The Microtone Zone

Having nothing better to do tonight, I searched YouTube for “microtonal.” I had never heard anything in 26-tone or 7-tone equal temperament, so I learned something. They’re both wildly exotic temperaments, and that seems to be part of the point — to do music that’s entirely free of any sort of grounding in familiar harmonies.

Schoenberg had that impulse too, of course, but he didn’t really understand how to get there.

I can’t help wishing that the music in those videos was better developed, though. The timbres, the recording quality, and the compositional gestures all need work. I listened to a couple of guys doing free improv on 31ET guitars, and it was just kind of a hash. A hash is pretty much all you can expect from free improv, unfortunately.

At least two people have posted videos explaining 19ET. Neither of them had much to say that I didn’t cover in a feature in Keyboard in about 1993, give or take a couple of years. They simply explained the basics, but that’s good, because you can hear the results in a video (not possible in a print magazine) and get inspired to try it yourself. Again, the music was not too well developed.

About 20 years ago I sent Wendy Carlos a DAT cassette (remember DAT?) with a 19ET piece I had recorded using a pair of Yamaha TX802s. I know she had that tape in her studio for a while, because six or eight years later she mentioned to me that she had put it in the deck while testing something — maybe some new monitors, I no longer remember.

I don’t have the piece anymore. I don’t think I even have my box of DAT cassettes, and my DAT player is long gone. I’m pretty sure I have a copy of the score of Easley Blackwood’s 12 microtonal etudes, because he sent me a copy, and I wouldn’t have thrown it out. But I’ll be darned if I know where it is.

There’s some history behind my fascination with microtonal experiments. And there’s an active, though marginal, community of people who are using the Internet to share their fascination with the odd (in some cases extremely odd) musical possibilities. Sometimes I wonder if I should try to connect the dots a little.

Footnote: I made the mistake of posting an offhand comment at the end of the video with the 31ET guitar improvisation. I thought the comment was quite inoffensive, but the guy who had uploaded the video (Antonio Quijano) promptly replied by threatening to kill me. I don’t think he poses any serious threat, but it turns out that he takes his music Very Seriously Indeed. He has self-published an extensive essay on music theory (you can find it by googling him, if you’re curious).

I’m not proposing to get into a wrangle with him, neither publicly nor privately. I’m just adding this footnote as a reminder to myself, and to whoever may read it, that on occasion a posted video, blog entry, or website may have quite a significant or weighty back-story. A casual comment based strictly on what you’ve seen may easily seem way far off-base to someone who knows the back-story.

It’s the perils of the Internet age, really. Nobody knows the whole story about anything. All we get are these tiny glimpses.

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5 Responses to The Microtone Zone

  1. To me, the most fascinating part of microtonal theory revolves around working past the compromises made when the 12 tone system was standardized to create “supertonal” recordings. With our current technology and ability to record sound onto a canvas, the compromise is becoming increasingly irrelevant for many composers. Perhaps the divide between composing for recording and composing for live performance needs to be defined more clearly, and in such a way that it does not alienate one type of composer from the other.

    When I was conversing regularly with composers on the microtonal fringe, I always wondered at why they would choose just one tuning to work with when there are an infinite number of pitches to be explored. It seemed to me that they had not clearly defined the separation between live and recorded music. They were trying to make a compromise between the two. My conclusion was that the 12 tone system is superior for live performance. It is a good compromise …but for music that is only recorded, the 12 tone system should be tossed out along with the technology that is based on it. Unfortunately, most of the high quality tools available are based on music’s history of using the 12 tone system. It may be that microtonal and supertonal composers just need tools designed for their specific needs, and when they get them there may be an explosion of high quality recordings done in a microtonal vein.

    Time will tell.

    • midiguru says:

      There’s a fork in the road, I think. (Perhaps it’s a tuning fork.)

      What you’re saying about an infinite number of pitches makes a certain kind of sense with respect to just intonation. I’ve never been very happy about restricting myself to a fixed pitch set when experimenting with JI music, because I never know what I may want or need to do next. What if 11/6 happens to be the right note, and I haven’t included it in the scale?

      With respect to equal temperaments, I think having a fixed tuning makes far more sense.

      Tools … ah, yes. I’m still waiting for a good general-purpose MIDI keyboard. Nobody has yet built one. We have some button grids, but buttons are not keys, damn it!

  2. poopoo says:

    The next step is to have a scale with an infinite number of notes in it. Forget the keyboard with it’s obvious limitations and get a ribbon controller or a trombone or fretless bass.

    The problem I find with most microtonal music is that it is often puts theory before practice. Practice should come first then the theory should fit the practice. That’s why developing microtonality on an instrument that is free from any scale would allow the composer to find the music first and analyse it later.

    Inevitably the argument of how to notate a music with no scale comes up. How about video replacing parchment?

    • midiguru says:

      The pitch space does need to be formalized in some way. That is, a finite and repeatable set of pitches does need to exist. If it doesn’t, the pitch dimension becomes entirely devoid of meaning. (The music as a whole could still be meaningful in the rhythmic and timbral dimensions.)

      I would agree that many microtonal composers are attracted to this area because they’re fascinated by the theory, and not because of the beauty of the music that they can compose using an alternate scale. Many of them are frankly not very adept as composers, and using microtonal scales gives their music a gloss of superficial interest that disguises its essential lameness.

      I play the cello, which gives me an infinite choice of pitches. Considerable study is required in order to produce 12 pitch classes in a reliable, repeatable way. Re-learning the whole process of fingering so as to produce 17 or 19 pitch classes with any dexterity would take, oh, a year or two at least. And that would be just one additional tuning.

      If you want an infinite pitch space, I recommend playing the theremin.

  3. legendNYC says:

    Interesting article. I’ve found some good web sites related to microtonal music: 81/80 the Microtonal Radio; and, The Seventeen Tone Piano Project.

    I am familiar with Easley Blackwood’s Chamber Music for Piano and Strings. I do not remember if the Cedille Records Sampler CD features one of his microtonal works.

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