lunar aspect

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Questions and Answers from Furman University

Michael Vick has been teaching a class that I wish I could have taken called Tuning Systems & the Aural Experience at Furman University in South Carolina. He asked if his students could send me questions which I was pleased to do. Here is the interchange.

Marielle Lemasters - When you were young, were you interested in tuning music or was it an interest that grew on you?

Partch was the only real tuning-oriented music going on at the time and it was seeing his US Highball live more than his recordings that really moved me with the possibilities. I don’t think I even knew there was such a variable as ‘tuning’ before him. 

Scott Crane - How much of an influence has Harry Partch played in your musical career?

Too much might be the truest answer. For years Partch was given a bad rap and anyone connected with him also. So I took a lot of that flak even when it didn’t apply to me, and maybe still do. This is not to say I like and agree with him on everything. Perhaps the most important aspect of his music is it being transcultural. He was a big step away from both European art music and the more urbanized academic music of the US at the time. This is what led to my own concept of a meta-culture of Anaphoria Island, a “place” where such music can occur, drawing upon the practices around the world.

         I tend to like his instrumental works more. Delusion of the Fury is a piece in which I never seem to fail to hear something new. I don’t like the video because it was a rushed and very fragmented job that wasn’t the makers’ fault, so I just listen to the recording. Castor and Pollux still impresses me with its form of a set of 3 duets played one after another then altogether, and then this pattern is repeated again. Daphne of the Dunes has a complexity, but still remains immediate and enjoyable.

         For me, growing up around the film industry, Partch was a good fit because of his interest in music as a theatrical endeavor. His use of the visual element inspired 10 years working with silent film with live music and now even longer with shadow puppets. The latter is my favorite activity for it allows me to do music, puppet operation and design, writing, lighting, and just organizing all together. It is rewarding as it allows many aspects of my self to exist and be given expression. This is a reflection of Partch’s ideas of allowing the total human being to find expression. It parallels the theatre anthropology of Eugenio Barba, and the polytheistic concept of the soul in both Jung and James Hillman. So his influence exceeds just music or at least was an antenna of what was to come. Rock music is as much video as audio now, something he foresaw.

Joanna Brady - Which is your favorite tuning system to perform/compose in? Why?

Originally it was Erv Wilson’s D’Allesandro tuning. It contains within it a structure called the Eikosany that is an uncentered analog to Partch’s Diamond. It is a good tuning to have consonant chord structures without a tonic that at the time was of interest to me. This was the first tuning I built a whole ensemble around. There was much to think about and explore too. The tuning is like a 12 dimensional crystal that would look like a donut from 12 different points, all with a basic structure of 20 tones. Such ways of thinking about music are not really possible in 12 ET so it opens up one’s mind to possibilities. The version I used went up to 36 pitches, but I made some instruments that only had a 22 tone subset, but they all worked together. It also has all types of scales it wasn’t designed to have being so condensed that made it almost inexhaustible in what music I could do on it. I worked with this tuning for 15 years. I still highly recommend it as it really is a world all its own.

The second tuning that inspired me enough to also make an ensemble of instruments was Wilson’s Meta Slendro. With the way this tuning is put together it is almost impossible to make it sound very dissonant past a certain point. It has only 12 notes, though very different from 12 equal, so I could retune many existing instruments to it. This saved me a lot of work and allowed me to notate it traditionally for mallet players, and also allowed for more compact instruments. This tuning I have been using the same amount of time as the former, which might explain how I am slowly working toward another, an ensemble of Wilson’s Meta-Mavila. This one is kind of a complement of Meta Slendro in that the two use intervals that the other doesn’t have. For instance Meta Mavila is saturated with neutral thirds while Meta Slendro has none; in turn we find large whole tones bigger than the piano with the latter but only smaller ones with Meta Mavila. While some people like to use many different tunings, I prefer to really investigate a few, but as deeply as possible.

Michela Bologna - For the Ensemble Offspring piece, you used a microtonal tuning system called Centaur. What is different about this system versus other microtonal systems?

It works as a very good introduction to working in just intonation as others have found. There was a guitarist Rod Poole who first tuned it on his guitar to then develop his own 17 and 22 tone scale. He would always tell me it was for him the best 12 tone just scale he could find. So I think it was one of those times I might have done something better than what I had planned.

I came up with the Centaur scale in 1979 in order to tune a reed organ - the only sustain instrument I had at the time - for ear training in 7-limit intervals. It preserved the 12-tone context since the reeds could only be retuned so much. It is quite conservative in that regard but 10 tones also overlapped a very complex 36 tone 11-limit tuning I had in wood and metal, while the organ could exist independently as a complete character.

For the Ensemble Offspring project the inventor of the clarini had scales in mine and we were pleased that two of these were readily found within Centaur. It was difficult that it required two clarinis to play all of the Centaur pitches that I think the composers dealt with superbly yet still limited what could be done. Being a beginning, it is something that will develop. The pieces came together more in the recordings made right after this which will come out some time next year. It is my first and only ensemble piece in a somewhat classical vein.

I hadn’t used the tuning since the 80’s when I used it with a retuned hammer dulcimer and films when I played in punk clubs in Los Angeles. Microtones at the time were shunned by those in academia whereas that environment I found accepting and appreciative more experimental and more fun.

Joanna Brady - What is your favorite instrument that you've ever built? Why?

The first original instrument I made was out of brass tubing and it had the 36 tone tuning I mentioned earlier. It was damaged and lost during the Northridge earthquake unfortunately. It has a really unique sound but brass tubing is not made the same way as it used to be so I was never able to replace that instrument.

         Partch’s book as well of some other people scared me about making bass instruments, so when I made my first set of Bass Meru Bars and it worked so well, I was really excited for years. I had a hard time controlling myself from just playing as many and as fast as I could to make it sound like thunder. This was after not having any bass instrument at all for 10 years. I still enjoy that I have an instrument in that range.

Michela Bologna - What instrument, in your opinion, is able to produce the broadest range of notes when using microtonal tuning system?

If we were to consider electronics an option, I would say the Starr Lab keyboard controller designed by Erv Wilson. While it is just a MIDI controller, it makes possible in real time what software can do but we lack the interface to easily do so. It is really this generalized keyboard that allows us to control the machines in a more far-reaching way. There are cheaper and less developed compromises, and they are just that, compromises.

A keyboard in general (electronic or acoustic) is ideal for a single instrument with the biggest range possible giving one person the ability to play many different parts.

Considering only acoustic instruments I take what Lou Harrison learned from the weakness of Partch’s instruments. It is ‘ensembles’ that are needed that can work together, more than single instruments that might not do well besides others. Like Harrison, I like tuned metal bars as they remain very stable in that tuning. These easily become guides for less stable instruments such as strings or winds to tune to, which in turn give us bends and inflections not possible with metal or wood.

I have to end this with saying I am still concerned with people making music together and putting their full means and bodies into it. This broadens the range of human experience. This is the range I am interested in. Partch gave us this.

Marielle Lemasters - Where was your favorite place where you displayed your instruments and music?

When I lived in Los Angeles, there was a couple, Susanna Dadd and James Griffith, who would come to my shadow plays. They had this steep backyard and decided to turn it into an amphitheater that they called the Folly Bowl. It was this beautiful stepped garden where for 3 years I presented shadow work. They couldn’t have been more supportive and said when they made it they had my work in mind which was quite humbling. It is always a treat to play outside in nature.

Resonant spaces are great too. Recently I played at a place called the Casula Powerhouse. I really liked how the sound carried there even though it was a big venue.

Marielle Lemasters - Where do you find your most inspiration for creating music?

The sounds of my instruments most of all motivate me to make music. Besides that having a show coming up and knowing that one is going to be heard is always an inspiration. It is more than a deadline and more sharing where you are at the moment. Even if it is small, it conjures enthusiasm as I imagine the space and the context. This makes me think differently about what I will perform. So I try to play as much as possible and in different contexts. Even playing an older piece, I adapt it to the time and place.

Michela Bologna - What genre of music (classical, blues, etc.) do you prefer to play in when using microtonal tuning? 

Like just about everyone now, my musical taste has never been limited to any one genre or even a few.

I think of microtonality in turn might or could be a meta-genre all in itself with each tuning implying subgenres and in turn, all of these still at some beginning stage. At least this is what I want for it.

If one is sensitive to the stresses and pulls of the new tones available it can lead to new forms, structures and ways of using tones. I never would have done the music I do if it were not for the tunings. I just make music I think is beautiful using beautiful sounds I didn’t have access to before.

If I had to place it in the genre, I think of it as extended world music as that is what I listen to the most, and it also provides the greatest resources of scales and how to use them.         

Michela Bologna - Do you ever take previously existing music and play it using microtonality?

This can be a funny and quick way to get a feel for a new tuning. I can’t say I like playing preexisting music except in passing. I am more interested in finding out what a tuning allows me to do that those musical styles don’t. One does like to play with associations though and it can and does happen especially if you are working with film or theater. Some tunings make it impossible.

Since I am working with tunings that are not equal-spaced tones, this means the transpositions of melodies and harmonies into different keys vary the intervals and feel of them so I can play with my own preexisting ideas without going back.

What we have before us though are, new structural interactions, new reactions of sounds in time, and yes importantly new emotions not possible before. I think that music does more than express emotion, it actually makes them possible as often it is the only place I experience them.

Marielle Lemasters - Do you wish your type of music was more widely understood?

I have never had any problem with the public or even artists in other fields. It is usually other music people, whether players or critics or even other microtonalists, who bring to the music the most preconceived barriers one has to break though.

Of course I don’t or ever will play in big stadiums but I am not interested in that anyway. I prefer smaller places where I don’t have to be amplified and that I can mix in with the crowd and get a feel of the energy of the people there and talk with them afterwards. I like to play on a floor rather than a stage when possible since I dislike that barrier that much. Often I will invite people on stage afterwards to get a closer look at the instruments. In clubs I would often play in the middle of the room.

Marielle Lemasters - Do you hear everyday noises differently than the typical person, and how does that affect your music?

I did not start with the best ears but working in tuning has sharpened my ears to smaller fluctuations of pitch than even most musicians, it seems. I suspect that this might give me a better perception of noise or that I hear different things in it than those who obsess over it. I am not sure. I am just not that enamored with everyday noises compared to the acoustical phenomena I can play with in different tunings.

It has given me a greater understanding of music of other cultures - how they develop shades of pitches in the way western music develops harmonies and rhythm. When a culture cannot afford the luxuries of even a 12 tone system, they find ways of developing the music by what they have on hand, intonation and ornament are two such examples. Western music ignores many of these variants and quickly label it underdeveloped or inferior when it is often just a matter of where the focus is put. It is the superior stance of colonialism that still needs to be taken back to a better perspective. So I think I hear those cultures not using western instruments and scales differently than most people.

Scott Crane - What is your take on concentrating on harmony versus dissonance? Is it possible to have both?

One really wants both and I have to say I don’t really think about either anymore. I tend to think about melody and sonority. The tunings I work with usually are designed to have a certain spectrum of equal tension throughout so I can be less concerned with it. I think there is enough tense music in the world there is no reason for me to do more. I don’t object to it, but don’t see it being useful when people can get that elsewhere. Myself as an artist I don’t have to prove I can do it either. Doing things to ‘impress’ others seems a pretty shallow motivation. What I do has to be meaningful to me, which I assume might be to others, and if not, at least I have gained something from it myself.

Scott Crane - Have you ever thought to produce a piece that is in a different tuning system, rather than 12-TET, that sounded indecipherable to those who are not able to distinguish a difference between closely sounding pitches?

I have found one has to do very little in any direction to make music indecipherable. It is hard enough for people to catch things out in the open. Even in painting, in which it is easier perhaps to catch things, people miss certain details, so with sound it is even harder to get people to even hear what might be obvious. I like the conceptual idea though and perhaps those with different ears already hear different things.