↬ Twenty-one – 02

Down the rabbbit hole that is the Partch 43-tone scale: I’ve posted two short videos on my site covering playing it with the AudioKit SynthOne and Audio Damage Continua using the Sensel Morph. Having discovered how much easier it is to navigate the scale using a layout like the one I created for the Sensel Morph, I was interested to discover some film footage of Partch himself playing his Chromolodeon. He seems too have internalised playing his own just-intonation scales using a traditional keyword layout quite well – a major second corresponds to what would normally be a minor sixth, for example – the cognitive load of which I found quite difficult when trying it myself. With instruments such as his Diamond Marimba and Quadrangularis Reversum he found ways of reflecting the tuning system in the layout of the instrument itself.

Part of the reason that I got into the whole question of tuning systems again has to do with reading (and listening) to the interview with Ben Johnston about Harry Partch in Desert Plants, Walter Zimmerman’s 1975 collection of 23 interviews with a wide range of American composers. It’s a fascinating stepping stone into the Partch world. My mental picture of him as always been that of a garrulous bearded old man, but as Johnston points out there is a also a very direct, accessible aspect to his music, with connections to and and resonance with the popular culture of his time.

I remember getting my hands on a cassette tape of the 1969 LP The World of Harry Partch many years ago in South Africa. “The creative person shows himself naked, and the more vigourous his creative act, the more naked he appears” as Partch explains in the introduction to his Adapted Viola.

Partch had a bit of an axe to grind with “the truth of just intonation… which has been hidden, one could almost say maliciously” as he claims on the LP. In our current age tuning systems are also sometimes viewed as some kind of holy grail with some contemporary advocates also getting a little conspiratorial in their view of it all. That seems a little out of place to me since ‘pure’ intonations (on the part of string, brass, and wind players, or choirs for that matter) still play a role in Western Classical music even though equal temperament provides the background against which it all takes place.

In Partch’s defence he also emphasises how the corporeal, aural, and visual all have an important role to play in his music, as well as claiming an interest in “unexplainable being rather than formulas”. (And that gets me thinking of Feldman’s “I think there are three things working with me: my ears, my mind and my fingers” – which happens to come from the Feldman interview in Desert Plants.)

The Partch instruments are certainly inspiring in their aural and sculptural qualities and one can see how they can provide a “source for musical experimentation” in a way that a piano might not. In many ways the current state of electronic music has brought these kinds of timbres and tunings (the two are always in some kind of dance with one another) within the reach of many. Buchla sounds are not a million miles away from Partch. It’s all Northern California vibes as Sensel recently pointed out on Instagram.

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With all of the above I’ve been thinking back to Clarence Barlow’s Musiquantics course that I attended, way back just before the end of the millennium, at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. Some of his observations concerning tuning have stuck with me through the years: that even with something like equal temperament we understand the notes according to the simplest intervals possible in our internal perception. I dug up my old course notes from the time:

“This faculty allows tempered-tuned music to appear according to our imagination as in various forms of … so-called ‘pure’ tunings.” (In the same way that we might internally make sense of an imprecisely spoken word: grammar assists semantics in making sense of phonetics.)

He provides two fine examples from Mozart and Bach: Even when played on an equally tempered piano, the major third ‘C-E’ in the Mozart sounds distinctly different to diminished fourth ‘B#–E’ in the Bach due to “a more or less unconscious rationalisation of the notes to a desired optimal tuning in the listener”.

That said, Clarence also points out how sensitivity to tuning in medieval music for example, can alter our sensitivity to intervals when returning to equal temperament.

My own interest in tunings probably began with the courses in ethnomusicology that I attended while studying at the University of the Witwatersrand: Mbira tunings and the discovery of more or less “Equal 7” scales in Chopi Timbila music. Tunings that also have a lot to do with the the overall timbre of the music. (And recognising some kind of internal predilection for timbre over melodic or harmonic aspects within myself.)

Clarence makes an important distinction between intervallic (originating in the brain) and positional hearing (originating in the ear) – two modes that we can shift back an forth between, that can exist alongside one another. The Indonesian and African 7-TET scales deliberately weaken the strong pull of intervals such as the fifth and the fourth in favour of timbre and positional hearing. Perhaps I should write it all up in a ‘proper’ blog post – it’s something I directly experimented with many years ago in my (MIDI) piano piece divided west and (equally).

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Back to Desert Plants – I by chance noticed Walter Zimmerman’s reissue of the interviews because Tom Whitwell posted a tweet with a photo of a little text excerpt from the book in which the typography (a particularly beautiful italic) caught my eye. It’s a reprint of the original which was typed out using one of the gorgeous fonts available on the IBM Selectric typewriter in its time. It has a modern cousin in the form of the IBM Plex typeface (read their full story on it here) which I’m using on my own website.

That book of interviews had a counterpart in Kevin Volans’ Summer Gardeners (which I also remember for its distinctive computer print) – another collection of exchanges that I spent many hours pouring over. The joy of all those insights into the world of composition… If only I still had a copy of it.

I’m not sure if I should be mixing work with my own projects here, but the series of Edition·S interviews that I conducted last year feels like a continuation of those beginnings.

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Another rabbit hole of the past few weeks has been upgrading, more than a year and a half after it was released, to Kirby 3. It’s often felt more time consuming than I would like it to be (what about the music?), a lot of that having to do with the implementation of comments and Webmentions and my adaption of Sebastian Greger’s thoroughly thought-out Commentions plugin.

After many years of websites avoiding comments like the plague, it seems as if there’s a sudden openness to including them again. Perhaps with the social media platforms now being that place where societal frustrations have found their outlets, website comments can once again provide a place for a civil exchange of ideas. A more detailed description of all the intricacies of that will have to find a blog post of its own at some point.

Other than the comments and Webmentions there’s not much else that’s changed on the frontend. It’s more a case getting an updated backend in place that can allow for an easier flow of content in the years to come. (A frontend re-design/update and cleaning out of accumulated cruft will have to wait, a conundrum I was pleased to discover I was not the only one facing.) And even as we rush to re-evaluate everything and strive to discard old ways of thinking with the world in crisis, one shouldn’t forget, as Jenny Odell points out, the value of the care and love that goes into maintaining something.

This has been a long newsletter. I’m sorry that I didn’t have the time to write a shorter one.

All the best