↬ Twenty-one – 06

I’ve added another video to my series exploring the Partch 43-tone scale – this time, with the Partch scale as a world containing many subsets, a little investigation of the ways in which the pentatonic scale might be tuned.

In the video I refer to Clarence Barlow’s notion of harmonicity and I happily discovered that a PDF of his Musiquantics book (with chapters 10, 20, and 21 relevant to what I mention in the video) is available on his site. I was also pleased to find a video of a lecture by the man himself which serves as a good introduction to many of the topics covered in the book.

I’ve done quite a few software experiments with tunings over the past few years (mostly using Audulus) but an aspect that I’ve particularly enjoyed since having gotten the Sensel Morph and creating my Partch overlay for it, has been having a wide palette of ratios directly under my fingertips: The physical interaction between trying things out and listening to the sounding results. Mind, fingers, and ears.

Simon Løffler is a composer with an interesting critique of the emphasis on the tips of the fingers at the expense of awareness of the rest of the body in Western classical music traditions, and while this may be the case, I find myself so tuned into having those digits as a (wonderful) means of expression, whether through musical instruments, drawing/painting, or writing, as I am now. Interestingly one might consider the modern-day counterpart to the fingers as not so much the body as a whole, but rather the mind – via programming, patching, conceptual works etc.

Khyam Allami, who I mentioned in my previous newsletter, has a playlist on his site that accompanies his essay Microtonality and the Struggle for Fretlessness in the Digital Age.

Two tracks from Wendy Carlos’ 1986 album Beauty in The Beast feature in that playlist, and on her site a PDF of an article that appeared in Keyboard magazine in the same year: A Many-Colored Jungle Of Exotic Tunings. It’s a fascinating glimpse into what it took to implement alternate tunings at the time – an old Hewlett-Packard computer controlling the tuning tables for two Synergy synthesizers.

Amidst her enthusiasm for the worlds that alternative tuninings were opening up at the time (following the first timbral revolution brought by the advent of synthesizers), she mentions Partch’s 43-tone scale – “feeling lucky that she hadn’t been forced to construct instruments in order to investigate alternate tuning schemes”:

He devised a nice 43-note scale. Unfortunately he built instruments that had bad overtones for doing harmonies. Xylophones, metal and bamboo marimbas, and glass bell trees all have overtones that don’t lend themselves to harmonies. Also because they are so percussive and there is so much quick movement, a you don’t get a chance to notice that the tuning isn’t equal-tempered.

And that reminds me a little of Clarence Barlow’s somewhat caustic remark in his interview with Bob Gilmore, that:

Partch ostensibly did that [introducing the prime number seven into his system of harmony], but he just tuned his instruments and then started playing on them, and it came out sounding like mistuned Bartók in some cases.

It might be that Partch’s instruments weren’t the most ideal to represent the sophistication of his tuning system, but he himself emphasized that the corporeal, aural, and visual aspects all have an important role to play in his music.
He didn’t just tune his instruments, but invented many of them around the tunings. And those aspects are wonderfully demonstrated in the Partch videos that Ensemble Musikfabrik have collected on their site: Harry Partch: Delusion of the Fury - A Ritual of Dream and Delusion

What’s incredible is the amount of care and attention to detail that went into building their own set of Partch instruments, as documented in this video. The prospect of an ensemble undertaking such a mammoth project seems insane, not only in terms of physically building (and storing) the instruments, but also of the players putting aside their ‘regular’ instruments in order to learn Partch’s. One begins to see the payoff though when those instruments suddenly also form the landscape, the set so-to-speak, of the staged version of Partch’s late opera The Delusion of the Fury, not to mention the reputation of the ensemble now has established for taking on tasks outside of their comfort zone.

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Speaking of instruments, I recently came across the Khaen, a kind of country cousin of the Chinese Sheng and Japanese Sho via Thai country living, a video on the Aeon site. I’ve been thinking of Pauline Oliveros’ justly intoned accordion and the difference tones that she mentioned it made possible – we spoke about that in relation to the Sho in my interview (around 24′39″) with her back in Johannesburg in 2005 – and I was wondering if that might be one of my next areas of exploration with the Partch overlay and the Morph.

As it turns out, to go down a little Khaen side-path,
Christopher Adler has an extensive Khaen: A Guide for Composers video, as well as a PDF on his site. I found the arrangement of the reeds in two sets of interlocking pentatonic scales – one for the left hand, one for the right – a fascinating aspect of the instrument’s ‘design’. In terms of timbre it at times comes close to an almost electronic sound which one can imagine fits well with modern tastes. Adler points out that the rural folk traditions in which this instrument has thrived and the importance of the player’s ‘individual voice’ in those traditions make it an instrument well suited to ‘contemporary music’ given that there aren’t any ‘classical’ courtly traditions that need to be respected or taken into account. He has released an entire album of Triangulations: New Music for Khaen, Vol. 1 and the unusual instrument sheds some light (for better and for worse) on what we’ve come to recognise as ‘contemporary music’. I particularly enjoyed Yu Kuwabara’s Mystische Miniatür.

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The first week after having completed something like my 100-day lockdown photo project is always interesting. One still carries the momentum of that daily activity and the impulse to keep on, ones senses are still sharpened, while at the same time enjoying the relief of no longer having to complete the daily task. It feels good that projects reach a point of closure, that one has the possibility of looking back and reflecting on them. I haven’t gotten round to making an (alt-text-based) archive page for the project yet, but look forward to doing that.

Time for a break

I’ve been thinking of closure in relation to Beeple’s ongoing daily art project, of which the first 5000 days culminated with his famous NFT – and of how the character of an ongoing project changes when it’s endless, when there’s continuous activity without a ‘winter’ period of reflection. Although that’s perhaps a good mirror of our age. Perhaps the longest I would imagine myself being up for would be a 1000-day project, something like the Kaihōgyō 1000-day pilgrimage performed by Tendai Buddhists.

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Grace Notes is a recent episode of Josie Long’s Short Cuts podcast – one that I enjoy dipping into from time to time, ever since discovering it while working on the Oskar & Alma podcast back in 2019.

Otherwise on the Poetisk Podcast front, a new piece with Shadi Bazheghi and Mansoor Hosseini, both originally from Iran, should be ready to be published soon. For the first time it will be a podcast in both Danish and English (simultaneously!) – so finally something that I will be able to share with my English audience, I’m pleased to say. Keep an eye on the Poetisk Podcast site, or follow our Newsletter, Twitter or Instagram feeds.

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Degrees Of Freedom Found is a 6 CD box set (also available on Bandcamp) with a very intriguing cover. (A painting? A photograph? Wait? What?)

Recorded between 1963-2019… hand selected from archival, live recordings, and brand new first recordings before his passing in 2020. Part new album, part retrospective, this box offers a fresh perspective on “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s musical legacy.

I know “Blue” Gene Tyranny mainly from his contribution to Robert Ashley’s operas, and it’s only recently that I’ve come to realise just how much what I think of as Robert Ashley is actually “Blue” Gene Tyranny. The label describes composing the music for Ashley’s Perfect Lives, as “Blue’s career defining moment, typifying the Buddha-like self-effacement of his musical life”.

Often lending a substantial supporting role to his friends’ more visible projects, Blue’s music under his own name blossomed in a more esoteric and highly personal manner outside of the spotlight. Across its many previously unreleased recordings, Degrees Of Freedom Found showcases a surprising, extroverted side of Blue’s music, alongside the virtuoso works of sensitive spirit for which New Music devotees have long revered him.

I’ve been eagerly waiting for the release of the set mainly out of curiosity to hear more of The Driver’s Son, some excerpts of which appeared in David Bernabo’s documentary Just For the Record: Conversations with and about “Blue” Gene Tyranny. (If you’d like to support the director an on-demand version is also available.) The Driver’s Son is an 80 minute ‘opera’ (or audio-storyboard, as Tyranny himself described it) very much along the lines of an Ashley piece. It’s based around 36 chords, each with a corresponding subject, the order of which can be combined in different ways to make many stories, of which the version on the CD is just one possible combination.

The score for this work-in-progress is written in a form the composer calls an “audio-storyboard.” This procedural score, filled with text, musical notations, and cues, can potentially be realized as opera, non-linear computer program, book, radio program, TV and film series, and in other presentation media.

I haven’t had much time to dive into it all, and on first hearing my wish is that The Driver’s Son was available in a studio recording as many of Ashley’s works were, rather than the live recordings assembled here. But I don’t want to complain – it’s wonderful that this work, lush and beguiling, (along with the other pieces in this collection) has been released at all.

The set also happens to be mastered by Stephan Mathieu, and I’m realising that his Twitter feed (@_schwebung) has over the years proved to be a valuable source of high-quality musical leads to follow: Here’s a very meditaitve one.

All the best
Rudiger