Their performance was a riveting mix of flute and voice along with a film of themselves made earlier. It had just enough of a sense of narrative and dance to keep it ambiguous, and yet it remained abstract and balanced with the live performance.
For my set I was going to improvise in five different tunings but after the fourth piece I felt it was time to end, that the concert was complete and no more needed to be said. One has to have antennae to feel the room, to know when enough is just enough and not too much. The small audience that night at the Kibla centre was very enthusiastic and warm toward Asja and me.
My first piece was about listening, a way to focus one’s ears on overtones and subtleties of microtones. Not in any tuning system per se but an étude in waveterrain synthesis of slowly sliding gong-like tones, their partials colliding and crossing. Cameron and I had had an amicable conversation the day before about waveterrain synthesis, a technique which we both like, and I wanted to test for myself a tweak he had recommended for smoothing digital artefacts.
I then introduced myself and explained the tuning of the next piece based on the Bohlen–Pierce scale. Often I use equal-temperament in my work but for this concert I not only switched to just intonation but an extended version of it. A full explanation would warrant a separate article but, basically, I have assembled another scale that retains 13 notes within the perfect twelfth by employing more complex ratios that approximate the traditional ones, e.g., 35/27 in place of 9/7. The scale retains its symmetry and each new note is 14.2¢ above or below an old one, suggesting to me that I call it, for now, the Bohlen–Pierce Inflected scale.* With it, and performing on a bank of infinite rotary dials, I improvised a poly-tempic, rhythmic texture of four voices using granular synthesis. Judging by my own feeling and the response of the audience I think this piece was very succesful.
I’m fascinated by non-octave scales. They are rare but the concept is so simple: a sequence of intervals which does not coincide with the octave; the notes skip over it. A simple explanation would be if, starting from 0, you count by ones or twos and arrive at 10, but it wouldn’t be so if you had counted by threes or fours.
My third piece was in a non-octave scale called Carlos gamma: it is derived from the perfect fifth divided into 20 equal steps, giving a single interval size of 35.1 cents, or a frequency ratio of 1.0205. I used this ratio for melody as well as rhythm in an improvisation for four voices sounding like contrabass pizzicati. Melodically the steps are small, like a 1/6th tone, but clearly audible. Rhythmically, however, the differences are more subtle and when using ratios to differentiate note lengths they tend to sound like changes in tempo rather than rhythms. I wasn’t as satisfied with this piece as with the others. My concept was vaguely like four ‘boats’ drifting in vertical and horizontal space, and over the course of the piece I was slowly drawing in each anchor chain until they collided unto a single note and pulse. Perhaps the ratio 1.02 is too small . . . or not small enough. I will re-visit this idea later.
Finally I played a little homage to a Hungarian composer of the 20th century. At the time I began the computer code (Max/MSP) that became the engine for this piece I was taking courses at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg, and one day I palpably felt the ghost of Ligeti, a former teacher there. Now, I don’t really believe in ghosts but his former presence had crossed my mind and the music became a breathing chorale of resonant whispering. As a sound source I used a field recording my girlfriend and I had made of the Budapest metro while vacationing in Hungary. The audio has its own phrasing of intense noise envelopes separated by a recording of a woman’s pleasant voice and the sudden slamming of doors (and the doors in Budapest slam violently!). This source sound is obfuscated, however, by the presence only of resonant frequencies between 300 Hz and 3 kHz, where most of the spectral energy resides, and particular frequencies are chosen from a microtonal scale. Ligeti wrote some quarter-tone music, but I am not a fan of the 24-tone scale so I chose 23 because it’s odd (as in unusual), it’s a prime number which gives it a sense of uniqueness, and it actually has mellow intervals. In a rhythmic interplay against the noise contours of the Budapest metro the music was a silvery sequence of a dozen stacked thirds (minor, flat-major and sharp-major). As an ending the metro itself trundles away and thereby makes a natural fade-out, and a fine way to end the concert.
Overall I am pleased and everyone at the Kibla Multimedia Center was obliging and friendly. Originally I had wanted, however, to include video using Jitter and OpenGL techniques I’ve picked up this spring and somehow combine them with live percussion, but I must often be reminded that my ambitions tend to be larger than I have time or experience for; I tend to bite off more than I can chew. Now that I have some tried & tested methods of improvising microtonal music with computer, I can add a layer of complexity and include percussion-controlled video in the next show.
Kibla: some very interesting shows are coming up.The next day Cameron gave a workshop on microtonal music, introducing some of its history and cultural references. It was a relaxing and informative session and his passion for musical expressiveness is infectious. My time in Maribor was wonderful (despite a nagging case of bronchitis) and my short walks around the town were charming. 2012 is Maribor’s turn as the European capital of culture and I urge anyone to visit, now or next year. Keep an eye on the