A Microtonal Interview

Xenharmonic Wikispaces is having a discussion where microtonalists are invited to answer a series of questions. Here is my submission.

What was your path to discovering alternate tunings?

When I was about five years old, I would "play" on the family's piano and wonder who gave the piano tuner the right to decide which notes I could play. I wanted to know about the other notes that were between the keys. I tried playing adjacent notes at the same time, but decided that it didn't sound very good and wasn't really the same thing as playing the in between notes.

Years later I read about purely tuned intervals and how our modern tuning system deviates from these intervals and is actually based on the twelfth root of two, an irrational number!

This seemed scandalous to me. I felt like I discovered a great historical secret. I would tell others about this, but they never seemed to care that much. I felt that I needed to try out different tunings. I wanted to play with purely tuned intervals. I also wanted to try scales based on other irrational numbers and find out if this was a valid approach to making interesting music.

My first experiments involved acoustic instruments. I had a little harp that I would tune to just intonation. I experimented with using a slide on a guitar to play microtones. I even made a primitive clarinet like instrument that played septimal intervals like 7/6 and 7/4.

I eventually got an electronic keyboard that could be retuned. This is when my interest really took off.

What are your current/ past/ future particular interests?

I enjoy just intonation, but have decided that I prefer to focus on equal temperaments, especially ones that contain interesting dissonances. I am working on several projects in 26 tone equal temperament as well as some in 13, 19, 28 and 29 tone equal temperaments. I plan on also doing some experimenting in nonoctave tunings.

What instruments or means have you had/do you have now/do you want
for the making of microtonal music?

I frequently use a Triton Extreme keyboard. It has pretty decent microtuning abilities, but it has some limitations, especially for tunings that require a mapping of more than twelve keys to the octave. I also have a Yamaha TX81Z sound module and some older Emu sound modules that allow for microtunings. On my computer, I enjoy using a combination of Cubase SL3, Kontact 2, Scala and the Scala 2 Kontakt Microtuner. This gives me a lot of tuning flexibility.

I would also enjoy having some kind of microtonal guitar in the future.

Any good microtonal anecdotes?

I once played a little piece in thirteen tone equal temperament for a friend. A shocked expression came upon his face. He was deaf in one ear and could actually hear it pretty well in his deaf ear. We tried several songs and tunings, but it only worked for that particular piece and tuning.

If you would like to take part in this exchange of microtonal information or would like to read other answers to these questions, please see this page.


acwo said...

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keep it up!

Anon said...

Wow, that's really interesting. I like the idea of deviating from the 12-tone system, but its implications especially for instrumental performace is kind of daunting. The anecdote about your friend was especially intriguing. Have you done any experiments with microtonal systems since then to see if he might be able to hear different intervals from the ones in that piece?

Daniel Thompson said...

Yes, it can be daunting to perform microtonal instrumental music. It's necessary for a lot of microtonal music to be produced and performed on electronic instruments. Even then, tuning systems with more than twelve notes to the octave can present some technical challenges.

There are some imaginative solutions. There's an upcoming concert in Texas that will use two microtuned pianos to share the notes of a 17 note equal tempered scale. I just learned that if I act fast I can submit a score for consideration, so I'm working on that now.

There are also some specially designed microtonal instruments, but I wish there were more.

I have played music from several tunings for my friend and even some other music in the same tuning, but it was only that one piece that had any effect.

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Anonymous said...

Microtonal music. Sounds most fascinating. Like Chinese and Indian music seem to operate on different tonal systems also. I'm hardly the expert on any of this but this is a fascinating blog you've got here! I found you at random - pressing "next blog" from mine. If you want to see my blog you're welcome: gledwood2.blogspot - my online secret diary of my life and problems. Maybe I'll see you there..?! Keep up the fascinating writing. You have a very different point of you that it's good to read.
All the very best to you