Bent or Broken

Tonight, at a party, I found myself commenting to a friend that most of the people who are making microtonal music just aren’t very good. In many cases, they seem to have latched onto microtonal composing as a handy cover for the fact that they have only very marginal ideas about what musical expression and creativity are, or can be.

Am I being too brutal? Maybe. But again and again, as I listen to the hideous thrashing noises that have been uploaded by this or that microtonalist, I find myself imagining, with something akin to embarrassment, the scene in which the guy is hunched over his equipment recording this stuff while his girlfriend, standing behind him, rolls her eyes in pained and stricken disbelief, clearly wondering, “What am I doing hooked up with this loser?”

There are happy exceptions. One is Prent Rodgers. He’s doing provocative and spicy things with alternate tunings, and he’s using the tunings to enhance compositions that would stand up and be listenable (though in some cases quite different and less effective) if they were in standard tuning.

In what follows, perhaps it would be well to bear in mind that my taste in music is far more conservative than my taste in politics. I love Bach, Haydn, Beethoven (well, some of Beethoven), Schubert, and Brahms. I find Shostakovich and Prokofiev challenging but rewarding. I have no use whatever for Babbitt, Cage, or Stockhausen. The entire school of 20th century composition that attempted to demolish the ideas of melody, harmony, and regular rhythmic pulse I regard as a swarm of arrogant poseurs and con men, not as artists.

Having said that….

The website of the American Festival of Microtonal Music is a complete failure. Not because the site design is graphically awful — that would be easy to forgive if the music were good. Some of the videos of performances require a special plug-in, but I didn’t bother to download it, because after I went to the page of YouTube videos on their site, I could see no reason to burden my hard drive or browser with another plug-in. The audio in the YouTube video of a trio (flute, oboe, bassoon) was badly recorded, the piece was in a harsh and uninteresting modern idiom, and the use of microtonality was … well, it just sounded like occasional intonation problems. Other YouTube videos on the same page didn’t play at all.

The winners of the 2010 UnTwelve Competition are well worth listening to, though I can’t help feeling that somebody ought to have taken the time to explain to these composers Read more


Is That a Piano?

I’m pretty sure you won’t know quite what to make of this. (I’m not sure I know what to make of it.) But I think a good way to approach it may be to listen first and then read about it after you’ve heard it. So here’s the track:

To answer your first question, no, that’s not a real piano. Building a real piano that would play those notes would cost, I’m sure, a quarter of a million bucks, if not more. Nor is it sampled. It’s ModArtt PianoTeq 4, a software-based physical modeling instrument. (And scary good, I might add.)

If it were a real piano with enough keys, you might be able to play the whole piece. I’m not sure. There are a couple of three-handed moments. But I did try to make it sound quasi-playable.

You want to know about the tuning, though, don’t you? It’s 19-tone equal temperament. You’d need a piano with a gray key between each pair of white keys, which would mean learning, oh, a few new fingerings. The fifths in 19 are not quite as good as those in our standard 12-note tuning, which is why the opening sounds faintly honky-tonk. But once you’ve listened to this tuning for a minute or two, you hardly notice.

I sort of know what some of the chords are — the obvious ones, anyhow. Other places I just trusted my ear. Chopin? Debussy? Or just a train wreck, you be the judge. If you want a title, I think I’ll call it “Koi Pond.”

Season’s Greetings

One of my Facebook friends posted a beautiful rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” for harp and oboe (probably sampled, but done with great care). My beady little brain said, “Heck, why not?” So here’s my take on the same tune. It’s … a little different, and certainly not as professionally produced as my friend’s, but I only spent three hours on it, so I don’t think I have anything to apologize for.

This happens to be in 31-note equal temperament, but nobody would be likely to notice the fact, as there are no outside notes at all. The only perceptible result of using that tuning — if it’s perceptible at all — is that the thirds and sixths sound a little more pure than we’re used to.


It appears we’re going to engage in some sort of impassioned public debate about the possession of firearms. This debate, while unlikely to change anything, is long overdue.

One of the talking points trotted out by the gun huggers is the idea that ownership of a gun is what allows ordinary citizens to stand up and oppose their government. Gun ownership is seen as a way to prevent tyranny.

Just to be clear: I’m as concerned as anybody about the assorted tyrannical abuses perpetrated by our current government. You and I might not agree in every instance about what’s a tyranny and what isn’t — I happen to think Obama didn’t go nearly far enough in the direction of socialized medicine — but I think we can all agree that the federal government is a hella dangerous mess. The point I want to make is simply this: Guns do not offer you any effective protection against tyranny. That idea is nothing but a fantasy. Gun ownership was probably effective 225 years ago, when the United States was a small, sparsely populated nation with a new and uncertain form of government, but a lot has changed since then. Opposing tyranny today is not nearly as easy as owning guns!

Thinking gun ownership provides you with some sort of political autonomy is right-wing bullshit in an especially naked and stupid form. Fortunately, crushing this argument is not difficult. It might even be fun. So let’s give it a shot.

The first thing that needs to be asked, since there’s already quite a lot of gun ownership in the United States, is, “How’s it working so far?” Now, I’m not fond of the way our governments (state and federal) operate, and I’m sure a lot of other people aren’t either — perhaps for different reasons. Conservatives tend to feel the government is trampling on their sacred rights far too energetically, while liberals tend to feel the government ought to be doing a lot more than it’s doing to rein in certain abuses.

The conservatives, of course, are the ones with the guns. So … how’s it working for you, guys? Is the fact that you own guns keeping the government off your backs? Are you enjoying Read more

Maybe Next Year

I cringed when I saw the cover of the new issue of Scientific American. Trying to predict what technology will be like 50, 100, 0r 150 years in the future is a parlor game, not a serious intellectual exercise.

To understand why, you need only read a little 1950s-era science fiction. The predictions made by the authors about what the 21st century would be like were not just wrong — they were wildly, spectacularly wrong, by turns far too bold and not nearly bold enough.

My favorite example is Isaac Asimov’s early stories about robots. He built his robots’ brains using vacuum tubes, because the transistor hadn’t yet been invented, much less the IC chip. And yet, sixty or seventy years down the line, we still don’t have autonomous thinking machines of the kind Asimov envisioned. He had not the shadow of a clue about the real technological difficulties over which he was leapfrogging.

The migration of humans to colonies in space has been a staple of science fiction for close to a century, yet none of the authors who have written about it has come close to grappling with the real issues, which are probably more economic than technological, though the technological challenges are beyond imagining. And yet, here is Scientific American blathering about “starship humanity.”

Dissecting the rosy vision of space exploration in this article would be an amusing exercise, but it would take days. There’s a howler in almost every paragraph. Author Cameron Smith imagines Read more

Loose Ends

Another day, another book review. I was up until 2:00 this morning finishing Breakdown, the new V. I. Warshawski mystery by Sara Paretsky. I like Paretsky a lot. She writes well, and also she kind of wears it on her sleeve that she’s a liberal. Paretsky and Carl Hiaasen, another liberal who writes crime novels, are aces in my book.

As a sleuth, Warshawski is annoying but endearing. Her personal life intrudes too much into her cases, but Paretsky is nowhere near as self-indulgent in the sleuth’s-personal-life department as Sue Grafton. Grafton’s books are an unreadable mess, largely for that very reason.

After tumbling into bed, I started mulling over the loose ends in the plot of Breakdown. There’s a wicked assortment. If you don’t like spoilers, please stop reading.

We never do learn how the bad guy tracked Leydon Ashford into the church, where he tossed her over a railing and bounced her head on the stone floor. We can guess why he needed to search her purse, but it’s not at all clear how her purse ended up so far from the body. Nor is it clear why, after failing to find the newspaper clipping in her purse, he doesn’t take the trouble to break into her apartment and search it. It’s not even clear which bad guy tossed her over the railing. Could have been the main bad guy, could have been his slimy assistant. That’s probably not important, but it’s a loose end. We never learn which of the bad guys was spying on or in touch with Miles Wuchnik’s sister. (Remember that mysterious phone call?) We do learn, in passing that it was the main bad guy who ran down Tommy’s mother and killed her, but his motivation for taking such a major risk — hey, somebody could have jotted down his license number, though nobody did — is no more substantial than tissue paper.

After the bad guy kills Xavier, we’re told offhand that rope marks were found on Xavier’s wrists, which meant he didn’t commit suicide after all, somebody tied him up and forced him to take the poison pills. But Xavier was a guard at a security complex, so it’s not at all clear why he would passively have put up with such treatment. Also, before he died he texted his lady friend, confessing, so he couldn’t have been too far gone after he was untied. Also, the bad guy inexplicably doesn’t Read more

Devils & Details

Tad Williams is a terrific storyteller. I’ve enjoyed a couple of his fantasy novels, so when I saw The Dirty Streets of Heaven on the new-and-interesting table at the library, I checked it out.

I devoured it immediately. Reached the last page at midnight. It’s a good read. Plus, it’s apparently the first book in a planned series, so if you like fast-paced action adventure with a fantasy twist, you’ll like it.

And yet, as I reflect on the substance of the story I find myself oddly dissatisfied. I’ll save the spoilers for the second part of this little review and alert you when they’re about to start. If you just want to read a quick synopsis before deciding whether to go out and buy a copy, you’ll be safe reading the next few paragraphs.

The fantasy premise is hallowed, yet treated with a contemporary edge. Bobby Dollar is an angel. A real one, but he’s driving around California in a beat-up old car, and you’ll never see his wings. He’s an advocate angel, one of a number of entities so employed. When somebody dies, Bobby’s cell phone rings, and the home office sends him out to support the departed soul in its moment of Judgment. The other side sends out a demon, and there’s a quick trial before a judge. If Bobby presents a stronger case, the soul goes to Heaven (or perhaps to Purgatory). If the demon has a stronger case, the soul is cast into the eternal fiery pit of Hell.

Both Heaven and Hell are quite real. As I said, it’s a hallowed premise. But the story isn’t really about Bobby’s activities as an advocate — that’s just the setup. The plot problem is that souls have started disappearing before Judgment, and nobody knows where they’re going. The angel, the demon, and the judge show up at the bedside of the newly departed, and there’s Read more

All Mixed Up

How many of you have heard of Maxwell’s demon? Raise your hand? Okay, that’s what I thought. We’ll start with a little explanation.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us, basically, that things fall apart. Any physical system tends to move toward disorder, also known as randomness, also known as heat (because molecules jittering at random as they bump into one another are what heat is). Because of the Second Law, any engine that you build will be less than 100% efficient: Some energy will always be lost, due to friction or whatever. That’s why perpetual motion machines don’t work.

Another word for disorder is entropy. Entropy is always increasing. If it decreases locally (such as when a plant grows from a seed), it’s always increasing somewhere else. Living things don’t actually violate the Second Law, though they may seem to, because the equation is always balanced if you look at the big picture.

At least, that’s what the best scientific minds assure us. We also have a highly regarded scientific theory that the universe began as an enormous, rapidly expanding cloud of hot gas. As the gas spread out and cooled, galaxies and stars formed. That is to say, the amount of order in the universe apparently increased, and in a rather dramatic, easily visible fashion. I haven’t run into an explanation of this apparent contradiction, but I’m sure some physicist has concocted one.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell came up with a thought experiment. I don’t know why — maybe it was a slow day in the physics lab. Maxwell imagined a box with two compartments containing gas. Between the two compartments is a partition with a very small trapdoor. Maxwell imagined that this trapdoor was operated by a demon. When the demon sees a hotter-than-average molecule of gas approaching the trapdoor from the left, he opens the trapdoor and lets it through. Conversely, when he sees a cooler-than-average molecule approaching the trapdoor from the right, he opens the trapdoor and lets it through.

The result: Over time, hot gas would accumulate in one compartment, cool gas in the other. This would violate the Second Law. It can’t happen. So where’s the fly in the ointment?

In truth, there are several flies in this ointment. For starters, operating the mechanism that opens and closes the trapdoor would cost energy and release heat. Maxwell waved his magic wand and made that problem go away. (I’ll bet you didn’t know physicists have magic wands.) Also, building (or raising, or hiring) a demon with the necessary Read more

Drenched in Mystery

The universe is a very strange place. The more we learn about it, the more clearly we see that strangeness is woven so deeply into its fabric as to be … well, transcendent.

The invention of the microscope led to the discovery of a whole world of one-celled life that was too small for us to see. We still know very little about how one-celled creatures do what they do. The invention of the telescope led to the discovery of whole galaxies, and we don’t understand how galaxies are organized either. We do know that the outer rims of galaxies are spinning too fast, which means there’s a basic force at work that we have not a clue about. It seems vanishingly unlikely that we (meaning, the human race as a whole) will ever know what’s going on here.

But I want to talk about mysteries that are closer to home. I’m an atheist, which means that I have yet to see any convincing evidence that a conscious, all-powerful, benign entity (which we might call “God”) even exists, much less is responsible for creating the universe and pays a speck of attention to human affairs.

And yet, there are moments when I notice that the universe seems to exhibit a slight preference for meaningful order. Meaningful in specifically human terms, and Read more

Music Theory Meets Geometry

The theory of harmony that serves to organize most of the music of Europe and America (and increasingly of the rest of the world) is built on a couple of basic assumptions — axioms, if you will. First, there are exactly 12 pitch classes (A, B-flat, B, C, C-sharp, and so on). Second, the pitches relate to one another within a one-dimensional space. That is, they’re laid out in a line, which conventionally runs from side to side with lower pitches to the left and higher pitches to the right.

The relations among pitch classes, which are what harmony theory is about, all take place within this one-dimensional matrix. Octave equivalence (transposition) and the Circle of Fifths introduce wrinkles, but the wrinkles can easily be mapped onto the one-dimensional layout.

To be sure, the frequency spectrum, in which pitches are defined by their number of vibrations per second, is one-dimensional. The fact that harmony theory defines relations in one dimension is not wrong. But it’s a limitation conceptually.

Guitarists play in two dimensions. Because of the layout of the fretboard, they sometimes discover scale and chord relationships that keyboard players fail to notice. They do it by moving geometrical patterns across from one string to another, as well as up or down the neck of the guitar.

Harmony theory in two dimensions turns out to be quite interesting. When we add the possibility that there may be more than 12 pitch classes within the octave, matters become very interesting indeed.

The ancestor of my new Z-Board is the Z-tar, a MIDI interface designed for guitarists by Harvey Starr. The Z-Board goes a bit further Read more