A Visit to the Workshop of Bart Hopkin

Intonation

FRANK J. OTERI: For you, it seems that precise intonation isn’t really an issue.

BART HOPKIN: Somebody said to me the other day, "How precise do you think I should be? Do you think it’s good enough to tune it within a tenth of a cent?" My reaction was, "God, get a life." Nobody can hear it. I read some place in one of these acoustic studies that somebody had gotten some highly reputed flute player to play, somebody famous that we all would have heard of, and it turned out that they were only accurate within five cents.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, five cents is the human threshold…

BART HOPKIN: Well, I’m completely relaxed about it. And, at the risk of making enemies, people talk about these tuning questions and talk about them and talk about them and get out their calculators and where’s the music? I really like the way music feels. And I don’t feel the difference between these very fine differentiated tunings that much. I like the impact of music. I love to think and talk about intonation systems, but in the end I say life is too short, give me Motown when it comes down to that kind of question.

FRANK J. OTERI: But, after seeing you play and talk about some of these instruments that can bend pitches, it seems fair to assume that you’re not content just to have the pitches of twelve equal.

BART HOPKIN: Bent notes are really cool, not because I know how many cents I’m bending. I think I’m not quite as unpleasant a person as I just sounded! I actually have heard some really wonderful just music, and you really can hear the difference. But as far as what I’m doing with my own 24 hours a day, I put the emphasis elsewhere.

FRANK J. OTERI: But, obviously, one of the mentors of the whole experimental instrument movement was a microtonalist, Harry Partch, who built all his own instruments in order to play music in his own scale.

BART HOPKIN: I was just on the Mavericks Web site

FRANK J. OTERI: Where you can play web-based versions of the Partch instruments online!

BART HOPKIN: Preston Wright did a wonderful job on that thing and I really enjoyed playing around with it. But one of the things that struck me, and I actually commented about this in an exchange I had with him, is—it’s the strangest thing—you play these instruments where they’ve sampled the Partch instruments’ tone qualities and pitches, so you get to hear the instruments in this kind of strange disembodied content. It’s funny—Mr. Corporeality reduced to a computer screen. But one of the striking things about it is you hear these tone qualities that are wildly inharmonic and you can hardly tell; the fundamental is almost completely dominated by some of these inharmonic overtones on some of Partch’s instruments and somehow Partch decided this is what the fundamental is and this is what the pitch is. But when I listen to them, I hear a whole mess of confusing overtones that are no way just. When you listen to the music, you don’t hear just intonation, you hear this mess of overtones. It’s a wonderful gestalt, and it’s what makes Partch’s music fantastic—or at least part of what makes his music so powerful when you hear it—this mix of overtones. But the overtones are totally inharmonic, and for him to be saying, "I’m tuning precisely to this 11-limit pitch," is a little funny to me. You’re getting this whole mess of inharmonic overtones, but it’s all in the service of this tuning concept which is contrary.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, this strikes to the heart of the science versus art question. The building of musical instruments requires a little bit of science and a little bit of art. How far do you go with the science and how far do you go with the art?

BART HOPKIN: Well, the two feed each other. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The science is its own reward. Sometimes people act as though the science validates the art and that’s not true. But that doesn’t mean don’t do science.