Name: Horse Lords
Members: Andrew Bernstein, Max Eilbacher, Owen Gardner, Sam Haberman
Interviewees: Owen Gardner, Andrew Bernstein (as indicated)
Nationality: American
Occupations: Saxophonist, percussionist (Andrew Bernstein), bassist, electronics (Max Eilbacher), guitarist (Owen Gardner), drummer (Sam Haberman)
Current Release: Horse Lords's latest album The Common Task is still available via Northern Spy. They also just re-released their eponymous "Horse Lords" debut on tape. It has been expanded to include live cuts recorded around the time of the album.

If you enjoyed this interview with Horse Lords, visit them on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.

When did you first start getting interested in the world of alternative tuning systems in general and just intonation in particular?  

My initial interest came in my early teens from my cello teacher, who introduced me to non-beating harmonies and encouraged me to seek out non-Western music, and from the great bluegrass singer Ginny Hawker, a friend of my parents’ who observed that a ballad singer was using “notes you can’t play on the piano,” which hadn’t up until then occurred to me as possible.

I was introduced to Just Intonation through medieval music, but I was initially too intimidated by the numbers to pursue it. A few years later I was getting interested in early Minimalism and for the sake of a final paper I was writing on La Monte Young, I beat my head against Kyle Gann’s analysis of “The Well-Tuned Piano” until I could make sense of it.

What did La Monte Young bring to the table?

I was attracted to the extremity of LMY’s music, and the richness that could come out of such severely limited material. The sort of monolithic quality of his music was initially exciting to me, but has come to feel a little macho.

Other musicians in his orbit—particularly Tony Conrad, Rhys Chatham, C.C. Hennix, and Charlemagne Palestine—have ended up being more influential and more aesthetically relatable, but Young provided the initial push.

[Read our Rhys Chatham interview]
[Read our Charlemagne Palestine interview]

You've also mentioned James Tenney as an influence. He doesn't get mentioned all that often when it comes to alternative tunings, but has composed some incredible music with them.

Tenney is much more important to me and is someone we continue to study. I think he ought to be studied by everyone interested in Just Intonation.

He had a fascinating general theory of harmony, and his approach to the harmonic series as a source of both harmonic and structural material (“Spectral Canon for Conlon Nancarrow” is a good example) was extremely influential on me.

A lot of his students are making great music right now, particularly Catherine Lamb, Chiyoko Szlavnics, and Tashi Wada.

Other than the fact that they were using Just Intonation, it is hard to see any obvious similarities between your approach and Young/Tenney. It's a bit different with Terry Riley, however, who strangely doesn't get mentioned all that often in this context. Do you have a connection to his music and albums like, for example Shri Camel? If so, in which way?

I love a lot of his records and particularly the earlier JI ones, Shri Camel and Songs for the Ten Voices of the Two Prophets, and probably end up putting his records on more than anyone I’ve mentioned already. But I don’t know that I would count him as an influence exactly. I like the “dazzling” quality (as in the “eye dazzler” in Navajo weaving) of his keyboard music and the sort of tension between speed and stillness that creates.

I suppose Horse Lords is ultimately trying to capture something similar.

Was tuning your instruments in Just Intonation part of Horse Lords right from the beginning – or were there early incarnation of the band, which still played in Equal Temperament?

It was conceived as a JI band, but it wasn’t very serious at first. So the band itself was in large part just a way of modeling something one could do with JI, and to unlock a certain latent potential of rock music.

I didn’t get around to refretting the bass for awhile, so Max had a seriously constrained tonal palate (pretty much 1/1 and the ET equivalents of 9/8 and 3/2) forced on him at first.

Andrew: In some ways the saxophone is a much more flexible instrument than the guitar, with regards to intonation. Even in equal temperament, fingerings only get you part of the way there, and the fine tuning always has to be done with the embouchure.

A lot of the work of playing in just intonation on the saxophone has to do with ear training, playing against a reference pitch, and learning how a certain interval feels, both in your ear and in your body. An expanded set of fingerings gives you a finer resolution, so that you can reliably play intervals smaller than a semitone without changing the embouchure too much: it would be impractical to have to bend way up for one note and way down for the next.

But I think learning to hear and feel the intervals is the most important part of playing in just intonation, no matter the instrument.

How would you describe your path towards developing a JI style?

Andrew: My own process of learning to play in just intonation on the saxophone has had a few stages.

In my early 20s, when I became interested in microtonal music, I first set out just to play in-tune 3, 5, and 7-limit intervals, and developed a vocabulary of fingerings for microtonal inflections that were not necessarily guided by precise tuning ratios. Over time I became more interested in expanded conceptions of harmony that included 11 and 13-limit intervals, and have spent the last few years exploring these ideas.

Along the way, I found that the vintage saxophone that I was playing, which has a very nice tone and which I love to play, did not have the intonational accurancy to support this kind of work, so I had to buy a new horn.

One of the things I find so exciting about Horse Lords is that you combine elements which many would initially consider as coming from different musical worlds, but which somehow fit together perfectly. One of these combinations is the one between polyrhythms and just intonation. Do you feel as though there's a natural connection there? If so, what is it?

There is very much a natural connection, a physical unity even!

A polyrhythm is simply a slowed-down harmony (or a harmony a sped-up polyrhythm). So when we play 3 quarter notes over 2 dotted quarter notes we’re just playing a power chord very slowly. We explore the relationship most explicitly in the beginning of “Fanfare for Effective Freedom,” which begins with a canon ascending the harmonic series up to 5, using those numbers (2/1, 3/2, 4/3, 5/4) as both rhythmic and harmonic relationships.

This sort of numerical relation is often present in our music but usually in more abstract form than in “FfEF.” Overtonal relationships can be difficult to play as rhythms since they’re divisive, so the common pulse quickly becomes so fast that we can’t hear / feel it; we much more often play additive/undertonal polyrhythms where the two rhythms share a common pulse and so together create a longer rhythmic period.

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?

We tend to avoid dealing with melody in favor of patterns, or only dealing with melodies that are the result of some more general compositional process—it otherwise feels somehow too arbitrary and human in a way that’s of course fine, but not what we’re trying to explore.

So melody being part of one pitch environment or another is not exactly a concern, in that it is almost exclusively a consequence of some non-melodic consideration.

What role does improvisation / jamming play for the writing process of the band? Does working with just intonation make the improvisatory process different, harder, easier, more organic in any way?

Improvisation is both a crucial ingredient in the compositional process and in the long-term viability of our songs, in that it is only tolerable to play songs we’ve been playing for many years when there’s some degree of flexibility in the execution.

Generally songs begin with a fairly basic germ of an idea, which is gradually fleshed out through a continuous process of improvisation and reflection, formalizing the most successful portions of the improvisation and often leaving some aspects open to continued exploration.

I would say JI makes it less organic in a way that’s helpful for Horse Lords—which is largely about setting up a network of constraints—but less so for more strictly improvised music / ”free improvisation,” which a few of us also work with separately.

Can you talk a bit about the process leading up the recording of your debut album?

We had been a much more improvisatory act up until shortly before we recorded that, so I don’t think the material was as ready as on our subsequent records. I think we were also a bit naïve about the process; between us we had many records under our belts at that point, but coming from more of a DIY context, so I don’t think any of us had been in a real studio before (a real studio by Baltimore DIY standards!).

Beyond that I don’t remember so much other than there being a cat we all loved who lived at the studio.

You've mentioned that African music has had an immeasurable influence in Horse Lords. Can you talk a bit about that not just from a rhythmical perspective, but also in terms of the role of microtones in African music?

Despite the insane lack of scholarly interest / material, there is certainly plenty to explore outside of rhythm in African music, and plenty of microtonal music from Africa that I admire a great deal.

I am, for example, obsessed with Moorish music from Mauritania, which is more-or-less quartertonal (Can Akkoç has some interesting writing on traditional Turkish music that could apply here), and keenly interested in traditional Gogo music from Tanzania, whose tonal system is based on the 4-9 harmonics (making it one of very few repertoires of explicitly JI music). But I don’t actually feel like the tonal systems of either are influential as such.

Certainly approaches to pitch material from Africa have been very significant; melody being the result of a process rather than conceived as such (and ideally the melodies are essentially hallucinations, described by Gerhard Kubik as “inherent patterns”), and non-hierarchical approaches to multi-part organization are important principles.

Ultimately what’s most important is the structural use of repetition: using short phrases densely packed with information, which reveal themselves slowly in a dialogue with the listener.  

With respect to African influences, what do you make of theories by the likes of Kofi Agawu that Equal Temperament was part of a colonising system and used to colonise creativity in Africa as well?

I’m inclined to agree of course, but would temper that with a celebration (likewise informed by Agawu) of post-colonial creativity and of the ways temperament has been successfully absorbed into a larger polytonal fabric, not always displacing but living alongside indigenous tuning systems.

I do feel a bit guilty playing the guitar, as this has historically been a kind of Trojan horse for ET. But I think it’s more worth honoring and studying the tremendous contributions of African guitarists and the ways in which they’ve subverted colonial intentions.

What were the first live gigs you played around the time of your debut like? What was the audience response?

We used to write a new piece for each show, much looser and simpler than anything we would write today, so it was generally 15-20 minutes of very constrained improvisation with a few cues to start, stop, and maybe to change sections if there was a change. We were almost exclusively playing in warehouses or other DIY spaces at that time, where audiences are generally ready for anything and given to enthusiasm.

I imagine if I listened to it again I wouldn’t love a lot of what we played, but I have mostly happy memories of the shows.

There's a hypnotic effect to many of these pieces. Do you feel as though Just Intonation lends itself better to attaining these trance state?

Yes! Mainly in that all the pitch material is ultimately just articulating a drone, and has a direct, non-arbitrary relationship to that drone.

The differences between the debut and the next two albums, Hidden Cities and Interventions isn't vast, but it is definitely there. What were some of the goals you were working on at the time?

Every record is essentially just all the finished material we have up until the point it’s recorded, which is then massaged into a hopefully unified totality; there’s no goal for any particular record, and no self-conscious registration of progress from record to record.

Although I do think each one is better than the last.

Did you ever during this time try different tuning systems for the band, other than Just Intonation?

The closest we’ve come to using another tuning system (there have been unsystematic experiments for sure) was plain old 12-tone equal temperament on the accordion part of “Integral Accident,” although that was treated like a subset of the harmonics 1-203 of a very low G, with a margin of error of about 6 cents.

"Integral Accident" off "The common task" is one of the most impressive pieces you've recorded so far. What was the process for it like? Is this a direction you see the band going into in the future?

The piece was the result of a commission by the Peabody conservatory’s new music group Now Hear This, which prompted us to write for the other players (and prompted the unusual orchestration).

We were all particularly interested at that time in algorithmic composition, as a way to generate a lot of material that could be both highly varied and non-arbitrary. A very simple mathematical process generated the basic melodic and rhythmic material, some aspects of the electronics, and the large-scale form of the piece. I don’t remember now how the scale was generated, but it was also related.

We’ve already recorded more material somewhat along these lines for our next record, but I will also say we’ve had a similarly algorithmic bearing and similar inputs leading to these outputs for most of our career.