Snow days in Manchester

There was a huge snowfall on Manchester on Monday evening and as you’d expect the whole city was at a complete standstill on Tuesday morning and probably will be most of the week.

Noticed an interesting acoustic phenomena on Tuesday morning when Helen and I rather optimistically went to see if the buses were running down Upper Chorlton Road. There was near silence and absence of background noise. We stopped and listened for a little while totally fascinated. We put this down to the absence of traffic on the road, there were only a couple of cars out driving very slowly rather than the constant flow of vehicles you normally see on this stretch of highway.

However, I this morning I came across an excellent acoustic explaination from Trevor Cox of Salford Uni for the presence of silence on snowy days. He points out that snow dulls the ground surface which is usually highly reflective to sound leading to a reduced general noise level. Read what he wrote in detail here.

The texture and light picture I took yesterday in Alexandria Park, Moss Side on my walk home.


Just Intoned Scales for guitar

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.

Harry Partch

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.

Edgard Varese

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…

Pauline Oliveros

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.

Harry Partch guitar

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:

Harry Partch's Tonality Diamond

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:

Maths and diagram for Just Intoned scale for guitarI then went on to decode a couple of the other alternate scales Doty gives in his Just Intonation Primer for guitar. Ptolemy's Malakon scale
Archytas Enharmonic scale

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.


‘Spoke’ Scores for Ad Hoc

 Above you can see the hermetic  graphic score I drew for the Ad Hoc dance performance I wrote music for earlier in the Autumn. The score was performed by me with the Ad Hoc dancers at the Lowry Studio Theatre in Salford on the 11th of November. Some of the music I wrote for this performance has since been recorded for solo guitar and will hopefully see the light of day sometime next year on a longer release.

Below are the open scores, hopefully understandable to anyone with a familarity with a guitar in open tuning, some extended techniques and graphic scores. These are the tidied up versions of the documents I worked on with choreographer Ruth Tyson-Jones and the dancers to create the finished score.


LBO aktion

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

Ad Hoc Dance Performance

This coming Monday…



SPOKE is a new contemporary dance work created by Ad Hoc Dance, directed by Ruth Tyson-Jones. It has taken creative writing, either found, gathered and/or authored as a starting point. The spoken word is skillfully interwoven into the choreography. A specially created score has been created and will be played live, by David Birchall.

Ad Hoc Dance is The Lowry’s in-house adult contemporary community dance company

The evening’s bill will be shared  – The Lowry’s in house youth dance company, Commotions will present a new contemporary choreography. This work has been created alongside dance artist, Debbie Milner.

The Studio Theatre, The Lowry, Salford Quays

Time: 7.45pm

Price: £5

Date: November 9, 2009

Book through The Lowry Box Office on 0870 787 5783 or Lowry website



Spiral Compositions




Started work on a few drawings after having not really done any drawing work for quite a few months. This began just trying to start out with one of the simplest shapes and one of the first recorded marks by mankind: theres spirals all over prehistoric stuff. Also it tied in with some of the ideas relating to microtonality or true tonality or Just Intonation; whichever you want to call it: that  the circle of 5ths actually being a spiral due to tiny differences in frequency as you add up.

Also wandered about the possiblities of using spirals in graphic scores: a great shape to describe shape, mass and weight as well as giving an impression of length, could be combined with boxes and shapes as potential time indicators too.

Currently Im also figuring out some actual practical applications of whole tone ratios for the guitar. After a summer reading up on the ideas of Harry Partch and Just Intonation and being slightly bemused but very excited about the theoritical possiblities I finally realised a bit of simple maths, a ruler and a glass slide was all I needed to actual make it practically relevant with the guitar.

Im going to put a longer post explaining all this in a lot more detail once I feel like ive totally got to grips with it!


More anarchosyndicalist bike aktion







All photos by Helen Brealey
All photos by Helen Brealey

Some snaps above of our ongoing bicycle based horrorshow live at Islington Mill in Salford last night. Show was notable for my nearly totalling all of the bike based instrument sculptures with my first physical gesture of the set.

Disaster was narrowly avoided via some careful cable wiggling and shouts of “Youve ruined Christmas now Jimmy” from the more lively parts of the audience. Managed to lay down some good grooves though eventually; mostly informed by the rhythmic memory of Huw’s 90s reggae tape that we had on repeat in the Volvo on the way over. You can’t make this stuff up.

Bike Orchestra wise we’re playing on the Thursday 29th of October as part of the Vaudeville night at the Greenroom in Manchester. We will be in the studio with the talented and brave Joshua Kopecek in the next few weeks and hopefully this session will produce material for a download and CDR release on Manchester’s Concrete Moniker and a tape split on Ikuisuus.