Why NOT Microtonality: The Perils and Pitfalls of Going from "Musician" to "Microtonalist"
My name is Igliashon Jones, and I identified as a microtonalist for a solid 7 years of my life. The purpose of this article is to explain why I stopped identifying as one, and why I think more people should stop identifying themselves this way (or never start in the first place). For the purposes of this op-ed, I'm going to use the term "microtonality" to refer more to a particular disposition to alternative tunings, rather than simply the use of alternative tunings. This is important, because it is my view that it is entirely possible to use tunings other than 12-TET without using "microtonality", without making "microtonal" music, and certainly without becoming "a microtonalist".
So what is "microtonality", as I'm using the term? Simply put, microtonality is the belief that tunings (and theoretical ideas about tunings) have immense musical importance, generally above and beyond any other single aspect of music (and occasionally above and beyond all other aspects of music). That is to say, when one becomes a microtonalist and adopts the principles of microtonality, one often finds oneself engaged in composing, seeking out, listening to, and/or discussing music which, were it not in an alternative tuning, one would generally find unremarkable (if not outright detestable). For example, re-tuned MIDI files, cheesy Csound renderings, amaturish guitar plunkings, or even simply music that falls well outside of one's normal tastes. In fact, one may even become fanatically devoted to this sort of music, perhaps even losing touch with musical taste all together.
Another typical aspect of microtonality (as opposed to simply "making music with alternative tunings") is that one generally spends a majority (or even the entirety) of one's music-related time creating, discovering, and/or exploring new tunings, either in theory or in composition. A microtonalist who uses only a single alternative tuning is basically unheard of, and any person who does only use a single alternative tuning probably doesn't identify as "a microtonalist". Microtonality as a movement suffers from an intense form of attention deficit disorder, which prevents any real musical progress from being made: this ADD ensures that musical collaboration is rare and short-lived, or indeed any in-depth exploration of an alternative tuning. One only needs to spend a week on a microtonal discussion forum (such as the facebook "Xenharmonic Alliance") to see this ADD in action--rarely (if ever) can a single tuning hold the focus of any one person, let alone the whole group. This is, of course, by design--a core principle of microtonality is that there is no one "best" tuning, because different tunings are good for different things, and so everyone must be free to choose tunings at will, just as they would choose tempo, rhythm, orchestration, dynamics (etc.). Nevermind the fact that few people (if any) ever spend long enough with a tuning to actually figure out what it is and is not good for, or the fact that few (if any) can even agree on which tunings are good or bad for which musical purposes. The acceptance of the validity and utility of infinitely-many tunings is the central dogma of microtonality and is never questioned.
All of this is extremely hazardous to the musician. To enter the microtonal world, one is compelled either to bite the bullet and climb the learning curve to assimilate all the available information on all the available tunings (even if all one wants is to find a single good tuning), or else one can simply dig in to a scale library and explore as many tunings as one can without giving a thought to the theoretical considerations behind them. Neither approach tends to aid the composer in producing better music--one easily either gets lost in exhibiting the various theoretical properties of tunings, or gets lost in the tunings themselves. The fact that composing and producing microtonal music severely limits one's choices of instrumentation (due to the incompatibility of most major soft- and hardware synthesizers with alternative tunings, as well as the lack of readily-available alternative-tuning-friendly acoustic instruments) is also significant; the microtonalist often has to make do with subpar or homemade equipment, or pay a premium price for custom-constructed instruments. This last aspect is especially detrimental when combined with the ADD typical of microtonalists--it is rare that any microtonalist bothers to build or purchase multiple instruments in the same tuning.
But perhaps the worst part of being a microtonalist is the loss of healthy perspective. Oftentimes the adoption of microtonality leads one to scorn "regular" music and to treat 12-tone equal temperament with disdain. The healthiest microtonalists are those who don't subscribe to the anti-12 rhetoric, and maintain at least one foot firmly planted in the 12-tet world, continuing to play "regular" music with "regular" musicians (although, these folks are seldom prolific composers in alternative tunings). Those who choose instead to detach from the musical community at large and plunge with both feet into microtonality--which is precisely what I did--can completely lose touch with the outside world, and develop a delusional sense of the importance of the microtonal "movement" (or rather, the delusion that there is a microtonal movement at all, and that it is important). This sort of delusion can and does lead people to get all kinds of worked up over trivial matters; I was an especially potent and recent case of this, but the history of the various online tuning groups is rife with other examples.
How to Use Alternative Tunings Without Becoming a Microtonalist
This is what I'm actively researching right now, because despite my harsh words about microtonality, I do think alternative tunings (or at least, a few alternative tunings) are worthwhile to pursue and develop musically. What I have figured out so far:
1. Don't Quit 12-tet
12-tet is a great tuning, and much of the microtonal theory supports it--indeed, much of the theory arose to try to explain why and how 12-tet is as awesome as it is. For a tremendous variety of musical applications, there is simply no better tuning. It's okay to acknowledge that, and you don't have to give up your interest in alternative tunings to do so.
2. Commit and Specialize
Spend the minimum amount of time possible searching for a tuning you like, and once you find one, spend the rest of your life with it. Become the world's leading expert in it. The bulk of microtonal discussions center around discovering and categorizing tunings; once you pick one and stick to it, you will have no need or desire for those sorts of discussions. Instead, you'll be interested in figuring out how music works in your chosen tuning, and will quickly get past the theoretical exhibitionary phase and start integrating the tuning on a deeper level. If you must, pick a couple, but be warned that the more tunings you try to use, the shorter distance you will progress with any of them.
3. Understand the True (Lack of) Importance of Tuning in Composition
Tuning and intonation are subtle things, compared to rhythm, orchestration, dynamics, and lyrics (in vocal music). One can often wildly alter the intonation of a piece of music without making it unrecognizable, and in many cases alterations may even be unnoticeable to non-expert listeners. For example, diatonic music in 17edo can oftentimes be passed off as "normal", despite intonational variances of more than 30 cents from 12-tet in some intervals. In most cases, a change in timbre is more noticeable than a change in tuning, unless the change in tuning is rather extreme. It all seems to be profoundly challenging to write music that non-expert listeners will both a) recognize as being tuned unusually and b) not hear as "out-of-tune" (and this applies as much to extended JI as it does to exotemperaments). Good music is made by the skillful manipulation of all compositional parameters, not an obsessive focus on a single one. Especially considering that tuning is nothing more than a particular set of constraints on harmonic and melodic construction, and is only audible through harmony and melody.
4. Recognize That There is No "Microtonal Movement"
Movements are unified and cohesive actions undertaken by a coordinated mass of people to achieve a specific and definite set of goals. In the microtonal "community", the lone unifying principle is "not 12-tet", or more properly, "not 12-tet all of the time". There are no unified actions being undertaken, the people are not coordinate, and the set of goals is anything but specific and definite. There is no movement, just a bunch of people from a vast diversity of backgrounds whose obsession with alternative tunings has driven them together. If you feel inclined to the same messianic bent I once had, believing that someday the microtonal movement will overthrow the 12-tet hegemony and replace it with your favorite tuning or even just complete intonational freedom, you should probably seek help. Lord knows I should have.
5. Never Stop Having Fun
This is music, and music is nothing but a pleasant diversional activity to help keep us all sane and happy as our little blue-green spaceship hurtles precariously through the cosmos. Enjoy the heck out it before you do anything else with it. That goes double for the study and application of alternative tunings.
6. Be Honest With Yourself
Admit when something is not working. Admit when the tuning doesn't serve you, or when it's become too much of your focus, or when you just don't like it. Don't be too gentle with yourself, and don't get too hung up on ideology or rhetoric.
(to be continued)