Lumpy Gravy

Why has the Bohlen-Pierce scale been so widely embraced? (For very small values of “widely,” to be sure — but still.)

I’m not sure what the attractions of this scale may be. I’ve been trying to keep an open mind, but I have to say, it’s an exceptionally ugly scale … and you’re hearing this from a guy who writes music with 17 equal steps in the octave, a scale that probably causes tumors in mice.

The original form of BP, as I’ll call it, is a form of just intonation in which there are no octaves. All of the ratios in the scale use odd numbers. The royal seat of the octave is usurped by the “tritave,” an interval with a ratio of 3:1 — what we would call an octave and a fifth, or a twelfth.

The tritave is parceled out into 13 steps, which vary somewhat in size. These steps repeat at the interval of the tritave. (There’s also an equal-tempered version of BP, but it’s based on the tritave too.)┬áThe smallest of the steps are larger than the half-steps in our standard 12-note equal temperament, with the result that melodies in BP tend to sound rather gawky, as if their elbows were sticking out.

The major triad, in forms of just intonation that don’t avoid the octave, is defined by the ratios 4:5:6. In BP, the analogous structure Read more



Tonight I’m bored with music. Bored with the arts in general, actually. Art, it seems to me, concerns itself mainly with the human experience — with human perceptions, aspirations, and emotions. Recent headlines have left me profoundly disgusted with the human species. So why would I care about art?

Seeking other fields to explore, I went to the library and checked out a couple of books on physics. Not for the first time. I’ve read a bit in recent years on both cosmology and particle physics. One studies the universe at extremely large scales, the other at extremely small scales. The two fields are both concerned with the same fundamental questions. And what’s rather disconcerting is that both fields are a glorious mess. The brightest, hardest-working, best-equipped scientists the world has ever seen have, among the lot of them, not a clue about the fundamental nature of reality.

The deeper they probe, the more of a muddle they get themselves into. According to something I was reading recently, “dark energy” accounts for 73% of the mass of the universe. Also, dark energy may be the same thing as the cosmological constant. The absurdity of this may become clear when I explain that the cosmological constant is a number. Yes, one school of highly reputable, well-trained scientists tells us that 73% of the total physical stuff that the universe is made of is … a number.

This is only a little more bizarre than a lot of the findings of modern physics. No, “findings” is too definite a word. “Guesses” is better. There are, to be sure, findings. The microwave background radiation is a real phenomenon. It can be measured. There are some quite plausible guesses about what its existence tells us about the very early universe. Surrounding these guesses is a skein of more tenuous conjectures, few of which can be tested experimentally, other than in very indirect ways.

The truth is, we don’t know what sort of universe we live in. We will never know. You can look at this fact in three ways (if not more): Perhaps the nature of the physical universe is ultimately unknowable — and this could be comforting or terrifying. Perhaps it’s knowable, but we haven’t yet developed instruments of sufficient fineness to penetrate its secrets. (Perhaps we never will.) Or perhaps the human species just isn’t smart enough to figure out what’s going on.

One thing is certain: If we let the Republicans ruin our educational system, we’ll soon be moving back into the Dark Ages. In the headlines this week, a Republican presidential contender openly advocates assassinating scientists. I am not making this up. Rick Santorum was referring specifically to atomic physicists in nations like Iran and Russia, whose nuclear capabilities he finds frightening. But it’s only a short step from saying the government should kill foreign physicists to saying the government should kill foreign biologists or cryptographers — or, for that matter, domestic ones whose loyalty is open to question.

This kind of thing makes the doctrine of Intelligent Design laughable. If a supernatural entity of some sort had a hand in the design of the human race, intelligence was not a factor in the equation. Call it Stupid Design. That’s closer to the mark.

What Goes Around, Comes Around

As we stagger out past the end of the American Century, it may be useful to contemplate what will happen next — or what may happen, if we’re willing to roll with it. The American Century lasted for about 130 years, from 1880 to 2010. It’s over now.

What does this have to do with music? I’ll get to that.

We can be sure of one thing about the years to come: Almost nobody is going to enjoy the kind of material prosperity Americans have long felt was their birthright. Face it: If everyone on this planet had the number of possessions you and I have, and used the amount of natural resources you and I use, this would be a dead planet. The air would not be fit to breathe, nor the water fit to drink.

Prosperity will not be restored. But if we have the courage to re-envision our entire economic system, this need not be a calamity. Okay, we’re going to need to reduce the human population to, at most, 10% of its current level. If we don’t do it voluntarily, nature is going to do it for us. Once that detail is taken care of, there will be some good news. With the technology available to us today, the entire (reduced) population of the world can be Read more

Disklavier Dreams

This morning my friend Peter Giles — I don’t know his exact title, so we’ll call him the Communications Director for Yamaha Digital Music — announced a “strategic partnership” with a company called Zenph. I’ve been trying to decipher the claims that are being made about this partnership or product or whatever it is.

Peter’s post on Facebook said, “In my view, this new alliance is a game changer in the piano industry.” The phrase “game changer” is a red flag for any journalist reading the words of a communications director. What it typically means is, “This is a minor advance at best, so we’re going to trumpet it as loudly as we possibly can.”

The headline on PRWeb, on the press release to which Peter’s FB announcement links, says, “Yamaha and Zenph Form Strategic Partnership to Demonstrate Unlimited Potential of Yamaha Disklavier .” The phrase “unlimited potential” is another of those red flags. Let’s be clear: Nothing has unlimited potential, not even Read more

Rick Santorum and the Naughty Bits

According to an article in today’s Huffington Post, “Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum recently pledged to ‘die on that hill’ fighting against same-sex marriage, and made a similar vow to repeal all federal funding for contraception because it is ‘a license to do things in a sexual realm.’ Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, made the claims during an interview with editor Shane Vander Hart, according to Think Progress.”

This is so bizarre that it requires comment. Let’s see if I understand where Rick is coming from.

If teenagers are using birth control and therefore don’t have to worry about getting pregnant or catching a loathsome disease, they’ll be more likely to have sex. So, in order to try to force them to have less sex, Rick wants to make it more likely that, if they do it anyway, they’ll cause more unwanted pregnancies and catch more potentially life-threatening diseases.

Why? The only reasonable conclusion is, Rick Santorum hates sex! He hates it so darn much that he would rather see teenagers die of AIDS and/or have to drop out of school because they get pregnant, in order to (maybe) get a few other teenagers not to fool around in one another’s pants.

For him, that’s a net gain. More deaths, more unwed pregnancies, but less sex.

Rick, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but your mother had to have had sex at least once. Possibly with your father, but that remains unproven. Possibly with the local dog catcher. Or with a local dog, we can’t entirely rule that out. You’re exhibiting about the same level of intelligence as a border collie, and rather less compassion.


I love jazz chord voicings. But so many people have explored that turf, and for so many years, that I doubt I could do anything even remotely original. This chords in this new piece, on the other hand, I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never heard before. The title is still in flux, but I think it’s called “The Teeth of Desire.” You may find it disturbing, or provocative, or just plain baffling, but I hope it won’t be boring.

For those who are curious about such things, this piece is in 17-note equal temperament. This tuning has no usable major third; the prominent triads in this piece use the neutral third, which is positioned precisely halfway between the root and the fifth. When you stack neutral thirds, as happens near the middle of the piece, you get a ninth-chord that is utterly ambiguous.

The main synthesizers are u-he Zebra and Ace, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, and Cakewalk Z3ta+ 2. The percussion comes from NI Battery 3. Sequencing was done in Image-Line FL Studio 10.

Stage Fark

In many human cultures down through history, music was something that lots of people did. In the United States, prior to the invention of the phonograph and the radio, families would gather around the piano in the evening and sing songs together.

Today, that tradition has pretty much died. Making music is a job for experts — and mostly, for the experts living in L.A., New York, Nashville, and London. Most people are content to listen. If you enjoy making music yourself, you’ll find that you’re competing against those very experts.

Why would a restaurant manager hire a local guitar duo, when it’s so much less hassle to pipe in recorded background music? No worries about the duo showing up, no worries that they’ll fumble around and do a poor job or play repertoire that’s inappropriate for the venue, no worries about auditioning a new act when the current act moves on. That’s the essence of the problem facing local musicians.

I play cello in two community orchestras. We play concerts. People buy tickets. Yes, local music still exists. It’s not exactly thriving, though. And playing a stringed instrument in an orchestra is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a creative act. Worse, it has begun to feel like a charming anachronism — rather like Read more


Today’s news about Occupy Wall Street reminded me of this song:

SoundCloud was smart enough to know that I was trying to upload it in violation of copyright, so I put it up (quite illegally, I assure you) on my own site.

Judy Collins recorded it in 1966 — 45 years ago now. If the lyrics seem a trifle strident when measured against the current very mild protests, you might want to remember that the French Revolution of 1789 (which is what this song is about) was directly inspired by the American Revolution of 1776.

That, not coincidentally, is why the French designed, shipped, and erected the Statue of Liberty. It was their tribute, in 1876, to the Centennial of the American Revolution.

Let’s Get Together

The town where I live is not huge. It qualifies as a city only in the rhetoric of our elected officials. Even so, we have a thriving Art Association. Local painters, photographers, and jewelry makers have banded together for many years to put on shows and workshops.

It’s a curious fact that we have no equivalent for composers of music.

A web search reveals a few organizations for composers in San Francisco and the Inner East Bay. But as I get older, I’m far less inclined to want to hop in the car, drive for an hour, hunt for a parking place, and walk back to my car after dark in a strange neighborhood. Sorry, sports fans, but that’s how it is. If it’s within 20 minutes of my house, I’m happy. Anything further afield is a chore. If I never have to drive to San Francisco again as long as I live, I’ll be very happy.

So why isn’t there a group of active composers here in town?

I put it down mainly to the difference in media. This plays out at both the beginning and the end of the artistic process.

Painting — or at least, representational painting, and trust me, that’s most of what you’ll see at a show of the Livermore Art Association — is an art form in which your eye can be trusted to tell you, quite intuitively, whether you’re doing a decent job. If you try to paint a cat and it comes out looking like Read more