Name: Henry Birdsey
Occupation: Composer, multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer
Current release: Henry Birdsey is lead composer for the group Old Saw. The formation consist of Bob Driftwood (banjo), Ira Dorset (fiddle), Rev. Clarence Lewis (pipe organ), Harper Reed (resonator guitar, nylon string guitar), Ann Rowlis (orchestral bells) and Birdsey himself on pedal steel, and lap steel. Their album Country Tropics, mastered by Andrew Weathers, is out November 19th 2021 and available for pre-order via Lobby Art.
Recommendations: The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard; Karmic Traces by Eliot Weinberger
Recommendations for interested readers to educate themselves on the topic of alternative tuning systems: If you’re interested but don’t know where to start, just mess around. Play slow. Change the tuning of your instrument. Notate music differently. Listen to music from places and traditions beyond western pop and classical music. It’s very easy and very cheap. For books, these are good places to start:
Kyle Gann’s website, as well as his book The Arithmetic of Listening
Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music
David B. Doty’s Just Intonation Primer
If you enjoyed this interview with Henry Birdsey and would like to find our more about his work, visit his official website. You can also listen to his music on bandcamp and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
The first instrument I played was the harmonica. I was probably five or six.
There was something entrancing about it. I could sit or walk around for hours at a time playing. I still like playing harmonica. It wasn’t until later that I realized I could compose music in any kind of notational form.
Sound is innately terrifying and haunting. And it holds this magnetism over us because of that. We’re talking about physical pressure waves that are invisible and inescapable.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I think making music might be closer to the work of archaeology or geology than anything creative or constructive like sculpture or carpentry or something like that … with sound and music it seems like the game is uncovering things that are buried already, within this strange frame of time …
I don’t know how much you can force when it comes to finding the “voice.” You start using it without knowing probably.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
If I can help it, not at all. It probably does anyway though. I’m not very interested in displaying or inventing any personal identity through music.
Not to wash my hands of the whole ego curse, but I’d like to forget my own involvement in making what I hear. For me, the most transforming experiences of listening occur because the music lifts away from its time and location. Those details can be important of course, but I don’t think about them in relation to my own identity in music. I grew up in a somewhat remote part of Vermont, in the middle of the Green Mountain National Forest, so I spent a lot of time in and around the woods. Those landscapes of central and northern Vermont conditioned me to think and work in certain ways probably, at a certain pace maybe, very slowly. I don’t know if it’s my “identity” but I know it bleeds into the music.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When I was first writing and making music, I’d think in terms of combination, addition, expansion, synthesis etc. Techniques for doing those things are fairly engrained in the idea of what “composition” is, but they often create a dangerously circuitous maze.
I’m learning to work more by erasure, subtraction, thinking in negative, that sort of thing.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I play the pedal steel a lot in Tongue Depressor and in other projects. It’s a gorgeous and impossible instrument that shares more with a choir or pipe organ than any other string instrument. It also requires a bizarre kind of physicality. It drags your whole body into the ring in a way that no other instrument can. You have to use all your limbs at once, and interfacing with it feels like what I imagine very slow and precise ballroom dancing might feel like.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I try to wake up early, somewhere between five or six depending on the time of year. Something about the cold and the light that time of day keeps me on track. I try to do some work on whatever piece I’m writing. I work as a recording engineer too so I usually go to the studio at some point and deal with whatever session we have that day. It’s a nice break from thinking about my own music.
Some days I spend in a metal shop working with this blacksmith. He teaches me things and we work on projects and look at the birds that land by the river behind his house.
In the evenings I like to cook and sit on my porch. I usually play pedal steel or practice something or jam with someone. No strict routine, just the same things in different combinations. Music is a constantly hot iron, the lifeblood as they say.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Well I won’t waste too many words, but making music is the same as engraving the markings on your future headstone …
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’s just what became obvious and comfortable for me. Unavoidable really. Writing and playing music in equal temperament didn’t feel exciting at a certain point. There was always this suspicion that the persistence and prevalence of this fixed tuning system all around was hiding something.
Rethinking and relearning tuning opened the gates for all kinds of insanity, and a lot of my friends who I play with were reaching similar breaking points in their own ways. Once you’re on the other side, you realize you knew it all along and have been hearing it for years. Anyone who sings or plays a fretless instrument has been hearing “alternative” tuning systems all their life. “Alternative” meaning natural, in this case, which is funny in its own way. Regardless of what your musical training is, you hear can a cello play an equal tempered minor third and then hear a 7-limit just intonation minor third, and notice the difference in character.
It’s like tectonic plates moving. It’s a very elegant physical phenomenon. The theory and language around it may seem complex but the sensations and physics are simple.
What artists working with alternative tuning systems are you personally interested in? What approaches do you find inspiring?
I’m interested in anyone who does it their own way, studied or unstudied. From a strictly “composition” standpoint: Marc Sabat, Catherine Lamb, Horse Lords, Eliane Radigue, Kyle Gann, CC Hennix, and Austin Larkin.
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?
In the fields of physics and acoustics those terms have a specific meaning based on phase relationships. But outside of that, my concern with them has dissolved to a point of nonexistence. Everything is dissonant and everything is consonant.
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?
Yeah absolutely. Putting those spaces and states into words is difficult and probably pointless, but you know it when you hear it. Or you feel it.
I thought about this a lot when I was working on Laments for Just Intonation Harpsichord, which was a series of pieces in six or seven different tunings. Each one felt like a different architectural dimension. You have different rooms, colors, temperatures, and access to completely remote corners of perception by working with different tunings.
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?
I think it’s necessary to have a physical relationship to the tuning. I want to know how a certain tuning system or interval feels, not what it looks like written on a page or how it sounds in headphones. My friends and I that are interested in this stuff spend a lot of time trying to internalize these tunings so that there’s a deep body memory to support the purely theoretical knowledge.
You can read all the books you want but in the end you have to pick up an instrument and play this stuff to know what it is.
With electronic tools, playing and composing in just intonation has become a whole lot easier. Do you find this interesting?
Not that much. There are some cool devices and pieces of software that are good for teaching and visualizing things, but they function kind of like a calculator does for math. I definitely owe some of my learning to those sorts of devices, but for my own music and the music I make with others, I’d rather play on an instrument and have the natural energy of that exchange.
I’m interested in long-form reckoning with these sounds and phenomena, so I’m not in any rush to get everything perfected and aligned. I think our ears and our bodies are the only essential tools.