↬ Twenty-one – 09: “The Moment of Listening” / Internal Review

Hi, I’m Rudiger Meyer and this is my monthly newsletter covering what I’ve been up to and what’s been catching my attention.

In my last newsletter I wrote about how playing around with the purely intoned tones of the Partch scale rekindled my awareness of the difference tones that arise (an old interest of mine). How the stability (absence of beating) of the intervals allows for awareness of the additional tones that arise from vertical combinations.

A day later I came across Kali Malone’s Sacrificial Code album, a three LP collection with a wealth of pieces exploring the sonorities of (late) meantone organs. The thing that grabbed me with Litanic Cloth Wrung, the first track I chanced across, was the shift between the stability of certain vertical combinations and the rhythmical elements (beatings) that arose with others.
The meantone tunings (e.g. Kirnbirger III) provide a palette of pure and less-pure notes to work with. Many of the vertical alignments bring with them their own subtle pulsation even though the overall harmonic movement is very slow.

Diagram of meantone temperament
A diagram from my old study-days in Bremen

Kali makes use of minimalistic generative structures (canons basically), on the one hand echoing Steve Reich’s sentiment that “…by voluntarily giving up the freedom to do whatever momentarily comes to mind, we are, as a result, free of all that momentarily comes to mind.” (“The sound of turning off my mind” as someone commented on her Bandcamp.) And on the other hand Pauline Oliveros’ listening practices – giving one’s attention to and holding notes longer than everyday boredom would dictate.

The FutureStops organ podcast has a wonderful interview with her in which she tells of her background and explains how she arrived at this way of creating music.

In the interview Kali mentions that while western tuning systems have found different ways of standardising distributions of the syntonic comma – assigning which notes should absorb the comma depending on the stylistic aspects of the music, just intonation essentially proposes an indefinite number of pitches, and that given that, “people can create harmonic experiences that are completely non standardised and unique to themselves.”

I very much like that view of just intonation as an open principle rather than a ‘system’, and my experience exploring the Partch 43-tone scale has been much along those lines – as a kind of J.I. playground enabling many sub-sets rather than a decidedly Partchian system. In fact it’s quite interesting to to see how he himself used it. I recently came across an old BBC documentary in which one can see him using it to create gestural cluster smears (around 14′25″). It’s also interesting how the scale was also very much intended to provide a finer grid against which to notate the inflections of the human voice.

My understanding of those vocal inflections has however been against the background of understanding them against a different mode of pitch perception – the high/low spread across the basilar membrane in the ear as I mentioned (following Clarence Barlow) a few newsletters ago, rather than the determination of ratios that takes place in the brain. Temperament as a practical smoothing out of the precision of the ratios underlying a music – remembering that the brain can still interpret what it is hearing in terms of those underlying ratios, even though the ‘tempered’ presentation might not fit the purity of the model. This is of course interesingly short circuited with Kali’s pieces: there is no music with an underlying ratio system being presented via a temperament: The music is a kind of portrait of the temperament (and instrument) itself.

* * *

All these considerations have had me reconsidering (revisiting) many of my old pieces and digging up old scores and recordings stretching way back into the past. On the one hand I don’t have a strong impulse to keep looking at them – would rather move on with something based on where I am at now in the world as it is now, but it’s become clear to me that for some reason I’ve kept on circling around many of the same musical areas (topics) since my first beginnings: Long notes (sound ‘in itself’), tunings, form growing out of a listening process (as a kind of documentation of a listening process). Listening rather than “expression”.

Looking back through my list of works I’ve found myself prompted to evaluate them in some kind of way. In what way did they succeed or fail – I even started making a list. Touching on them: a kind of Marie Kondo mental review of it all. And of those that didn’t work out all that well, which of them simply needed some more iteration, some simple changes that would have made all the difference; and which were misguided, based on misunderstandings – dead-ends (though, of course, one learns from those too). I came across this photo, taken in the Gaudeaumus week in 1997, and it truly feels like another life.

It’s only in the last few years that I feel the interests and an understanding of language, timbre/sound, and their relation to tuning, falling into place. It’s only now, given technological advances, that I’ve started to have them more readily at my fingertips. How might they find better modes of expression? An easier flow than the sometimes myopic over-concentration of my younger years.

* * *

Moving from Kali Malone’s sparse structures to justly intoned music with a lot of notes, here’s Terry Riley’s Shri Camel, performed on a justly tuned Yamaha YC-45D organ. It’s a piece that I got to know many years ago via Robert Ahley’s series Music with Roots in the Aether and have often had in the back of my mind. There’s an LP version of it – the version in the Ashley film is from 1975, probably not so long after Riley began working on the piece, and the LP is a studio recording from 1977, even though it was only released later (on the 31 December 1979 – I guess the record company had it get it out within that year for some reason.) The sound quality of the Ashley performance (Shri Camel: Morning Corona) leaves much to be desired, but it’s the one I find myself preferring/returning to. The unfolding of the overall form seems to be easier to follow. The LP recording feels a little more psychedelic, in a slightly disjointed kind of way. Desert of Ice, the final track on the album could almost stem from some present day modular enthusiast’s YouTube channel were it not for the loose, very much hand-played, decidedly unquantized (unsequenced!) rhythmical character/aspect.

Shri Camel owes a lot of Riley’s familiarity with the Ragas of Indian classical music, and his studies with Pandit Pran Nath, of whom Ubu.com has a documentary of course, with Pran Nath walking around in nature, gently singing along to the drones of a stream or other ambient sounds.

* * *

After diving into the details of the exact “ratios between the ratios” of the Partch scale that I outlined in last month’s newsletter, I’ve been getting into simply listening to the combinations and exploring them in conjunction with the timbres that can be created in the Buchla ID700 app – exploring the way the timbres and the tuning interact. Playing those sounds with the Sensel Morph also opens up many possibilites for shaping them as one goes along – bringing out individual notes of a chord for example. Certainly more than is possible with an organ, even if it is fitted with potentiometers controlling the air pressure to each individual pipe as with the organ at the at Studio Acusticum in Piteå. And with a wide range of perfectly tuned intervals at ones disposal. No need for creative solutions such as Ellen Arkbo’s combining the pure thirds of a meantone organ with the pure fifths of real brass instruments. But then, the creative constraints of working with those instruments, and the ‘organic’ liveiness that comes with them aren’t present either, and one has to find other strategies to navigate the sea of possibilites. I’m still some way off from actually making music with it, but having a good time immersing myself in an exploration of the sounds. “What it’s trying to teach me” in Kali Malone’s words.

* * *

Khyam Allami, whom I’ve mentioned in my previous newsletters in relation to his ‘decolonisation of music-software’ initiatives was in Copenhagen for the Gong Tomorrow festival, but I unfortunately missed his performance since I was in Aarhus for the opening of SPOR Festival, the highlight of which for me turned out to be Andreas Borregaard’s performance of The Goldberg Variations Are My Favourite Piece of Music – a piece by Philip Venables in which a spoken word narrative plays a central role. There’s a fine video version of the piece based on Andreas’s premiere of it at the Boréalis festival in Norway (you have to be logged in to Vimeo to watch it though). And in the train on the way back to Copenhagen I could catch up on ‘the decolonization of the world’ via the three essays in the sounds-now publication Listening .

All the best

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