of its own. So I guess I’m not exceptionally worried about that, although in the recording, I probably do want a better projection of that part of the music than what happened at the Stone. I was sitting behind her and I was not hearing exactly what the balance is. In the Stone, there are two speakers that are not ideally set up for the audience, so it’s not always there the way exactly you want it to be.
FJO: So is this song cycle going to be on the next recording you do?
Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words.
CB: I hope we’re going to record it this summer, actually. It’ll be a chance to get everything exactly right. I’m very pleased that people are recognizing the purity of these chords that are being generated through the group, but there hasn’t been a perfect performance yet. Maybe there never will be. But the recording will get closer than any other one will, and that’ll be nice to hear, too.
FJO: It’s like the recording project of all the Ben Johnston string quartets that finally got done. For the 7th quartet, which was over a thousand different intervals, they were tuning to intervals they heard on headphones and using click tracks in order to be able to do it. And they recorded sections at a time and then patched it all together. Who knows if any group will ever be able to perform this piece live, but at least there’s finally an audio document of what Ben Johnston was hearing in his head.
CB: I think that’s really a monumental release. Ben Johnston’s the one who has forged the path for those of us trying to make Western instruments play Harry Partch and other kinds of just intonation relationships. It’s fantastic. But I think the other thing that seems to be true is that if you make a record of it, people will learn to play it. For example, Zeena and Nate the other night, in preparation for that performance, I was sending them music-minus-one practice MP3 files so that they could basically hear the relationships that they should be playing. It helps a lot. Recordings also definitely help to get these rhythmic relationships. I often listen to Finale play them back, just to check myself to see if I’m doing them correctly. A lot of times, I’m not. It drifts a little bit.
FJO: But you said before that that’s okay.
CB: But I want to know where it’s drifting. I want to know where the center is as part of my learning process. I use a metronome a lot, and I use the score a lot to check myself, and get better at it.
FJO: You’ve put several scores of yours on your website. Sparks is on there. Six Primes is on there. And there’s another piece that you have on there that’s a trio in 7-limit just intonation—Chiaroscuro. Theoretically anybody could download these scores, work out the tunings for their instruments and play them.
CB: Sure. Go for it. But they’re published by Frog Peak, so they can get the official copy there. I would like to support my publisher. Because of the way that my compositional practice has developed, a lot of my scores are kind of a mess. I had a lot of scores, but I haven’t released them because they’re kind of incomplete. They often involve electronic components that are difficult to notate, and I haven’t really figured out the proper way to do that. Where there are interactive components, how do you notate that? I’m not that interested in making pieces for electronics where the electronics is fixed and the performer just synchs to it. There’s only one piece I’ve played where I really like doing that and that’s the Luc Ferrari piece Cellule 75 that I recorded where the tape is so much like a landscape that you can just vary your synchronization with it.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that because back in 1989, you said…
CB: Okay. Here it comes.
FJO: “I want electronics to enhance our experience of acoustics and of playing instruments. Extending what we already do, instead of trying to imitate, improve upon, or replace it.”
A model is never a complete reading of the world.
CB: Yeah, that was important. That came out at a time when the industry was definitely moving towards more and more electronic versions of all the instruments, usually cheap imitations. Eventually those become personalities of their own, but it seems to me they always start like much lesser versions of the thing they’re modeled on. Maybe it has something to do with this idea of models. We’re moving more and more into a virtual reality kind of world and I think it’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually. The more people live in exclusively modeled environments, the more out of touch they’re going to get and probably the sicker they’re going to get because a model is never a complete reading of the world. It’s a way to try to understand something about that world. If you’re a programmer, you’re always creating models. In a sense, a synthesizer is modeled on an acoustic reality. But once it comes out of the box into the world, it’s its own thing. It’s that distinction I’m trying to get at. I think we’re often seduced by the idea that the synthesized thing will replace the real thing rather than the synthesized thing just becoming another reality. That’s why I’m interested in mixing these things: singing with the synthesis. Becoming part of a feedback system with a synthetic instrument embraces that into a space and into a physical interaction. That seems to be more of a holistic way of expanding our ability to play music with ourselves, with our models of ourselves, with each other through models, or just seeing the models execute music of its own. The danger comes when you try to make them somehow perfect an idea of what reality is and it becomes the new reality instead of becoming just a new part of the real world.
Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Aug 1, 2017
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