Last summer I spent a bit of time reading up on Just Intonation and microtones after having developed an interest in the smaller fragments of tones via an accidental discovery of the work of Harry Partch and through our work in Kalbakken, were it became apparent when looking at old Norwegianfolk tunes and transcritptions that alot of the intervals in the scales involved 1/4 and 3/4 shifts between steps as opposed to the 1/2 and whole steps you’d normally see in a western 12 tone equally tempered scale.
I started reading into it further looking at Partch’s excellet text ’A Genesis of Music’ in which he outlines his own musical journeyand arrival at his system of splitting the octave into 43 intervals. While Partch’s book is great on context and he gives detailed explainations of his systems, instruments and tunings it didnt leave me too much clearer on how to actually apply any of the ideas in a concrete manner to my own instrument, the guitar.
At the same time I had been doing some reading and listening around Edgard Varese who I knew had a very wide open conception of tone and music and had influenced everyone from free jazz players to modernist composers. While his writings and ideas are pretty excitng, I read a great biography of him (cant recall who its by now, will update when i do) the recorded versions of his music I came across didnt really go where I expected them to…
Through reading Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening’ book I came to some concrete discussion and mention of ‘Just Intonation’ something I’d heard of and explored a little around but fairly loosely. Just Intonation is a system of bulding relations between music intervals that was generally in use before the arrival of the 12 tone tempered scale. It is baseda round the exact divisions of the orginal frequency of a note; so for an A at 440 Hz exactly half 22o Hz is an octave exactly a forth is 110 Hz. This system produces as exact tones, where it comes a little unstuck and how tempered tuning came to prominence is that due to needing to divide frequencies down exactly to produce a scale on a keyboard or fretted instrument, the instrument would need to be completely retuned to play in different keys. The 12 tone tempered scale (what the piano is now tuned to and the frets of the guitar represent) equalled out all of the interval gaps so an instrument could be played in any scale without needing to be retuned; what it sacrificed was the quality of tone and pure relationship between frequencies. Basically creating a hegemonic paradigm shift in our perceptions of musical relationship and what sounds ‘in’ or ‘out’ of tune that continues to this day.
So I began exploring the ideas in this through the ‘Just Intonation Primer’ of David Doty and found that it opened up and made clearer a whole bunch of ideas Partch had outlined. From this I could start to explore relationships on guitar in relation to Just Intonation, mainly through using string bends around 3rds and 10/11 frets to produce frequencies that were more consonant.
Still I was scratching my head abit at how to come up with a system of how to really translate this workably onto the guitar as string bends werent really doing the trick. I recalled that Partch’s first instrument he worked with was guitar so went back to my original source to see what he used.
and of course he used a slide! A metal bar weighted with lead in fact. Slide being one of the absolute classic guitar techniques, it was almost too obvious! and pretty funny that I hadn’t actually thought to check what he was up to in the first place.
Great I thought; I had the idea of the slide as the tool to realise my ideas but what remained was how to actually translate microtonal ratios to the guitar? Where would I place the slide? Here I came unstuck again as the mathematics and method Partch outlines I really struggled to relate to in real terms. Check his tonality diamond below:
I just couldn’t make head or tail of it! Luckily a few things dovetailed to reveal a method to me. Firstly as part of my on going study I had been reading up on the physics of music. Within this field there’s no way you can really avoid Pythagoras and his monochord…
A monochord is a single stringed instrument. Pythagoras developed his scales and theory of music by simply moving a third bridge along the length of the string splitting the single string into different ratios to produce different notes. So the halfway point is an octave: a 1/2 and 1/2 split. A 1/3 and 2/3 split produces a fifth which relates to Partch’s 3/2. A ratio of 1/4 and 3/4 split produces a fourth relating to Partchs 4/3 ratio for a fourth. Suddenly I realised the most simple way to realise all these ratios reached back to my practise as an apprentice luthier in Greece; you just measure the length of the string as Pythagoras did and apply Just Intonated ratios!
At the same time I stumbled across Yuri Landman who is a Dutch instrument maker who has some really useful info on Partch’s diamond and ratios on his site; he basically flips them on their heads to make them easier to understand.
So armed and excited with all my new information and possibilities I set about figuring out how to play a Just Intoned scale on a regular guitar using a slide as the fretting tool. I used ratios given in Dotys book. Below is the maths and also what I hope is a simple diagram giving exact positionings on the neck of the instrument:
These all work good with the slide and a bit of careful practise and listening. Its interesting to note that in all the scales the octave, fifth and fourth are all pretty constant, while the other intervals will vary wildly.
Ill make models of and post more of these scales when i have some spare time to be working on it. Some of the microtonal ideas I have started working into recordings that should appear next year.
live action from Islington Mill August 2009
Notes on Culture, Hegemony and Music.
With my recent studying in adult education Im seeing more and more the importance of culture being something we create with each other rather than something that’s beamed down on us to be consumed and eaten up.
Being active in the creation of our own cultural (1.) activity solidifies the possibility that we can be active participants in the shaping and forming our world rather than passive observers deterministically sitting back and scratching arses waiting for the next master piece to fall out the sky.
This is generally the conception of culture that has hegemony (2.) at the current time: culture is something created for us, to be passively consumed by us, our only active role within the whole process is that we are given an illusion of choice over what it is we can consume and in what way; prime time TV talent show phone ins being an obvious example here.
Im interested here in the way my own experiences of grassroots musical communities can act as a counter hegemonic device in this respect. The whole concept of the punk rock DIY spirit; anyone can play, pick up an instrument, be in a band, put on a gig is all about people being empowered to create their own culture. Over the past forty years this idea originally promoted by groups like Crass, has proliferated and a wide variety of styles sounds and networks now operate locally and globally working with the tools of DIY. How these networks will continue to evolve and sound over time is an exciting possibility. How much these networks can really help to renegotiate cultural hegemonies or whether they solidify into a subculture dominated by capitalism remains to be seen….(3.)
What ive found fascinating operating within parts of these networks as a musician over the past ten years is how elements of this culture manifest as opaque post post everything hipsterism; an understanding of the surface level of grassroots organisation and why its totally cool, but seemingly no idea of the structural level, the ‘what does it mean?” and “why do we do it?” questions which bubble away insistently in the background in my brain at least. This remains problematic as the danger of being accidentally swallowed by the postmodern beast is always only step away; this process of recuperation; capital chewing up and making palatable that which poses a challenge to it is one of its most successful features. It should be held in mind that pretty much anything except extreme acts of violence against the state can be recuperated. (4.)
The question of improvising within all this is also an important one for the musician. If were looking at a equal and libeartional format for playing, we’d find the majority of song based and composed music’s generally cede to the authority of a single figure, the single most convincing way ive come across to side step this and create a system of equality is to literally do what George Lewis says is going on with free jazz where “everyone can do whatever they like while still remaining part of a collective group moving in the same direction”. (5.) This format for improvising is probably most commonly noted with free jazz and European free improv playing but is present within a wide variety of music’s made at a grassroots DIY level; in terms of noise, drone, rock, electronics, free rock sounds… This approach is something that many musicians ive come across are openly passionate about; that their music retains this freedom of form and structure, again this has ramifications bearing onto ways we make and organise cultural production in on a wider level as it questions the very idea of ownership and marketability through their being no possibility of endless repetition of the same tune only possibilities for exploration.
1. This activity could be of any form, when im saying culture im talking about whatever it is that humans do socially, creatively, collective so in saying culture we could include many things; conversation, play, music, film, self building houses, growing plants and so on the list is endless. Usually here though I am talking specifically about the cultural activity of creating music.
2. Hegemony is the idea developed by Gramsci classically defined as “a social condition in which all aspects of a social reality are dominated by or supportive of a single social class” This idea is further developed to present hegemony as a fluid concept constantly being renegotiated and in flux. It has to be constantly refixed and reaffirmed to support its continuation.
Antonio Gramsci “Selections from the prison notebooks”
Peter Mayo’s “Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education”
3. Hakim Bey’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone” essay is an interesting response to this situation. He argues that a temporary space is the only real possibility now for autonomous cultural actions. The whole free party rave scene is heavily indebted to his ideas, though they didn’t listen to his advice on the oppressive nature of 4/4 beats….
4. For more on this and everything that’s terrifying about late capitalism see:
Guy Debord “Society of the Spectacle”
5. George Lewis “A Power Stronger Than Itself” great book on the history of the AACM in Chicago but he’s covers pretty much everything itself possible to cover.
Another excellent surreal skit rolled out by John Bisset and Ivor Kallin. Theyve made a whole bunch of these weird little films, never fails to entertain. Theyre also organising the wonderful 2:13 festival in London once a year.
Some photos taken by Huw below from our recording session in October at our practise space in the Hotspur Press building.
The fruits of this labour will appear on a CD/download album due for release early next year on Manchester’s very own Concrete Moniker label. You can hear a few excerpts on our special place here. Also check out the new and updated website megasicked up by Huw.
We’re working on booking dates to support the CD when it comes out too! Below is what we’ve got so far; more will follow for sure.
11th February @ Tin Angel, Coventry
25th February CD release show! @ Greenroom, Manchester
12th March @ Blue Cat Cafe, Stockport
3rd/4th July @ Litomerice Festival, Czech Republic
Winter is taking its toll on the violin the communal gardens in Woodlawn Court that I put out to seed in the summer… its now down to just the front piece of the body after mysteriously disappearing for a few weeks. The piece is becoming slowly more sculptural and less resembling an instrument. Im fascinated to see if it will survive the winter in any form…
Whats been most interesting so far is that our neighbours who we in keeping with the fragments style of postmodern living we dont really know in any really form, have clearly been taking an interest in the instrument. This is the third time now that the violin seems to have ‘disappeared’ and then reappeared in a different spot out the back. Just how it lost the back, sides and neck we’ll have to keep imagining, probably an overzealous squirrel preparing for winter.