If Wikipedia is to be believed, Easley Blackwood Jr. (born 1933) is still alive. We should all be so lucky! Forty years ago I interviewed him for an article in Keyboard. He was so articulate that the interview ended up as an “as-told-to” feature in his voice.
The occasion of the interview was the release in 1980 of his LP Twelve Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media. This was a self-published LP. I believe it was later reissued as a CD, but I can’t find my copy of the CD, all I have is the LP. The audio is available on YouTube.
What you won’t find on YouTube is Blackwood’s detailed explanation of how the recording was done. To learn about it, you’ll need to download the scan I just uploaded of my 1982 article. You’ll find it at www.musicwords.net/music/blackwood_article.zip. As a bonus, I tossed in MIDI files of the etudes. I didn’t create these files, and I no longer remember who sent them to me. I can’t testify to their accuracy, but I may sit down and try orchestrating a couple of them, because I’m curious. I also have a complete scan of the score. It’s out of print, but it’s still under copyright, so I won’t post a download link here. Offering a free download would be entirely illegal. But if you can track him down and send him fifty bucks, maybe he’ll give you permission to download it. In which case, let me know.
I can’t help thinking it’s odd that so few composers have explored the harmonic resources that are to be found in these scales. Two or three factors may be at work. First, to get really good renditions of any of these scales, you have to use synthesizers, and there is still, I’m sure, a bias against composing for synthesizers in the university music departments where “serious” composers get their training. Second, even if you’re set up to make microtonal music on your computer (as I am), finding the notes of the scale on a conventional 12-note-per-octave MIDI keyboard is a bit of a mind-bender. And once you’ve mastered all that, you’re finally ready to start learning how the chord progressions can work in the scale you’ve chosen.
Blackwood’s goal was to address this question. The National Endowment of the Arts gave him a grant to do exactly that.
The technology he used was, looking back on it from 40 years on, terribly primitive. He mapped out the chords on an odd beast called a Motorola Scalatron, which was never sold publicly. But the Scalatron had no choices of timbres, so it wasn’t suitable for doing a recording. The recording was done with a monophonic Polyfusion modular synth, one instrument line at a time. That process itself puts him in a league with Wendy Carlos (who has also done some wonderful composing with microtonal scales, by the way).
I’ve done some composing with microtones. A couple of brief piano pieces (not recorded on a physical piano) are in this blog post. I also have a CD on bandcamp that’s mostly microtonal pieces in various scales. But this isn’t about me. I just wanted to let people know that the Blackwood article from Keyboard is now available online.
God knows there are some other articles from those days that ought to be kept available. I have a complete collection of back issues, of course, but I’m not planning to do any more scanning — not unless there’s some specific article you want. I believe Tom Rhea has turned his Electronic Perspective columns on synthesizer history into a book. If I can find out anything about that, I’ll put the link here.
Thanks for posting this Jim, I had a good time reading it while listening to the LP. I liked the bit about how he’s interested in harmonic progressions, rather than analyzing some static chord.
If you ever feel inclined I think posting this to archive.org would be neat.