Especially your early music drew inspiration from and engaged in a dialogue with animal sounds. At the same time, you were interested in the idea of music as a landscape. I am curious in how you see the relationship between these creative goals and your preference for just intonation.
Tuning systems are a human construct. Frogs and raindrops don't think about it. I don't try to make a connection between the environmental sensibilities in my music and the use of just intonation. They are all components of music I hear deep inside. I feel they convey an honest fabric of existence at this time and place.
Those natural sounds entered the music because I have always used sonic landscapes as ways to enhance my sense of being centered in a place. As a teenager I would lie in bed with my windows open late at night, listening to the sounds of rain, frogs, wind, water, birds using those sounds to journey with my mind out the window and into that secret landscape. Sound lets us hear into a mystery, around corners, into the unseen. For those reasons, these natural sounds are just a part of my music, part of an attempt to disappear. I would never imagine trying to organize everything in our world. Tuned notes have their place, and wild sounds have their place. Composers find ways of fitting elements together that work for them.
In the world of natural sounds, pitch is not as clear a concept as it is in the world of humans. Some of your music, too, plays in a territory, where pitch seems to be a more open concept, if that's a sensible way of putting it. What's your perspective on pitch and its role in our sensation of tone?
Not everything in music lives on a grid. I like to have a reference that considers harmonics to be the resting spots. Yet I feel strongly that expressive playing needs to be free of a grid, free of constraints. Sadly we live in a brief time when algorithms like Autotune cause people to think that exact tuning should sound like yodeling robots. Let's bend our animal voices, add filagree without prison bars.
I also love every sound that takes me into a landscape, and all of those insects, amphibians, birds and geology have their own intrinsic tuning systems. Let's embrace the world around us, and let's not be fascists about who gets to sing a right or wrong note. Microtonality is about freedom and not about dictatorship. Use the tools that sound the way you want to hear - simple as that.
I wanted to get a bit deeper into the compositional specifics of what attracted you to Just Intonation. You once said: "How about a melody line that plays hide-and-seek around the harmonics of another note? At last, harmony and timbre can merge. Indeed, one of the most satisfying aspects of just intonation is the fact that harmony suddenly makes sense." Could you elaborate on that a little bit, also in the light of your own creative practice?
The word "harmony" contains the root of the answer. Harmony is based on harmonics, and just intonation is simply tuning the chords correctly, based upon whole-numbered ratios between frequencies, ratios between harmonics. Of course the notes in a scale no longer fit well on the exponential curve, so it has shortcomings in regards to modulation. What it gives you in return is a much deeper insight into why chords sound like they do. Once you start to hear how smaller numbers in the ratios create simple sounding intervals (octave 2/1, fifth 3/2, fourth 4/3 for example) while larger numbers create more complex sounding intervals (7/5 or 15/14 for example) it connects the sound to a reasonable mechanism to understand harmonic complexity. Any interval with a power of two in the denominator will be part of the harmonic series (11/8, 7/4 for example), so those notes will sound especially pure and can merge into the timbre of other instruments. Those are the ones that "play hide and seek". I often use the upper parts of a harmonic series tuning for sound design, sweeping the notes quickly to create shimmering chromium ribbons, like in the opening parts of Electric Ladder or Neurogenesis. That's where tuning and sound design merge.
Are there differences in terms of mastering and mixing your music in Just Intonation compared to works in ET? I'm thinking about the way different frequencies behave here.
Normally, I would say that I have the same concerns with mixing or mastering anything - striving for balance, openness, dynamics, deep lows and silky highs; normal things. However I have occasionally run into challenges when the tunings result in very strong ghost tones in the fundamentals of the tuning. This happened on a few pieces on Neurogenesis, such as on the opening title track, which is in a harmonic series tuning. That lends itself to a very strong reinforcement at the fundamental and its octaves. As the fundamental on that is 55Hz, this created a lot of energy in difference tones at 110, 220 and 440. I needed to subtract quite a lot at 440 to make it work as an overall mix. That sort of situation isn't very common, but shows that different approaches might prove necessary when strong ghost tones might dominate a mix.
One of the pieces on your Rainforest album openly references Bach. But I instantly thought of him in connection to your work without prior knowledge of it. Bach lived in a time, where the borders between algebra/geometry, architecture, science, creativity and craftsmanship were far less fixed. Can you talk about what attracted you to Bach? What are the overlaps between these disciplines? And do you feel as though the choice of tuning system is part of a larger approach to music, creativity and even life for you?
Bach's music attracted me from the moment I heard it, especially some of the delicate filagree such as Glenn Gould's recordings of the English Suites and the Italian Concerto in F. I feel a physical presence in the air, glowing evanescent floating architecture. I also get that feeling when I hear Javanese gamelan, and some part of my intuition told me they came from a similar place. The only way I could express that feeling was to try to show it directly in a piece of music. That's why I made Forest Dreams of Bach. Like most of my music, the ideas come together intuitively, almost pre-consciously. Then the challenge comes in expressing those ideas in sound. The choices of tuning should serve that feeling. Tunings serve the musical intent: they are choices we give ourselves, and those choices should improve the effect of the outcome, in regards to our intention as artists. For that piece I chose a western-style just intonation that sounded good with the minor key I used, rather than an Indonesian pelog or slendro that would impose a less-western tonality. It could have gone in many directions.
Regarding the boundaries between scientific disciplines and artistic styles: I think those boundaries are never fixed, always fluid, and the reason they seemed more fluid in the Baroque era or Renaissance is that the scientific method was still new, and our detail of knowledge about the natural world was in lower resolution. A person who lived long enough could actually accomplish breakthroughs in multiple areas of inquiry. We have increased that resolution to a point where very few humans can claim expertise in any field, let alone several. The extreme complexity of our knowledge landscape has forced us to specialize if we want to have any influence in a topic. I don't see this getting any simpler. I think we need art more than ever to humanize us now, to help bridge the divide between our increasingly self-referential technologies and our place on the planet, as organisms who still need to live in a sustainable world.
In Bach's time, too, the idea of a Harmony of the spheres was still very much respected. Today, it seems to have become mostly the domain of New Age. What's your own take on it?
I think we look for inspiration wherever we can find it. When an old idea such as Harmonia Mundi offers us a sense of meaning, or a sense of place in the universe, it serves a purpose. The direction each artist choses to express that inspiration will be a personal choice. It doesn't really matter what people call it. I suppose we lump it into New Age if the composer avoids the shadows and keeps the music more frothy and pretty.
People also differ in their assumptions about what we can or cannot expect music to do, to the listener. Some artists operate on the idea that their art could actually contain intrinsic healing powers, medicinal or spiritual qualities; other artists might approach these questions with more humility, or an awareness that context and cultural expectations will influence the way people respond to art. I suppose I am a bit of a modernist in that I tend to fall in the second category, although I do have a Romantic side that wishes the first category were possible. In any case, if a modern work of art references fractals, quantum physics, or molecular genetics, isn't that a bit like Harmonia Mundi in 1650? What will people think of those ideas in 400 years?