Some resources for microtonality, just intonation, xenharmonic systems, being out of tune, and other tunings.
I’ve been thinking about microtonality and alternate tuning systems a bit recently. It’s not really my area of expertise but I’ve got a sense that an upcoming composition will need some understanding of Just Intonation. While I’ve read some Partch and Tenney in the past, and some Ben Johnston last year, I can’t say that I really understand it… or rather, I’m not sure I have a feeling for it as much as I’d like to. I need to re-read some things, certainly, but I wonder what I’ve missed in the past, or maybe I’ve been starting from the wrong point…
Given that I’m teaching a bit these days, I started thinking more about how I’d want to learn about microtonality if I were coming to it fresh… and what some of the useful resources might be useful for diving into this strange world of seemingly endless tuning systems. Now, I think listening is generally the route into an area like this, but I’m curious about how it’s explained and discussed, so I’m looking for books/readings/resources. I asked the hive lattice-mind:
If you had to learn or teach microtonality and (just) tuning in two books (or readings), what would they be? I want to brush up, but what should I re-read, or what have I missed?
I had a sense of some of the key touchstones (Helmholtz, Partch, Tenney) that would crop up, but then in the sprawling comment threads lots more interesting material started to turn up. I thought I might list them here to make it easier to find things. This is of course by no means a comprehensive list of where to start with microtonality, but, if you’re curious, it might give you a nudge to go and read some things:
Hermann von Helmholtz – On the Sensations of Tone (which, Stephan Mathieu tells me is wonderfully titled Tonempfindungen in its original German.)
I know you mention him, but Kyle Gann’s short essay on JI is probably the simplest general introduction. (Use a reader app to make it more legible)
Great article by Ellen Fullman, one of the most original artists associated with JI working today.
Lou Harrison’s Music Primer. Just a fabulous and unique contribution.
(I’ve not had a chance to read through all of this yet, so recommendations are not necessarily endorsements.)
Thanks to everyone who got back to me with suggestions. (*deep breath* @frozenreeds, @DrPAlvarez, @wednesday_club, @moderncomp, @stephanmathieu, @l_a_dunn, @azzigotti, @swayzeroundhaus, @aaronhnahum, @chayaczernowin7, @rchrdbkrmuso, @michaelbegg, @fantasticdrfox, @mugloch, @heathen_specs, @larrygoves, @_anthonyvine_)
What did I miss? Obviously, this is a massive field of musical thinking, so there’s no reason to try and cover everything. But if there’s some really useful introductory resources, I’d love to know about them. If you have any more ideas of where to look, please send me a message or tweet at me and I’ll update this list. (You’ll note that these resources are white-male heavy… I’m also interested in hearing about writings from those outside this particular demographic if you know of any!)
open-circuit, quiet percussion: test #002 - YouTube
a short test video, playing around with open-circuit percussion practice (as heard in Bonnie Jones, Machinefabriek, etc.), but used to drive passive loudspeakers and transducers on percussion instruments.
After an absence of over two years I’m brushing the dust off. I’m powering machines back up, replacing snapped strings, retuning and broadcasting once more from West Yorkshire.
A lot has changed since the last transmission: I completed my PhD in Composition and have taken up a teaching fellowship at the University of Leeds. I also stopped making music for nearly two years (PhD burnout is real and unpleasant), which was difficult. But after some time away, some self-care/discipline, and good conversations/ttrpgs with friends, 2018 has seen the wheels begin to turn again. It hasn’t been pretty, but it’s getting there. I know you didn’t ask, but here’s a run-down of what has been happening recently:
Seth Parker Woods (USA), a supremely brilliant cellist and a very dear friend, commissioned khepri for Cluster festival in Winnipeg, CA. khepri for solo cello focuses on the tiny noises of the cello as Seth performs some fiercely quiet bow taps and finger strikes. Premiered 2nd March 2018, Winnipeg, CA. There is no recording of the premiere, so instead check out Seth performing Iced Bodies here with Spencer Topel. An intense re-imagining of Jim McWilliams’ Ice Music (1972).
abate ablaze abrade was commission by London’s Plus-Minus ensemble and premiered 27th March 2018 at City University, London. Other new works by Ben Jameson; Alice Jeffreys; Lawrence Dunn; Caitlin Rowley ; and Monika Dalach. It’s a slow, tangling trio for bass clarinet, piano and cello. Due to noisy lights (a sure sign that your music is quiet), the performance took place in the dark which was wonderfully evocative and testament to how brilliant these musicians are. Bass clarinet—Vicky Wright; piano—Mark Knoop; cello—Alice Purton.
polynya, or ever less is an etude for electric guitar, written for Yaron Deutsch’s concert and guitar studio. The piece uses a glass test tube to bow the strings, while the free hand plays soft hammer-ons. It’s quiet in spite of the amplifier. Glacial shredding.
o horizon, gloa on the forest floor was written for harp and a hand full of metal, and will be workshopped by Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir’s Harp studio. The piece builds up a number of tectonic hums and scrapes, as the player slides along the string with a hand of metal. Sensual scratching.
Further ahead, Ensemble Nikel (who, I suspect, a couple of you will have seen at last year’s hcmf//) will be ensemble in residence at Gaudeamus festival in Utrecht, NLD. If you’re there, they’ll be playing my whose veil remains inscrutable on 6th September 2018.
At the start of 2016, before everything went dark, I released something without fanfare. Listening back I still quite like it, so for your consideration: larynx, closing
In 2017 Ensemble Nikel released their retrospective 4CD+DVD+BOOK box-set A DECADE. It features their recording of my whose veil remains inscrutable that we made in Bern in 2015. It’s an exceptional performance and a wonderful album that I’m delighted to feature on. Audio excerpt here.
If you read my 2015 article Disappearing Sounds: Fragility in the Music of Jakob Ullmann in TEMPO (Vol 69, Issue 274, Cambridge University Press), I’ve written a sequel. Rebuilding Babel: On Fragility And The Palimpsest In Jakob Ullmann’s voice, books and FIRE (Vol 71, Issue 282, Cambridge University Press) was published in October 2017. It focuses on Ullmann’s huge cycle voice, books and FIRE and is similarly unwieldly.
I also reviewed Apartment House’s premiere of a new Christian Wolff piece, performed alongside Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra(1957–58) for TEMPO’s January 2018 issue. It was good.
That’s it for now. I’m going to try to make an effort to post more as I make more work, so, err… consider yourself warned?
In the last month or so, I’ve been reading a lot of Jeff VanderMeer and Cixin Liu. I’ve been listening to Taku Sugimoto’s h from Another Timbre and I’ve been watching the university of Leeds’ newly hatched peregrines. [If you made it this far, you owe it to yourself to watch cute baby chicks eating other birds]
Last November I made a short film with Klaus Lang up on Ilkley Moor. I wrote a piece for Klaus and, together with Viola d’Amore player Barbara Konrad, we carried a harmonium up onto the moor. The film documents two pieces, my ‘a technical diagram for the abstraction of ockeghem’s missa pro defunctis: kyrie, side elevation‘ and a section from Klaus’ longer cycle: ‘viola. harmonium.‘
This film couldn’t have been made without Ollie Jenkins, who took care of all the filming and editing, and Elspeth Mitchell, who helped organise and produce everything. The project was part-funded by the Centre for Practice-Led Research in the Arts (CePRA) at the University of Leeds. Thanks also to Helen Barker and Rex Russell for their assistance.