If it was easy, everybody would do it. That’s a motto that I’ve found to apply to quite a lot of human endeavors. Playing the cello, certainly — but also putting together a portable, yet highly functional workstation for playing microtonal electronic music. (Portable because I have some devious idea about being able to take this music out and play it for people.)
After struggling with the concept for a few days, I may have a first, very rough approximation. I’ve found that Csound can respond to MIDI input on the MacOS with low latency and good stability. In Windows, it’s a little glitchy, at least on my system. I haven’t yet tested whether it will play multiple notes on complex instruments in the Mac without spitting up. We’ll see.
One advantage of Csound is that it’s free and cross-platform. Another: It’s a very sophisticated audio programming environment. Yet another: Csound doesn’t try to enforce a 12-notes-per-octave tuning. You can devise whatever strategy you’d like for deploying pitches. The downside is, to create synthesizer sounds you have to write code. Likewise with composing: You get to type an event list. This is not an instantly gratifying activity.
I’m starting to see why drone music is so popular — not among listeners, perhaps, but among composers. You can generate a long piece more quickly if there’s a lot of repetition. Plus, it’s easier to conceive of a piece of music as an entirely intellectual process if it’s drone-based. Trying to remember a catchy melody long enough to type it into an event list is just a wee bit awkward.
Still, with the plentiful real-time inputs to Csound, a drone piece could be made very interactive. Hook up a bank of sliders and then stop and start loops by assigning them to MIDI buttons or keys. Yeah, this could be interesting.
The problem of mapping microtonal scales to a MIDI keyboard remains. I’ve written a simple Csound routine to trigger whatever pitches I’d like from the keyboard, and I can remap the keyboard to different pitches instantly, while playing. That’s the easy part. The hard conceptual work is figuring out what combinations of pitches I want to play from the keyboard, in pieces that I haven’t even written yet.
It’s like the old gag about the furnace repair man. He comes in, looks at the furnace, kicks it a couple of times, and it starts. He then hands the homeowner a bill for $100. The homeowner says, “That’s outrageous! A hundred dollars? All you did was kick it. I demand an itemized bill!” The furnace repair man takes the bill back and writes on it, “Kicking furnace, $5. Knowing where to kick, $95.”
Remapping pitches to the keyboard: easy. Knowing which pitches to play, and why, that’s more of a challenge.