↬ Twenty-one – 11: Subtle Magic

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 two newsletters I’ve written about Ellen Arkbro and Kali Malone and their approach to organs and tuning, and in the past few weeks I’ve been revisiting Sarah Davachi – someone working in a similar vein whom I’d actually come across before getting to know the work of Ellen and Kali.

Her recent Instrumental I video, recorded while on a residency using a 1939 vintage Hammond Novachord, provides a good example of the approach of letting the instrument and the tuning generate a rhythmical aspect – the (at times complex) beatings that arise from the combinations of the chosen tones. It’s all very slow-moving (on an overall scale) and deliberately non-virtuosic with the emphasis very much on listening – the first chord change only arrives some three minutes into the 17 minute piece.

She’s recorded a number of albums, all available on her Bandcamp, and I remembered and revisited her interview with Mylar Melodies on his Why we Bleep podcast from just over a year ago. There’s also a lengthy video of an artist talk she gave for Mills Performing Arts that also serves as a good introduction to her activities.

An interview with Ellen Arkbro also appeared on the FutureStops organ podcast shortly after the last newsletter and gives a nice intro to her particular take on this kind of stuff. I’ve been listening to her Sounds While Waiting album, which is more like a set of installation tableaus, ‘Sculptures’ as she describes them, and thinking of the inner vibrations of those static monoliths – noticing/observing a counterpart to them in my own body at those times when I’ve managed a quiet morning meditation before the day begins.

Duane Pitre, who put together the two just intonation compilations for Important Records has a new album out – Omniscient Voices for justly tuned piano and electronics. I’ve been finding it a little bit of a challenge to get used to the sound of the justly tuned piano. The sound of a modern grand, with the slight inharmonicities baked into the timbre of each note seems so intricately tied to 12-tone equal temperament. (The stretching of the tuning at its extremes to make that sound ideal work.) In a just intonation landscape the piano timbre sounds out of tune in a way that I don’t experience with organ notes for example. But then again La Monte Young has hours of this going with his The Well-Tuned Piano, so who am I to argue. Perhaps one grows to accept it more and can also switch off the traditional piano associations when one’s immersed in it for 6 hours.

The same goes for Kyle Gann’s investigations into microtonality using a straight piano sound. He has a nice example of an Orlando Gibbons passage played on a harpsichord in first in mean-tone and then equally tempered tuning. With the bright resonance of the harpsichord the mean-tone version clearly sounds better just from a timbral perspective, in addition to the music progression making more sense. Gann’s Hyperchromatica for three microtonally-tuned Disklaviers reminds me of Duane’s justly intoned piano (or vice versa). Perhaps I just have to spend a little more time getting used to it, but I think there is an interesting correlation between timbre and tuning that’s been put aside here. In Duane’s case though one can make an argument for the playoff between the role of the piano as protagonist in the electronic landscape it interacts with – that it’s useful to have the two elements so clearly distinct.

In an interview with Blake Hargreaves, a supplement to their FutureStops podcast episode, Kali Malone also mentions the nausea associated with listening to too much just intonation. There’s something to be said for having something else to throw into the pot.

Someone that has been exploring the interaction of timbre and tuning (along with life, the universe, and everything) is Wilf Amis. I came across his work via the Sensel forum and have been reading After the 12 Tones: tuning possibilities for the future-minded – his Masters Thesis submitted to the Institute of Sonology at my alma mater, the Royal Conservatory of the Hague.

There’s a lot to dive into. He’s looking into how we might move beyond the here and now and embrace a future-mindedness – how our approaches to creating music might find new paths beyond the constraints of 12-tone equal temperament (along with the standard keyboard so closely associated with it) and musical material that is shaped by what lends itself to being notated on a stave with 5 lines.

What is needed is not a new monolithic scripture but a new living folklore, abundances of intersecting narratives capable of expanding the popular imagination.

Instrument building, recourses to nature (or not), technology, gender, education, society, Khyam Allami. It’s all in there.

* * *

My good friend Felix Profos sent me links to a recording and film of Grund, a piece that he recently developed with the percussionist Peter Conradin Zumthor (son of the architect Peter Zumthor). It it fits in wonderfully with my recent investigations: a lengthy piece of sustained organ tones (acoustic and electronic) interacting with a set of percussion sounds (the cowbell section in the middle is particularly wonderful in this regard). No notation in sight, and clearly none in its preparation either. A long way from a typical new music festival piece. I’m enthusiastic! The audio is on SoundCloud, and there’s a nice film of the performance that can be downloaded here.

* * *

Thinking of the shifting relation between creating a piece of music, performing it and (an audience) listening to it, Sarah Belle Reid posted some reflections on how her own approach has shifted over the years:

Coming from a classically trained background, live performance always felt like something that was specifically for the audience…

it felt one-directional, and as a result, I always felt a lot of pressure around whether or not I was playing in a way/at a level that the audience would be happy with…

Something reeeeeally big shifted for me when I started to improvise my live performances and work more with electronics — specifically integrating chaotic circuits and feedback in with my trumpet.

I shifted away from thinking about a live performance as being something I did FOR others, and instead started to view it as a shared listening experience. The music became something we all got to discover and explore together, in real time… it was less one-directional, and instantly more co-creative.

Thinking of Sarah Davachi’s Hammond Instrumental linked to above and to some extent Felix Profos’ Grund, the performers are themselves very much in the role of listeners themselves, something we join them in. One can speak of pieces, compositions, there are loose structures in place (and in the case of Grund even dramatic), but performance and composition are welded together, not so much in the sense of the composer performing their own (previously created) work, but rather in the sense of enacting the process of creation. In the case of Grund with an extensive rehearsal period, not in order to rehearse the work, but rather in which it was created. ‘Workshopped’ I guess one could say. And since the listening aspect is such an integral part of the work, especially with the Davachi piece, it doesn’t require an audience in the way that a Romantic showpiece does. (I guess Roland Barthes wrote about these things many years ago.) The composer is the performer is the audience. Something suitable for our Corona times. Watching films of these performances feels complete: There is no missing audience. We are it along with the composer/performer(s).

* * *

In my own experiments with the Morph, Partch’s scale, and creating timbres on the Buchla ID700, I’ve reached a point of missing the constraints of an acoustic instrument. The Buchla has so many rich possibilities for (ratio-based) sound design within it that it’s easy to get lost. Something that I did start experimenting with has been playing equally-tempered tones against just intonation drones and listening to the nuanced beating that can arise there.

Here I am noodling along, playing electric piano tones against some sustained j.i. Buchla notes with the various speeds of the beatings showing the way. The music grows out of following them. It’s also fun to see the phase interactions via a correlation meter which I’ve added in the following video.


Visually a little phase universe – or perhaps I still have the imagery of Hari’s mathematical formula in Foundation too much in my head.

All the best
Rudiger

P.S. A little musical delight far from the concerns of tuning and the like: Ignatz’ You Can’t See Me. It’s described as ‘subtle magic’ and it is. Loose meanderings beautifully recorded and assembled. It’s the kind of thing that could be written off as irritating doodling, were it not so wonderfully done.

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