Euro MicroFest 2013 – Köln

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.

About th

musician, thespian
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6 Responses to Euro MicroFest 2013 – Köln

  1. Mel says:

    Hi Todd,

    great review of the weekend, thanks. If you don’t mind, I’ll link to it from my own blog. And while I’m here, I might as well answer your question about the fretless ‘fan’.

    I talked about multi-scale as a general feature to my microtonal guitar designs. The bridge as well as the nut are angled (in order to provide the needed extra scale length for the bass strings) in such a way that the only perpendicular fret position is found halfway the string length, at the octave. From there, the frets start to fan out in both directions with the ergonomic advantage as a result. The same holds true for the fretless, providing a similar note layout, albeit not marked by any fret.

  2. Pingback: After the fest | Pick me up and (un)fret me

  3. Steve Altoft says:

    Dear Todd, nice to read your review of the weekend, I posted it up on MP fb page. Apart from the Swift and Yunk non-chromatic cornet and the Centre for New Musical Instruments proto-type (Guildhall Uni, London) there at the moment no other 19-div trumpets. A young American did contact me about converting his instrument, so if he does he will be the second. More info about the Microtonal Trumpet is available at

  4. Pingback: EUROMicroFest 2013 Cologne | euromicrofest

  5. Dranorter says:

    Any more info about that BP Ring mode? I personally like to use a ‘fibonacci’ mode composed of 8 notes, LLsLsLLs. But I try not to think too much about mode, and my preference definitely isn’t settled. Bob Lee apparently uses the C Lambda scale but with the J flatted.

    Too bad there aren’t more 19-tone trumpets, they make so much sense.

    • th says:

      Your Fibonacci mode looks very clever with the use of 1 2 3 5 and 8, thanks for sharing. I want to try it and Bob Lee’s as well, looks like he’s repeating the first Lambda pentachord to get 2112 1 2112. Sure, why not. The ring mode is still on the back burner, but I gave a BP talk in Dublin the other day and next I’m writing part of a chapter on BP for a book on microtonality, so, it’s coming… eventually. It is 13 mixed enharmonics beyond the usual just intonation intervals. Anyway, thanks for tuning in. Feel free to post a link to BP music.

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