Imperfections

Synthesizers will spoil you. That’s one of the possible answers to today’s pressing question. There are other possible answers.

I love microtonal music. There are many, many interesting tuning systems, and my piano, as lovely as it is, only does the one tuning we’re all familiar with. I also like the idea of just being able to sit down and play. Composing and recording into the computer is mostly about sitting and thinking, it’s not about being in the moment.

So I decided to buy a qanun. I’ve never played one. I’ve never even seen one, except in YouTube videos. But it arrived yesterday, and now I’m confronting it.

It’s beautiful, and not too awfully expensive. ($1,500 delivered, including tax.) There are 77 strings, and that row of black things along the left side are the tuning pegs.

It’s expected that tuning a qanun requires some time and effort. I don’t mind that. The trouble is, the darn thing won’t stay in tune. I tune it meticulously, and almost before I finish, a few of the strings are sliding flat. I’m hoping this is because the strings are new, and they’re still stretching, but I’m not sure. A few of the pegs actually slipped completely loose while I was tuning it. I managed to bear down on them and get them to stay put, but the fact that that’s happening at all suggests that perhaps the pegs are not being gripped quite hard enough by the peg block.

I’m going to tune it a few more times over the next couple of days. Maybe it will stabilize. I sure hope so. I wouldn’t want to have to get in a wrangle trying to explain to Amazon customer service why it’s defective and needs to be returned.

Here’s the test case. Four days after delivery (which means at least two weeks since the strings were put on the instrument — time enough for them to stretch, or so one would imagine), this audio file shows how poorly the instrument holds its pitch. I tuned it yesterday afternoon, adjusting each of the strings as well as I could do be in perfect unison with the concert pitch played by my synthesizer. And my ear is not bad; I can find a unison. This morning I sat down and recorded the instrument. I plucked each string in each 3-string course twice. I then sliced the recording apart in my computer, so that you’re hearing each course plucked four times (plucked twice, and then the same audio repeated). First I let you hear the strings by themselves. Then I play the concert pitch to which I tuned them yesterday, so you can hear the bad intonation clearly.

As you’ll hear, a few of the courses retained their tuning quite well. In some of them, a single string had gone flat. In others, the entire course was flat, and not just by a tiny bit. And for the record, I should explain that the qanun was sitting on a table in a temperature-stable room, not banging around town in its case, and between the tuning and this morning’s test recording I never even touched the mandals. My question is, is this normal? Is this what I should expect of a qanun?

Using digital synthesizers, which are always perfectly in tune — well, except when the person creating the preset has screwed up — may have raised my expectations unrealistically. I expect the tuning to be perfect! When I play the cello, my intonation isn’t always perfect, but that’s down to my left-hand technique. The cello itself is staying perfectly in tune. Okay, it only has four strings, not 77. But the pegs do not slip. They just don’t.

A more subtle issue, and not one that I would dream of complaining about if the tuning turns out to be okay, is that this is not the instrument pictured on the Amazon page. The top board is a different color and has different sound holes. I don’t mind about the sound holes; these are pretty. The problem is, my eyesight is not that good. The one on the Amazon page has a deep red top board, so the strings are clearly visible. On this one, the strings are much the same color as the wood, which is lighter — and they cast shadows. It’s hard for me to see them clearly, and with this many strings, you really do want to be able to see what you’re doing.

A qanun has a system of levers called mandals along the left edge. Flipping a mandal up or down changes the pitch of the associated strings by a quarter-tone, give or take. As a result, it will do melodic modes that you just can’t play on a piano. It’s an elegant system. This is a Turkish qanun, so it has quite a lot of mandals. That’s one of the things I want to explore. But if the strings won’t stay in tune, messing about with the mandals isn’t going to produce pitch inflections that make much sense.

More will be revealed, I’m sure.

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