lunar aspect

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Toward a Poor Orchestra

Music imposes itself on its environment as much as the other way around. It has always refused to be held back and anything and everything is fair game. Much like animals in the deepest areas of the ocean have produced their own light, music has always found a way to develop with what it has on hand. 

It is quite astounding how earth’s music cultures have not duplicated their forms elsewhere except through contact and exchange with neighbours. Differentiation is a clear sign that what we hear now is the result of constant experimentations, accidents, and possibly even mistakes in attempts to preserve or resurrect a lost tradition. Also, what cannot be overlooked is how powerful the element of 'play' is in shaping music. Despite the talk amongst contemporary practitioners of their world of "infinite possibilities", the music remains shy of the diversity from what history and geography has produced up to now. 

Music in the West prides itself as the forerunner of musical progress. It is a rich tradition with its own internal diversity throughout its history, but it has more often than not failed to acknowledge the progress of others when different from itself. The criteria by which the West judges are usually technological, such as digital and what it enables. Historically, though, it has judged other cultures by the complexity of the music.  

I am going to concentrate on one level of which I am most familiar and most equipped to comment. This simply is the number of notes used in the scale (or its pitch palette). Different cultures are often under constraining issues such as resources and the need for mobility of instruments that prevent expansion in the direction of adding more pitches. The mistake here is equating quantity with quality. My own observations of scales have led me to a conclusion that scale development often takes place by the production of scales of unequal-size intervals while still preserving an equality of function within itself. Such scales can produce more different size intervals than those of strict equal systems and I propose for this reason we witness an absence of equal systems around the globe. The West has proposed that some of these are indeed equal while the actual measurements quickly destroy such notions. Instead, this suggests that non-westerners cannot correctly tune to what it is they want musically . In scales with limited numbers of notes, there might be certain intervals that are unique within the scale; the tones that form these intervals may also have a unique and individual role in the whole scale. These roles need not be hierarchical and often are not. As an aside, a political system that could encompass such variety as well as allowing equal prominence or rank in the overall scheme might be a system that we might welcome if proposed. One can observe, for instance, that most 5-tone Pelog scales have more different size intervals than the tuning used by Webern. Such uniqueness also provides an orientation within the scale that can be as strong as tonality. There are other forces involved that can unify the whole set of pitches which will have to be discussed later. It is also necessary to clarify that scales can involve variables which is common with a cappella voices even in the West. Little is understood how context shapes these variations and how they are perceived and understood. .  


This brings me to my own development where my musical concerns deviate from the arsenal of Western instruments and its single 12 note scale. Still, like most musical practitioners, I trace my own lineage to those before me historically. Where it diverges from the given Western path is that it was first inspired by the work and instruments of Harry Partch and later through contacts with Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig. There are also important contemporaries whose work differs yet informed my own such as contacts with Cris Forster and Jim French and others who I have missed meeting in person who nevertheless have led to instruments of my own, like Daniel Schmidt. All these though take second place to studying intonation systems with Erv Wilson over 20 or (maybe 30 years really) which save me from ever being a mere copy of these. 

Out of the empiricism of my own practice comes many unforeseen directions. Having started with embracing 60s pop music and its revolutionary spirit, the classical avant-garde at the time seemed just a parallel extension. It was the possibilities let loose by electricity upon pop music that made much available for the first time. Yet electronic instruments were not economically possible for me at the time. Synthesisers for instance were anything but cheap and/or limited to those educational institutions that could afford them. Those who were able at the time to do great work were connected more with the latter. So, when I saw Partch's U.S. Highball a year after Partch's death, I was struck by two things: 1. here was a direction that was little explored but showed promise and potential, and 2. it was not out of economic reach in that it involved instruments that even this hobo could build.

Much in my environment made this direction appealing. My day job working as a scenic artist put me in an environment where there was scrap material of all kinds laying around. I had already spent some years exploring free improvisation with such found objects, but Partch's work impressed upon me that such materials could be developed into instruments beyond just timbre and rhythm producers. This performance of Partch followed upon my first meeting with Erv Wilson just the week before. 

Erv Wilson had a Motorola tuner and he knew of a good source of plumbing tubing. Soon, I made a tubulong instrument as my first microtonal instrument which I thought I would use for ear training for the viola that I played. Somehow the lure of the tuning was too overwhelming to stop long enough to catch up on my instrument and I continued to go through scale after scale and structure after structure. The 31-tone tuning was simple to understand, encompassing much of the 12-tone language while providing completely new resources. A few years later, I travelled with Erv to Webster College in St. Louis where we conversed with Ben Johnston and I was quite taken with what he had to say. His argument for just intonation was strong yet friendly. Out of this, there was a structure of Erv's I was working with almost exclusively in 31 and decided to make a just intonation version of it in brass tubing. 

The difference between the just and tempered version in 31 was quite overwhelming in sound for me. I found myself converted to Ben's promotion of just intonation, despite Erv’s resistance at the time, even though he saw advantages to both.   

The building of these instruments was possible in that the money needed could be spread out over a long stretch of time. For example, the money needed for frames or later resonators could be acquired when I was able to save up to buy the material. This worked well too as often there was quite a bit of experimentation that was needed before later decisions were made. 

Erv had a vibraphone made out of two sets of Jenco vibes that was a subset of the just intonation scale of my brass chimes. I mounted and added resonators to the vibraphone bars and soon afterwards Daniel Wolf gifted me with a large quantity of padouk wood. This was used to make a matching marimba. 

A performance of mine at Betty Freeman's house was how I first met Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig. Together they developed a series of gamelan-like ensembles. Lou impressed upon me that while he liked Partch's instruments, he felt they did not always work together well and that his own approach was to develop orchestras or ensembles as a single unified group instead of being the result of unconnected instruments. This insight influenced my course from then on.  

Thus, I first developed instruments upward in range. Then, I followed Partch’s example by using a subset of my tuning in the bass range to keep the ensemble of instruments a reasonable size. Two smaller reed organs which had become out of fashion provided sustain tones to fill the range of the scale from top to bottom.  

A new problem arose and that was the size of these instruments. Doing each show was of major difficulty in that each instrument required its own vehicle for transportation. Regardless, I used these instruments for 15 years. 

Someone gave me a small 12 tone vibraphone and there was a tuning I had explored on another organ to which I decided to retune the vibraphone. I liked working with this scale and thus another ensemble developed over time. This one was based more on the recycling of pre-existing instruments by retuning them since I was using a 12-tone subset. The question of recycling, especially of wood, has become more and more an issue as rosewood and many hardwoods are endangered. The source of what I ended up with were often from incomplete instruments where the bars exist but somehow the frame is gone. eBay was my common source. 

A bass marimba was the important milestone to this ensemble. But Harry's (Partch) instruments presented features that I had not yet completely explored. I looked toward the diamond marimba again and its relatives that all involved the ability to sound chords by dragging over the bars. My tuning was too different to incorporate Harry's design but remained an inspiration. One weakness of his ensemble I felt was the low volume of the strings which was his source for making glissandos.

To create a glissando-making instrument, I had to expand my scale to 37 tones using four different sets of glockenspiel bars. This filled in many of the gaps and was loud enough and produced glisses with slight variations in pitch sizes. All the notes were placed in a single row almost three metres long. Thankfully, the instrument, called the Escalade, divides in half for easy transportation. It also now has a somewhat smaller relative of a wooden 22-tone subset of the 37, also arranged in a row, suspended over the 37 tone Escalade.

Who, then, plays these instruments? This is a major problem, more so since I moved to Australia where I am less known than in Los Angeles, so in a sense my situation here is similar to what it was in the 80s there (in more ways than one). The result is the people who play these instruments have more of a pop music background. In general, I have often found them more open-minded and more flexible and willing to give an unfamiliar instrument a go, so I write parts with these specific people in mind. Something not uncommon in jazz.

It is understandable that classically trained players would be less interested in playing on new instruments when they have invested time and energy in developing skills upon their own instruments. On the other hand, for me to use them can be awkward as their very nature leans toward something quite different. Omitting them altogether often fosters a subtle hostility of my approach to expanding music that doesn't include Western instruments as the best place to start. Ben Johnston commented at my first meeting with him how a finely tuned orchestral ensemble could provide the supportive environment to guide players to being able to play in different intonations in the future.

Nevertheless, the most fruitful area of exploration has been in combination with film and shadow theatre. Through my former work as a scenic artist in Los Angeles I developed my own skills in these areas and once again this relates to Partch's idea that we all have different aspects within ourselves. What James Hillman referred to as “the inner commune” that our art should allow to come forth to realise in full. In many ways, I think of myself as much connected to theatre as music. This too was Partch's desire to return to a less specialised medium he saw in the Ancient Greeks. 

A poor orchestra is what I work with, but it remains modular and expandable to fit any vision that arises. It is open to many futures.


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