Martian Accidentals

This is one of those chores for which I wish I had an intern. I’m scanning a 155-page music score into the computer, one page at a time. It’s taking hours.

Why, you ask? A volatile mix of obsessive-compulsive behavior (borderline — not full-blown OCD, but clearly identifiable), intellectual curiosity, and a vague idea that I might actually be performing a public service. The score in question is Easley Blackwood’s Twelve Microtonal Etudes. Composed in the late 1970s thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and still available on CD, the Etudes were published in 1982 by Schirmer, but the score is out of print, and pre-owned copies are in mighty short supply.

I have the CD, of course. It’s out of print, but used copies are floating around. Recorded between 1979 and 1981 using a Polyfusion modular synthesizer, it’s certainly listenable, but the sound quality is, shall we say, primitive. Today’s synthesizers are so much better, and many of the best software synths will quite cheerfully do any tuning you can dream up. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “Maybe I’d like to try re-recording one of these pieces using good modern technology.”

A couple of years ago, I contacted Blackwood and asked if he knew how I could get a copy of the score. (He had, years before, sent me a copy of the score for the “Fanfare in 19-Note Equal Tuning,” which is also on the CD.) He said he had a few left, and would send me one … but he never did. Since I was asking for a favor, I didn’t like to pester him about it.

The only extant copies seem to be in university libraries around the country — not surprising, really. But recently I found that I could get a copy through my local public library, which subscribes to an inter-library loan system. I now have on my desk the copy from the library at the California Institute of the Arts. This system is one of the marvels of the modern age, I have to say. I’m in awe.

At the bottom of the first page of the score, in small print, it says, “No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.” Hey, Schirmer — I’d buy a copy from you, if you still had it in your catalog. The way I figure it, since you’ve let it go out of print, you can go sit on a sharp stick for all I care.

Once I have the whole thing scanned, I’ll make the digital file available to interested parties. I will, of course, make a point of telling them that if Schirmer ever brings it back into print, they should erase their digital copy and buy a paper copy. That would be the right thing to do.

The Cal Arts copy is nicely bound, and lies flat on the bed of my cheapo Hewlett-Packard scanner, which is certainly a blessing. I wouldn’t have dared break the binding in order to do a scan!

I’m already learning a bit about Blackwood’s thinking, and I haven’t even started studying the score yet. In order to notate the music on conventional five-line staves while preserving octave relationships, he employed a somewhat idiosyncratic system of accidentals. In addition to the usual set, there are circles with little upward-pointing or downward-pointing arrows. It makes sense that some sort of innovation would have to be deployed. Even so, the mapping of scales with 13 or more notes per octave onto the staff is peculiar.

Perhaps there is no better way to do it. I’ll have to think about that.

The 13-note scale, for instance, has no note corresponding to G. Note 6 is notated as an F-sharp, note 7 as a G-flat, and note 8 as a G-sharp. Since the 13-note scale has nothing resembling a perfect fifth, spelling a note as G-natural might be objectionable on analytical grounds, but the music would be easier to read if it were written with conventional note spellings to which one element was added — for instance, G-flat and F-sharp as distinct pitches.

In Blackwood’s system, note 12 in this scale can be spelled enharmonically as either a B-sharp or a C-double-flat. This probably makes sense in the context of the score: In bar 4, there’s an ascending figure that’s notated as C-double-flat, D-double-flat, E-double-flat, and given his choices in notation, those are indeed whole-steps (quasi-diatonic) in the 13-note scale. They look like whole-steps, and they are. But nobody is going to be sight-reading this music, that’s for sure. Probably the only way to realize it on a MIDI synthesizer system would be to write the absolute note number in pencil beside each and every note.

I may give it a try, but I have the sense that it’s a long-term project. Maybe I could get a grant. It seems a shame to let this music disappear.

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5 Responses to Martian Accidentals

  1. georgek says:

    Sounds like a fun project! Though I’m not sure what that says about my own OCD tendencies :).

    Is there OCR software for sheet music? Something that could take a scan and translate it into something like csound automatically?

    • midiguru says:

      There’s an add-on for Sibelius called PhotoScore that does OCR of printed notation. In my tests, however, it’s of extremely limited utility. This score, while very nicely done by a professional music copyist, is handwritten. PhotoScore can’t deal with ordinary handwritten scores at all. I’ve never tried it with professional penmanship, but I wouldn’t be optimistic. And of course it wouldn’t know what to do with all of those weird accidentals. They would either be skipped, or rendered as erroneous notes, requiring hours of cleanup. Even in the best possible scenario, in which PhotoScore did an acceptable job, you would have to go through an additional mapping stage, in which the MIDI notes generated by Sibelius from the PhotoScore input were remapped onto an entirely different set of note numbers so that the synthesizers would respond to the data.

      Good suggestion, thanks … but probably not practical.

  2. David Morley says:

    Hi Jim
    Oooohhh I have to say that as a Polyfusion owner that although you could say modern synths are better at making it easier to perform such a recording, but there isn’t much I would use over the Polyfusion when it comes to rich and complex timbres…and is a seriously high end synth still. FM timbres are accurate over a wide range of octaves without sounding boring like many and for an analogue synth it really is top notch. For the right job not much in my experience competes…
    Of course this record wasn’t really about that. I have it and it’s an interesting record but not sonically.

    • midiguru says:

      I’m sure the sonic limitations of that recording are due in part to the analog tape … and we don’t know much about how it was engineered. The Beatles used analog tape too, but they had high-end equipment and very experienced producers and engineers.

      I’ve never laid hands on a Polyfusion, and I love analog modular synths, but even so, I seriously doubt that any analog modular can equal the sonic variety or detail of u-he Zebra 2 or Camel Audio Alchemy. I do know the technology well enough to feel comfortable with that statement; it’s not just a blind guess by an enthusiast.

      • David Morley says:

        Hi again
        I know you know your stuff Jim! Just meant for many Genre of music (I make Ambient and sort of dark electronic), the Polyfusion will hold it’s own even today. I like the others you mention and combine my analogues with various digitals. I just think comparing the two is perhaps the issue as each has their place and strengths and weaknesses!

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