MicroBlues

For a mini-vacation my partner and I went to Amsterdam and heard our colleague Melle Weijters in recital. He’s a fantastic guitarist and specializes in microtonal instruments, and on Sunday he played his 31-tone guitar with the 31-tone organ—handled by Guus Janssen—at the Muziekgebouw. I don’t do reviews but I can point you to one (in Dutch or English). Instead I’ll write a few short thoughts from that afternoon.

The recital had eight pieces, five by Weijters & Janssen plus three by Oliver Nelson, Django Reinhardt and Ornette Coleman. Weijters is an accomplished jazz musician and this show was called MicroBlues. I especially liked that Nelson’s “Stolen Moments” has a static, repetitive melody with smoothly changing chords underneath, and having more inflections or notes available on a 31-tone instrument allowed the musicians to be more expressive with finer gradations.

The normal scale of 12 notes per octave is what we use today but the 31-note scale is much older, dating back to the 17th-century. There are many, many books and internet pages on this topic so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say there are about five narrower semitones for every two normal semitones, implying that if you want to play this kind of music on your own guitar and organ you will need many more frets and pipes!

Weijters and Janssen played us their own compositions inspired by jazz, blues and medieval song. It was a riot of harmony and colour, and such a joy to hear the famous 31-tone organ in duet with guitar—and played by guitar. Weijters took charge of the bellows with, first, a MIDI guitar controller then, later, a pair of Wii game controllers as he and Janssen acted out a game of table tennis, their gestures being interpreted by computer to play the organ pipes.

It was especially interesting to hear Fokker’s 31-tone cadences based on the overtone and undertone series, which Weijters had programmed into the computer. Adriaan Fokker, a scientist and music theorist, instigated the construction of this organ after being inspired by Christiaan Huygens‘s 17th-century writings on this system of tuning.

Another person who knows this scale intimately and has written about it is Siemen Terpstra, and it was wonderful to meet him after the performance. Terpstra is well-known for microtonal theory and keyboard design. He lives in Amsterdam but I was surprised to learn that he actually comes from a town in Canada only 30 km from where I lived. In fact one of his microtonal keyboards may have been quietly sitting in the electronic music studio where I did my master’s degree. Some investigation and follow-up is underfoot!

A quick search on the internet on any of these subjects will turn up many pages worth reading. This information is also likely found in books at your local library, so there is no excuse to learn more about it. I haven’t composed yet in a 31-tone scale but now I am inspired and I hope you will be too. It accommodates the conventional 12-note chromatic scale perfectly well (better, even) and offers subtle gradations of inflection as well as more exotic or Renaissance-leaning melodic and harmonic choices.

Many thanks to our gracious hosts, Melle and Hann, for the lovely weekend. (And for the salty caramel chocolate!)

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STOMP

I finally saw STOMP and it was fantastic. A production came through Hamburg and I caught the last show, though a little late because of bicycle problems and train problems. As a drummer and someone interested in dance and theatre this was a must-see!

The setting is gritty and urban, like an alley in a big city, near a junkyard. The performers wear grungy clothing oozing with character, like punk or krunk. Are we in London or Los Angeles? New York or Berlin? It doesn’t matter: the scene is familiar to everyone, and the appropriated street-signs plastering the set are in many languages anyway.

There are eight performers in non-speaking roles, meaning there’s no dialogue. There is, however, plenty of interaction between ‘character types,’ especially at the beginning and ending of each scene—or number, or piece. Hard to categorize Stomp and know which vocabulary to use since it is not one art form but many: dance + theatre + music + circus. YouTube has plenty of excerpts so you may see for yourself what they do on stage. Basically a percussion piece using everyday objects, choreographed to dancing (talented performers!) and exceptionally tricky, taking it into the level of circus arts. Mind-blowing, really, and fully deserving of being famous. Continue reading

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84ed2 (2): George Orwell and Microtonality

In part two we will build a tenuous bridge between the composer John Cage and writer George Orwell. I already started with the banner picture of Cage performing on a TV show called Good Morning Mr. Orwell, from 1984. Orwell, of course is most famous for his dystopian book 1984 and the previous article introduced Cage’s late system of composing with microtones derived from adding six new notes between normal semitones, resulting in 84 equally-spaced tones per octave instead of the usual 12.

I doubt there is an International Standardization Organization definition of the semitone but we shall define it as a musical interval with the frequency ratio equal to the 12th root of the 2nd harmonic, and we shall define 1 cent (¢) as 1/100th of this semitone, giving 1200 cents per 2nd harmonic or octave, and 100 cents per semitone.

If we divide 1200¢ by 84 steps we get about 14.3¢ per step, which is quite small, close to the ‘just noticeable difference’ where it’s hard to distinguish one tone from the next. The frequency ratio (which we don’t need now but should know how to calculate) is the 84th root of 2, or 2 to the power of 1/84 ≈ 1.00828589.

Bear with me because things are about to get more interesting. Continue reading

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84ed2 (1): John Cage and Microtonality

Cage’s final period was notable, unsurprisingly, in at least two or three respects: he devised a system of time bracket notation with varying degrees of rigidity and looseness, he entitled his works with a dry, basic numbering system, and three of his last works were microtonal. Continue reading

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Fish Out of Water

__A friend of mine (let’s call him Jimmy) wrote a play which is in rehearsal now. He’s an actor and I was reminded of when we met, when we were both in a play nearly ten years ago. This story concerns music-theatre, which is going to be a focus of mine for a while, and one example of the audition process and of crossing disciplines.
__Jimmy had auditioned for R. Murray Schafer, the composer, for a music-theatre show, probably one of his large-scale outdoor promenade operas. When he finished his monologue, some text from straight-up dramatic theatre, the panel asked him to make some weird sounds and to use his body and voice in a grotesque, expressionistic manner.
__Jimmy dug deeply into his soul and his psyche, to root up those experiences that haunt him when he’s not consciously keeping his demons locked in the cellar of his mind. He uttered forth some expectorant, toxic, gurgling, half-strangled scream that ripped through his shuddering body and spewed into the theatre, leaving him panting and nearly sweating with the effort.
__“That’s fine,” said someone, unseen. “But could you please do that again, only this time louder and longer, and maybe go from some low notes to high, then back again?” Continue reading

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Arduino variable types

Happy New Year, Bonne année, and Frohes neues Jahr!

2014 will see me fooling around with an Arduino microcontroller. I made a rudimentary ‘light organ’ using photosensors and Max/MSP. You play music by covering the sensors with your fingers, and allowing various amounts of light to shine between them. Darkness for low notes, brightness for high notes.

First problem: the Arduino code could be more optimized by using the right type of variable to hold the sensor values. The code that I downloaded uses ‘floats’ for each sensor but I think that that is overkill. Float is the nickname for floating-point number, i.e., a number with a decimal point that can move to the left or right to show more or fewer digits. They are complicated types of numbers in computing and, hence take up more memory and power. On the Arduino, like old-school 8-bit computers of yore, memory and power are precious!

The result was that my organ could only respond to movements of my fingers three times per second. Much too sluggish for a tocatta & fugue. There could be other problems dragging down the code execution too, so if I find them I’ll post ‘em here.


Continue reading

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Spectropol Records

Many thanks to Bruce Hamilton for including one of my works on this album! I am happy to be heard amongst my colleagues.

Possible Worlds Volume Two continues Spectropol’s showcase of contemporary microtonal/xenharmonic music and sound art from around the world.

“There are many approaches to pitch use outside non-12-tone equal temperament on display here, conveyed through a wide variety of musical styles. Artists in this collection, which include well-established experts in microtonal practice, explore just intonation, the harmonic series, free & mixed tunings, extended playing techniques, invented instruments, and an emphasis on various equal divisions of the octave.”

About the scale used in Fifteen Short Pieces:
Banff scale 15 short pieces
There are different ways to describe this. It is a 15-note, symmetrical subset of 30ed2 (30 equal divisions of the octave), or a 15-note, symmetrical subset of a 1/5th-tone scale. The pattern of small and large scale steps is ssLss ssLss ssLss, where ‘s’ is 1 fifth-tone and ‘L’ is 6 fifth-tones. I arrived at this by taking the augmented triad of D-F#-A# and transposing copies of it by 40 cents and 80 cents higher and lower.

The scale approximates exotic, 13-limit just intonation rather well. The cleanest group of intervals, within 5 cents’ accuracy, includes 13/8, 15/7, 13/9, 5/3 major sixth (and 6/5 minor third), 9/7 and 11/10. Although there is a minor third there is no major third, nor perfect fifth, so one cannot write a triad unless it’s a diminished one.

The next group of intervals deviates from just from between 7 and 9 cents—still an excellent approximation! Among the more exotic intervals there are also a few from the same harmonic series: 7/4, 11/8, and 15/8. (13/8 was in the first group and the most accurately represented of all.)

What I’ve learned from this experiment in 30 EDO is to not be pulled in by the gravity of more obvious choices, such as the venerable and distinguished 31 EDO scale. With some imagination and an open ear one can make do with unusual harmonic materials, and express something seldom ever heard.

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