Name: David Dornig
If these thoughts by David Dornig piqued your interest, his website is the best place to find out more about him and his microtonal ensemble Dsilton. He is also on Facebook.
Was there a particular event or experience that made you realise that there might be more outside of the realm of music we take for granted? When did you first start getting interested in the world of alternative tuning systems?
It was a gradual and natural learning process, spanning many years. The most satisfying musical activities are the ones which are very challenging, using fascinating ideas and working hard to get something that sounds good in an interesting way. First it was odd and unusual rhythms which kept me busy (they still do in fact), then serialism and 2014 it was time to broaden my harmonic horizon with new intervals.
What artists working with alternative tuning systems are you personally interested in? What approaches do you find inspiring?
My first inspirations were just the concepts themselves, visualizing not only rhythms but also harmony as whole number ratios was mind blowing to me.And of course the sound of pure intervals too!
Just intonation and a spectral approach are the most inspiring branch of tuning theory to me because the overtone series is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Getting to know and hearing traditional and historical tuning systems was also eyeopening.
Then I talked to Georg Vogel about it, who introduced me to quarter comma mean-tone and 31-EDO and told me he wanted to build a 31-tone keyboard instrument. And it took off from there.
I like a lot of traditional music from all over the world, which often features alternative tuning systems. Also Steve Lehmann (24-EDO), Ben Johnston (JI), Toby Twinings 'Chrysalid Requiem' (JI), Jacob Collier and others.
Terms like consonant and dissonant are used in school, but mostly with very limited understanding of what they mean. How has your own idea of these terms changed over time and how do you see them today?
Well, there are many possible definitions of the terms consonant and dissonant. I personally view it as a scale to describe beats: the volume modulation that occurs, when two frequencies are very close together.
The most consonant interval of two different notes is therefore an octave (2/1) because not only do the notes have no beating in any part of the range of human hearing but also the overtones of both notes fully overlap only an octave apart. The more complex a ratio of frequencies is, the more dissonant it becomes.
But the actual pitch, the timbre of the instrument and the musical experience of the listener play a big part in the subjective consonance or dissonance perception.
What were some of the most interesting tuning systems you tried out and what are their respective qualities?
Adaptive just intonation, where you can have pure intervals all the time, but also very complex comma modulations, so possible problems that come from staying in a just-intonation-lattice (like dropping in pitch) are theoretically no problem.
And 31-EDO of course, which is the tuning system that my band Dsilton uses. Not only can all the diatonic/chromatic/enharmonic music of the West be played without even changing the notation, but it has a lot of very consonant approximations of whole number ratios like 5/4, 7/4, 7/5, 11/9, 15/7, 17/13, 19/13, 19/17, 22/21, 23/11 etc. (all have less then 4 cent or 4% of a halfstep diviation).
Thirds and Sixths are much more consonant than in 12-tone equal temperament and there are many interesting and unusual intervals on top of that. Especially the natural seventh (7/4) of the harmonic series and some close relatives of it (8/7, 7/6, 7/5 etc.) are very consonant but unusual and work well in 31-EDO. The overtone octatonic-scale (harmonics 8-16) is also
very recognizably approximated, so it is a great tuning system for spectral approaches.
Do different tuning systems suggest different kinds of music? Would you say that different tuning systems are capable of expressing different, and potentially unique emotional states?
No, I do not think that different tuning systems suggest different kinds of music. How many genres or 'kinds of music' play mostly in 12-EDO? Most tuning systems have this potential to be everything musicians want them to be.
But the tuning system will generate preferences. The more consonant intervals will be used more frequently than the others. Therefore they become a big influence on the musical language. So of course Western music would have sounded differently if 14-EDO had evolved to be our standard tuning system. But there would be just as much different music.
I rather think that the influence of the tuning system is underestimated by a lot of musicians but also often overrated by theorists that specialize in tuning systems. The expression or interpretation of emotions in music never come from a single source or branch of theory. Tuning alone is as powerful as rhythm, dynamics or timbre by it self - very powerful but nothing compared to the combination of them all and the context of the media and people involved.
What challenges does playing in different tuning systems present to you as a performer? If you're performing a piece in a different and new-to-you tuning, how will you approach this?
It's a matter of conceptualizing and understanding the tuning system and its properties. Then getting to know the different intervals, their strengths and weaknesses, consonances and dissonances; what is familiar and what potential function serves the unfamiliar. Then you just build yourself an instrument and practice it for a view years. Easy as that ...
The more tuning systems you know, the more you have certain labels for chords and intervals and you think e.g. 'Ah, this is a kind of undecimal sounding neutral third!' and you basically know what to do with it. If you just play a composition without improvisation in a new tuning system and the instrument you play supports the tuning or the composer tells you how to play it, it is just a matter of doing what you are told as long as it takes to make it sound like music.
How, if at all, has performing in a different tuning system changed your creative practise?
Temporarily a lot, I think. I have to work very hard to even play the notes in time of the pieces we write for Dsilton on the 8-string 31-tone guitar. It is a very challenging instrument and the compositions are also rhythmically and otherwise challenging. So, I have to put in hundreds of hours just to make it sound okay. To make it sound good, takes years in my experience. I hope that it gets easier however.
But that is just my personal situation. Music in alternative tuning systems can be very easy to understand and play. Being not 12-EDO does not make a tuning system complex.
So far, the focus with regards to alternative tuning systems has mainly been on harmony. But melody is affected, too. How do you personally understand melody and what changes when it becomes part of a new pitch environment?
In Dsilton, we use all the intervals of 31-EDO harmonically as well as melodically. I think the unusual harmony stand out more then an unusually tuned melody, especially if the melodic development of the melody is easy to follow. People, who are not trained in singing often sing very unusually tuned melodies but we still recognize their meaning and its not a revelation. There are many factors that have much more influence on a melody than tuning. But if it sits unusually within the harmony, that's noticeable.
With electronic tools, playing and composing in just intonation has become a whole lot easier. Do you find this interesting?
Yes and no. I think it is a chance for many people to get involved with this challenging field. But I also think that it looses some of its potential as a very challenging field of music, which can potentially fulfill a musicians drive to self-realization and to challenge themselves. If it is made easier, then it gains something for the masses but looses something for the artist or nerd.
I think of music as a means to feel fulfilled and as a social activity. If just intonation was easy and everyone uses it and you have to know it for a test at the university, I would probably not have been as fascinated with its possibilities. Now I had to work for years to get to know and understand its possibilities, which was (and still is) very satisfying. The upside is, you can never learn it all, there always more. Having a history with ups and downs makes a bond strong.
Dsilton uses mechanical-electrical and acoustic instruments but also MIDI-controllers. So it is very helpful, especially when travelling to have those innovations, but for us, they serve as an imitation of real instruments.
I am personally more fascinated by music performed by actual people than programmed music. But there is great music out there, that is strictly electronic, I must admit.
Books, websites, articles and other sources of information recommended by David Dornig of Dsilton:
I would highly recommend to try for yourself as long as you like. To explore something your way has a huge potential to create something new or at least very personal. Only if you think you want to do something but you have no idea how, seek help from people that can do what you want to learn. If no one is around you can still check out a good book or even go online.
Some good Books:
Barbieri, P. (2008). Enharmonic instruments and music, 1470-1900 - revised and translated studies.
Tastata. Studi e documenti, TAS 2. Latina : Il Levante Libreria Editrice.
Schneider, J. (2015). The Contemporary Guitar - Revised and Enlarged Edition. Rowman & Little eld Publishers.
Partch, H. (1974). Genesis of a Music, Second Edidtion, Enlarged. Da Capo Press, New York.
von Helmholtz, H. (1883). Die Lehre von den Tonempfndungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik. Vieweg, Braunschweig.
-english: On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music
Sethares, W. A. (2005). Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale – Second Edition. Springer-Verlag London Limited.
Kirnbauer, M. (2015). Experimental Affinities in Music, 'Microtonal' Music Chapter Three: “Vieltönigkeit” instead of Microtonality: The Theory and Practice of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century (S. 64-90) (P. de Assis, Hrsg.). Leuven University Press.