I have returned to Germany, for the long-term, and my first professional activity was to participate in a microtonal conference in Cologne at the Kunsthochschule für Medien (Arts Academy for Media).
The first day featured a musical workshop for participants and they presented their outcome at a concert on the second day. Nora-Louise Müller and I arrived in time for this concert. Also on the programme were improvised performances by NTR, Melle Weijters (microtonal guitar) & Étienne Nillesen (percussion), and ensemble chronophonie, Stephen Altoft (19-tone trumpet) & Lee Ferguson (MalletKAT), playing works by Donald Bousted and Philipp Blume.
Weijters plays a 10-string fretless guitar which I will describe below. Altoft’s trumpet has four valves in non-standard proportions, enabling him to play 19 tones per octave. I have seen Michael White’s 24-tone trumpet (Toronto), and Ellwood Epps’s trumpet has an extra slide (Montreal) for producing microtones, but Altoft’s might be unique in its tuning of 19ed2 [see his comment below]. Ferguson had tuned his MalletKAT to the 19-tone scale to match his partner. (In our ensemble tranSpectra Rick Sacks also used a MalletKAT but tuned to the Bohlen–Pierce scale. I will have to put this versatile instrument on my Christmas wish list!)
The next day was about the participants’ research & development, chaired by Donald Bousted, director of Microtonal Projects.
First was a workshop feedback presentation but, unfortunately, I was too late to hear it.
Melle Weijters’s guitar has 10 strings tuned in major thirds, it is fretless, has a swamp-wood body, snake-wood fingerboard and ebony headpiece. There is no head, which allows for better balance and a compact size when travelling. Although the instrument is fretless Weijters talked about ergonomic fanned frets, so I might ask him to elaborate. [He wrote an explanation below.] The bridge is angled to allow multi-scale, differing lengths of strings.
His other custom-made guitar, which he could not bring to Köln, has 82 frets! This allows him to play in a 41-tone scale which, as he pointed out, is compatible with the Bohlen–Pierce scale.
Richard Glover talked about his approach to composition with microtones. Important aspects included notation and communication with performers rather than mere instruction. Over time his music has favoured smaller and longer clusters, sustained throbbing and beating sounds which allow the lister to hear extraordinary acoustic phenomena. Early works used a stopwatch to coordinate the players, but then gave way to freer structures to focus the performers’ attention on listening to each other rather than watching the clock. In the tradition of Cage and Tenney his music, with its subtle undulations and surface fluctuations, promotes active rather than passive listening.
I presented a survey of my Bohlen–Pierce works for clarinets: Calypso, Maelstrom, Der Zauberzephir, and Bird of Janus. Then I introduced a new mode, the BP Ring, which I will explain in a separate article.
Nora-Louise Müller proposed a new notation system for Bohlen–Pierce music using a six-line staff, taking advantage of our visual conditioning regarding the standard five-line staff. Not only a benefit for composers, but performers of different instruments would be able to share the same notation, see what each is playing and understand intended harmony.
For tranSpectra we had commissioned works in the BP scale but our repertoire exists in two or three different notation systems, none of which satisfies me. As a composer I am interested in this matter since it is too difficult and inefficient to notate BP music in the current clarinet-fingering notation system (“Never again!”). It works well for clarinetists but not for other instruments nor for composers.
Weijters mentioned the possibility of using sagittal notation for BP music since it is a convention in the 41-tone community, and 41-tone music is compatible with BP (there being almost exactly 5 mini-steps per single BP step). Perhaps a few arrows as accidentals on a standard staff would be clear enough. I would like to investigate this, as well as Marc Sabat’s Extended Helmholtz–Ellis notation.
Finally, Stepha Schweiger talked about alienation, raising listeners’ perceptions and microtonality as a political statement: “We often talk about the standard system’s shortcomings. What will new tones contribute to society in the future?”
The first EUROMicroFest event of 2013 concluded with a recital of three works by Manfred Stahnke, for flute and guitar, performed by Sonja Horlacher and Flavio Virzi: Flute Machine for two flutes and thunderstorm, a new duo written especially for the performers, and an old work for solo MIDI guitar, using an equal 7-tone scale, inspired by an island off the coast of Africa.