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!)