Jacob in 2011
Jacob A. Barton (b. 1985) decided in 2003 to make the rest of his music as microtonal as possible. Seeing the dearth of mere musical examples of many interesting tunings, he started a Soundclick page to share his microtonal meddlings, for better or for worse. Concurrent with an encounter with the School for Designing a Society in 2005, a series of fortunate events led to the invention of the UDDERBOT, a microtonally capable slide woodwind instrument. Jacob is currently teaching at the School for Designing a Society, organizing a Xenharmonic Praxis Summer Camp, and spreading the udderbot gospel. Jacob helped to start this wiki and has left several incomplete ideas lying around which you are free to build upon.
Response to ProgressReport (from May 2007)
What was your path to discovering alternate tunings?
I began music very early and was fortunate enough to have MIDI software and hardware from about age 8. By high school, I was over sequencing and into writing for acoustic instruments, even planning to build some new ones. Doing a music theory project in I stumbled upon LucyTuning and Partch's Genesis of a Music, fascinated by the seemingly wide-open possibilities of an extended pitch continuum.
And yet, months went by as I searched to no avail for microtonal music that did what I wanted music to do (a hard enough task without the microtonal). Through that process I got a lot less picky in listening - MIDI sounds don't bother me so much, for instance. A big step in the search was realizing that people were calling this stuff "microtonal music". When I found some writings by Ivor Darreg, I found that his pan-intonational approach fit me better than Partch's more centered view. (I'm very diffuse!)
What instruments or means have you successfully used in the making of microtonal music? Recommendations?
Here are the things I've tried, in roughly chronological order, which I've called "Microtonal Solutions", many of which involve Western acoustic instruments:
- obtain a reed organ and retune the reeds. Scrape the tips to raise pitch; scrape base of reeds to lower. I retuned a low-end electric-motor organ to 3 octaves of harmonics 12-24 and called it "otonal organ". Good for JI, but hard to get exactly right. It's still not exactly right.
- synthesizer (MR-Rack) with a user tuning table. I wrote a piece where the tuning was supposed to change between sections, so I rigged Max/MSP to send the appropriate sysex messages triggered by a pedal. Piece was for 3 live keyboards, but in performance I accidentally hit the pedal too many times and was stuck playing two sections in the wrong tuning - yuck!
- when Scala's GUI version became available for Mac I made quick friends with the live retuning feature, detwelvulating my QS8, which has robust samples. Still a favorite for auditioning new scales.
- tried to teach an ensemble (clarinet, bass, cellos, violin, kazoo) to play 72-equal using Helmholtz-Ellis-Wilson-Monzo notation. Disaster! The signs < and > were oft-confused, and I was really only interested in a small subset of the 72 notes -- more complexity than I needed.
- tried to learn 31-tone fingerings for bassoon, after Johnny Reinhard. Relatively successful, though timbral unevenness between some notes. Hope to do more of it in the future. I welcome any 31-tone bassoon compositions anyone wants to throw at me.
- tried to teach an ensemble (violin, saws, bass, trombones, bassoon) to play in 31, notated normally. it really came down to the attitude of the individuals, some of which were better than others. the main problem is a lack of pedagogical materials. i hope to generate some in my lifetime.
- scratched that and went to bottle choir. much like handbells, the challenge all of a sudden was not in tuning at all but in lining up rhythms to make hocket melodies. highly successful and fun recommended! was toying with starting an ongoing bottle choir for awhile.
- piece in 8-equal (sesquitones!) for chamber ensemble (violins, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, udderbot, slide trumpet, trombone, horn). hastily written and rehearsed; results inconclusive. slide instruments fared better than keyed, but the limits of difficulty were breached.
- short sketch of string quartet in a simple 9-out-of-quartertones scale. not too shabbily read!
- two Bb clarinets, but with one tuned a sixth-tone (33¢) flat for a composite 24-out-of-36 scale. The clarinet is already not really in 12, and even less so when pulled out. Such a constraint on 36 would make any reasonable xenharmonicist complain, but I found a lot of nice 7-limit stuff as I wrote the piece. Recommended.
- SeventeenTonePianoProject. I was really really happy with this, but again, it's a compromise of what an instrument natively designed for 17 could do. Hockets - a good problem to have! Also, got so busy being performer and organizer that I didn't manage to compose much of what I wanted.
- udderbot, a new slide bottle, played in any tuning imaginable. cheap and intuitive. like trombone, much depends on what you can hear. i'm working up a piece in 31 right now, and I hope to commission numerous microtonalists for solo pieces in the near future.
- Autotuning via computers. I just purchased VoiceTweaker, an AU/VST that imports scala files and can even do a little harmonizing! I also recently built an autotuner in Kyma capable of up to 31 notes per octave (octave repeating, for now), but the only attempt I've made at using it musically was the biggest disaster ever. Needs more work, is what it comes down to.
Microtonalists & experimental instrument builders I have met
Yep, I'm collecting them like trading cards. Seriously, though, the people are consistently even more interesting than the music they make!
Elizabeth Adams, Chris Bailey, Easley Blackwood, Donald Bousted, Ian Dicke, Duo Contour, Jonathan Glasier, Kraig Grady, Andrew Aaron Heathwaite, Wim Hoogewerf, Aaron Andrew Hunt, Paul Kotheimer, Aaron Krister Johnson, Joel Mandelbaum, Brink McGoogy, Joe Monzo, Johnny Reinhard, Jose Antonio Martin Salinas, X.J. Scott, Dan Sedgwick, Dan Stearns, George Secor, Tommy Scheurich, Mark Stewart, Travis Weller, Erv Wilson, James Wyness.