Name: Igliashon Jones
Current Release: Our Crumbling Psychic Infrastructure is available from the Cryptic Ruse bandcamp page.
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I knew what quarter-tones were since a friend of mine made a wacky tune on his Korg Triton with the pitch slope set to 0.5, but it didn’t really strike me as being anything more than a weird and dissonant gimmick. What finally made things click was trying to imagine what 13 notes per octave would sound like—what would be consonant, what would be dissonant, how would chords and scales work, etc. That epiphany got me wondering about even larger numbers; like if 13 seemed weird, what would 14 sound like? 19? 27? It was like trying to imagine a color outside the visible spectrum. I had to know the answer!
Over time, my understanding of consonance and dissonance has evolved a LOT!
The first thing most microtonalists learn is usually what Just Intonation and integer frequency ratios are, and how consonance is usually equated with proximity to certain simple integer frequency ratios, while dissonance is related to being close to intermediate points between two strong consonances. However I don’t believe it’s that simple, at all! I think it plays a part, but for instance an interval like 7/5—the lesser septimal tritone—is generally going to work as a dissonance in Western-style music, and be perceived as more dissonant than the more-complex 9/8 major second or 9/5 minor seventh, even though it exhibits stronger timbral fusion, lower harmonic entropy, and less roughness than those intervals.
A lot of our perception of consonance and dissonance is rooted in cultural norms and habituated experience, and for this reason many microtonal theorists distinguish between consonance and concordance. Consonance is more to do with musical function and tonal resolution, whereas concordance refers to quantifiable psychoacoustic properties like the ones I’ve mentioned. So we can have concordant dissonances and discordant consonances.
Do different tuning systems suggest different kinds of music? Yes, but not to as great an extent as is often believed.
A deft composer can wring extremely broad ranges of emotions out of just about any equal division of the octave, and I’ve often pushed myself to find the limits of the variety of moods I can find in seemingly-limited tunings.
That being said, what I find varies most noticeably is not mood but texture. Since I play a lot of metal and use a lot of heavy distortion, the complex beating between higher overtones in discordant intervals becomes quite obvious, as does timbral fusion in concordant intervals. I find that discordant intervals lend themselves well to slower music, where the beating can create somewhat of a rhythm, and can be hypnotic and meditative. Meanwhile concordant intervals with strong timbral fusion seem to work best with faster music, and necessitate more focus on orchestration to keep voices sounding separate.
I find that an enhance pallet of discords is more useful in broadening the range of expression, as 12-equal is a very concordant tuning, and discordance (to me) is what tends to sound more unique and interesting.
Of course one can achieve this with static JI scales, but for example something like Hermode tuning where chords in 12-equal are adaptively tuned to Just sonorities serves only to collapse the texture of all harmonies to pure concordance. That bores me greatly.
Experiencing harmony as the focus of alternative tunings is a sign of Western bias, ignoring the vast and rich traditions of most Eastern cultures that focus almost exclusively on melody and rhythm as opposed to harmony.
But even in the West, very few people are making music that is nothing more than progressions of block chords—melody is almost always an element, and I think melodic properties are what help people distinguish between various tuning systems or scale families that share similar harmonic properties. How chords can fit together in common-tone lattices gives some indication of how one can approach melodies.
In my opinion, it’s a mistake to look at harmonic units in isolation, or to look at tuning systems in terms of the individual dyads that comprise them. The relationships between intervals is of great importance, and what matters more than being concordant is being able to layer melodies on top of chords and to connect chords in ways that make for good voice-leading.
I work primarily with equal divisions of the octave, and my interests change frequently! For the last few years I’ve tended to do deep immersions in a single tuning for a prolonged time, rather than jumping around a lot. The ones that have held my interest the longest have been 15-equal, 17-equal, and 23-equal. All of these have the hallmark of introducing discordant consonances in places where 12-equal has concordant ones, and concordant discords where 12-equal has discordant ones.
15-equal makes the perfect 4th and perfect 5th discordant, while the tritone (the lower tritone, at least, as 15-equal has two) becomes a concord approximating an 11/8 frequency ratio, and the minor 7th comes to approximate and 7/4 frequency ratio; meanwhile the concordance of the 3rds and 6ths remains equal to 12-equal or else slightly improved. 17-equal does similar things with the tritone and minor 7th, but instead of making 4ths and 5ths discordant, it makes most of the 3rds and 6ths discordant. 23-equal makes almost everything discordant except tritones and the two types of minor 3rds, as well as major and minor 9ths and 7ths.
All of these challenge me to work in different ways and get creative with voicing, melody, and orchestration in order to maintain a broad pallet of expressiveness.
The biggest way performing in a different tuning system has changed my creative practise is by introducing the choice of intonation/tuning system as the starting point for composition. I also have become a lot more improvisational and a lot more focused on pattern and texture.
When I compose in 12-equal, the goal is typically to either playfully invoke common tropes, or to find ways to thwart expectations and break out of patterns. But with alternative tuning systems, the goal is more generally to explore—to find new patterns, to find new ways to create expectations or invoke mildly-distorted versions of common tropes.
Often I simply start with the knowledge of where the concords and discords are, and then meander between them, pausing here and there to savor the harmonic textures or some unusual melodic shape.
As a guitar player, the biggest challenge is affording to get new instruments! But also it is a challenge to learn new fingerboard patterns, especially when the open strings are tuned with fourths that are very wide or very narrow.
Books, websites, artists, articles or other sources of information recommended by Igliashon Jones [All Links open in the same window]:
The only source I can really recommend for the neophyte is the work of Kite Giedratis. Reading his written works at http://www.tallkite.com/words.html will introduce basically all of the concepts that I find interesting about microtonal music. Most other sources, like the xenharmonic wiki, are confusing and not really pedagogically-oriented, while many others are limited in scope to certain specific approaches or are heavily biased and/or out of date.
I’m consistently impressed by the works of Brendan Byrnes, Sevish, Xotla, Benyamind, Monochromatic Residua (aka Aaron Myers-Brooks) and my friend and frequent collaborator Ben Spees from the Mercury Tree. Generally I gravitate toward people working in rock and electronic idioms; I’m not averse to microtonal classical music but if I’m honest, 90% of what I listen to is rock, metal, or experimental electronic.