Wendy’s World

Part 7: Polymicrotonality

Frank J. Oteri: The distance between the notes on the page and hearing them sound is probably a good place to begin a conversation about microtonality. I’m curious about what you’re hearing in your head versus what you’re feeling when you’re playing around with the various scales that you’ve programmed. At this point, you’ve been playing around with microtonal tunings for 20 years.

Wendy Carlos: Over 20 years formally, but informally much longer than that. The work that went into Beauty in the Beast was started in ’83. That’s when Stoney Stockell, who co-built the Synergy, devised a way to help me alter the tunings in my Synergy synthesizers, which directly led into Beauty in the Beast. I had fooled around with alternative tunings since I was 16 or 17 years old. I had tried building little instruments, a wannabe Harry Partch. I later bought his book fairly early, when I was a freshman in college, I guess. But I had already read Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone, which really got me going. Before then, my parents had bought me a tuning hammer and rubber wedges to learn how to tune a piano. So I tried other non-standard tunings on it. They let me keep it that way for several weeks in a row; then I’d have to put it back to equal temperament again. Tuning to equal temperament is at first kind of hard. But it certainly trains your musician’s ear, too!

Early on working with the Moog synthesizer, I asked Bob if he could supply some kind of polyphonic module for me, to play basic chords on, for example. And he did it. You have to look at the back of my modular to see it, a long rectangular box, with one front panel of controls. It’s more like an electronic organ that can feed through the synthesizer. While it can’t make nearly as many sounds as the rest of the monophonic instrument, it was fine for simpler things. I used it on a few of my later Moog albums, for Baroque continuo parts especially. And it allowed easy tuning of all of the notes, so I experimented with several novel tunings. Later we had a vintage Novachord in the studio, and that was a very nice instrument for working with alternative tunings; besides, it sounded good. I’d describe it as an early analog synthesizer, from the late ’30s. I remember experimenting with it a great deal. I was really waiting for an opportunity to try alternative scales on an album of my own music. That plan ended up waiting until Beauty in the Beast, alas, nearly ten years later. Later on Switched-On Bach 2000, I performed everything with Bach’s favorite tunings, an accurate representation of how he would have tuned his organ, harpsichords, and clavichords. It’s not radically different from the equally-tempered scale, but the differences do increase the harmoniousness noticeably. Very nice, it’s too bad you seldom encounter such euphonious scales any more, a trade-off for convenience over sound.

FJO: Yet a lot of people still get taught in music history class that Bach is the father of equal temperament.

WC: [Shrieks] Yes, well I guess ‘well-tempered’ to them means “equal temperament.” It’s all in the words, you see. The real problem is that there aren’t a lot of people who actively use and teach about such a basic topic. I’m not out there teaching it, either, and misinformation has filled the void. Where is the curiosity, though? Bach’s favorite tunings were based on what’s called meantone, which I’ve explained a few times, or you can Google it. But when you only have 12 individual keys in an octave, meantone becomes compromised. It really needs 15, 19, or more individual notes in an octave, the frets on a guitar or lute, keys on a keyboard instrument, and so on. When you limit the number of pitches in an octave to 12, you create problems. You can hide them by favoring certain intervals and keys, while avoiding a few others. But once you want to modulate, you’re in trouble. Again, this is more technical than we’ll go into here. By Bach’s day, they had found a few better compromises, what are called “well-tempered tunings.” Here the notes for the keys you will be playing a lot in—C or F or G or E-flat or whatever—would be favored, and close to meantone. Then gradually you’d fudge the intervals, until the most distant keys, in this case G flat, would be worse than what we have today. It was the trade-off, to 1) allow some keys to be smooth, but 2) don’t have more than 12 notes IN each octave. That’s the world Bach worked in.

That was their compromise. Instead of having one really poor key, you’d spread it around, some better, others worse, in a very clever cycle. They’re called “circular tunings” for that reason. Half way in between the good and bad keys the sound wasn’t much different than equal temperament. It’s interesting also that each key had its own tuning difference or “color.” But the home-base region sounded much better than what we’re used to; that was the main reward. In time musicians decided just to toss the baby with the bath water and tune the whole octave equally, as we do now. But Bach clearly didn’t like that choice, which is why I respected him on S-OB 2000. Anyway, that’s a quick summary of how tunings evolved in Bach’s time.

FJO: Of course, the amazing thing that Bach did was he wrote preludes and fugues in every one of those keys. The ones that were better as well as the ones that were slightly worse.

WC: I think he cheated. I shouldn’t call it cheating, but adjusting. For a harpsichord player, how long would it take if you had only two or three strings to adjust for each piece? “Alright, I don’t want to use E flat any more, because I’m working in A major, where I really want a D sharp. So let me touch-up the E flats to be the D sharps instead.” It was a simple matter, and then away you went, sounding very good in your new key.

FJO: Except in a scale like Werckmeister III, all the keys sound good, they’re just slightly different. I mean, I know that Johnny Reinhard has made the claim for years that The Well-Tempered Clavier was actually composed to demonstrate the viability of a circular tuning like Werckmeister III where every key could work, but each is slightly different.

WC: I’m not sure. I tend to agree with Johnny on a great deal, and he’s a much better historian, and may indeed be right. My sneaky suspicion is that Bach, who was an excellent tuner—he tuned his own pipe organs, he voiced them, he tuned and voiced and fixed harpsichord quills—was used to making frequent quick adjustments. It was the same way that people like us, who work with computers, don’t think twice about going in and changing the MIDI patch on something. It’s not a big deal. Bach wouldn’t have found much fuss to tweak the scale from one Werckmeister variation, say favoring the flat keys, to another favoring the sharp keys. From that point of view, it may have been a kind of Werckmeister, but it wasn’t a rigid Werckmeister III. It was one that was rather mobile and elastic. I wish we had recordings of him to settle such questions!

FJO: Now, to bring this back to your music, you’ve explored a variety of tunings. You’re not necessarily dogmatic about tuning the way you aren’t dogmatic about anything.

WC: If you’re a human being you’re going to have some dogma slip in. But I do try not to be dogmatic because dogma is so negative. It means you’ve stopped thinking, stopped allowing reality in, and become closed off. You might as well be dead and buried. As kids, I think, by our nature, we’re not rigid. We kind of just float all over the place, an ability we should never completely lose. In tunings, why would you leave the tyranny of equal temperament (which has some good things to say for it), and adopt a different dogma, such as Just Intonation? Why lock yourself in on that? Once you’ve let yourself out of a jail, why move to a different cell, even if it’s a nicely padded cell? Why not leave the doors open to all kinds of possibilities? So I fool around with a lot of tunings and don’t really know where I’m going. I’ll let my ears guide me.

FJO: You avoided some of the more standard microtonal tunings, like quartertones.

WC: Some alternatives are simply dull. Quartertones are about the most boring scale you can find. Easley Blackwood said that when he created his microtonal suite. They are so uninteresting because all the intervals you have are either relatively good (equal temperament) or bad—exactly in the cracks, which is to say, as bad as you can get. Okay, for dinner you can have this platter which is quite tasty, but for dessert here’s some yellow mustard on chocolate cake: it doesn’t work. The immediate attraction is the obviousness; but it doesn’t lead to very many interesting places.

FJO: Have you ever experimented with some of the other cyclical equal temperaments, like 19-equal or 31-equal?

WC: Yes, 31 is fun; 53 is harder, a rather clumsy, big scale, but it sounds good. If you let a computer handle it, it’s very easy to work with most choices. Let the computer retune, depending on where you are, so you select all the pitches that are most useful to you for, say, standard harmonies, or super-septimals, the large semitone of 231 cents. That one’s a lovely interval; it’s much like an interval the Javanese and Balinese use. Some of their intervals are fascinating as they come out of a tradition which isn’t based on the harmonic series. So they’re not designed to sound good with our orchestral instruments, but sound great with idiophones: percussion instruments, which have a different overtone structure. I’ve learned by trial and error that what instrument you choose—what timbre you use—will determine which tuning sounds the best on it. Hey, it’s all open-ended again!

FJO: Ethnomusicology and microtonality are totally intertwined. And what we haven’t gotten into yet is that Beauty in the Beast is not only a fascinating exploration of various tunings; it is also a remarkable response to musical traditions from around the world. In a way, it’s something of a “world music” album.

WC: I didn’t intend for it to be. I think I approached world music, the ethnic parts, because of the tunings. But it falls into place the moment you start looking back to models to inspire you. You can’t look too far in Western music because it was so blinded by the equal-tempered scale, acknowledging the good parts, too. As a sometime microtonalist, I’m not one of those who feel that [12-tone] equal-temperament is loathsome; it’s a very useful scale. For certain kinds of jazz harmonies and progressions, I can’t think of many scales that have that much democratic neutrality. So the alternative models had to come from other countries which didn’t adopt the 12-tone scale: East Indian music and its whole rich subcontinent, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolian music. Even Chinese and Japanese music, although they slipped into the blander pentatonic scales which work pretty well in equal temperament. Then there’s also the whole archipelago of Indonesia—Bali and Java. And Africa, who could ignore African music? Several rich traditions there. And go back to our roots before Western music developed in Europe, the enharmonic modes of Greek music. There’s a lot out there. A lot of it has been lost, but enough remains to archaeo-musicology, so we can deduce with modest guesswork. There are many alternatives that ought be quite fruitful for carrying on microtonal experiments in the 21st century.

FJO: What’s fascinating about microtonality is that it really allows you to go to new places, and it allows you to go to them with melody, harmony, and all those things that you were saying had been kicked out of music in order to do something new and not fall back on clichés. Suddenly, you have all these notes that have never been heard before.

WC: If you’re a beginning composer and you want to express your creativity and individuality, I don’t know of a more open, ripe-for-experiment topic—one that doesn’t move so far away from the past that you throw the baby out with the bath water—than alternative tunings. Not just for harmony, which is what everybody always talks about. Consider a quartet of French horns or vocalists or solo winds; just intervals will sound very euphonic, pure, and smooth. Nothing quite like it. Meantone plays with some of that and it is a practical, interesting way to work, especially with modulations. Ethnic scales that were developed in other countries have other properties that will stand out better if you move away from the Western orchestra and work with timbres that have a fast decay, like percussion, so you don’t hear the beats. Then they’re fascinating!

Melody without harmony, something that Indian and other related musics have been driven by, is a justification for alternative tunings right off the top. Greek tunings, the ancient methods that are somewhat clouded in history, weren’t necessarily designed for sounding pure and smooth in harmony where they had no harmony; they were about melody, inflected melody. That’s something that will help you develop your own individual melodic ear beyond current habit, and then you can also develop other forms of harmonization. For all such rewards there’s only the cost of the effort to learn something new. It’s worth it.

FJO: There’s another potential cost as well, though. The loaded question that none of us can answer: What about the audience? Can the people whom we’re all apparently creating this music for tell the difference between 15-tone equal temperament—which you’ve used in one piece—and scales like the Alpha and Beta scales that you invented?

WC: That’s a very good question. If I demonstrated Alpha for you and then switched to 15-tone equal temperament, which it’s very close to, you’d hear immediately that Alpha locks in almost like Just Intonation. The sounds are suddenly smooth. If you go back to 15-equal, instead it trembles. The trembling is not awful; it’s what we hear in [12-tone] equal temperament. Doesn’t matter so much what instrument we hear it on, usually they’re played with some vibrato. Vibrato (and also the “choral-tone” of massed strings or voices), hides a lot of sins. It’s very expressive, a natural way to play, but it also masks many of the beautiful intervals you may be going for. If you play without much vibrato you can hear an immediate, audible difference between a lot of these tunings. If you play it the traditional way, with a big fat orchestra, many instruments on each line, sawing away with a lot of vibrato, yeah, it is hard to hear. I’ll be very honest; in those cases I have trouble hearing it.

FJO: What about somebody who has no musical background at all?

WC: They will probably miss the subtle stuff completely, but they may be more open to hearing the interesting tunings that are quite different from ours without saying, “Oh, geeee, oooh, aahh—that’s so out of tune, stop!” I’ve had a lot of musician friends emphatically insist they hate some of the non-equal temp stuff I’ve done, especially when it’s quite different from the Western traditions, and includes harmonic motions in exotic scales that are foreign to what we do. Many well-trained musicians invariably hate it in the beginning. They hate it, hate it, hate it! Surprise, give them some time, and I’ve had them come back to me to say, “Wendy, at first I couldn’t stand Beauty in the Beast, but, you know, that’s a really hip album!” Something rigid finally let go. They let it come to them. They did the same thing I did, because I had trouble with many of these scales the first time, too. Finally they’re open to it and can hear that there’s something worthwhile there. That’s lovely!

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