Name: Ulrich Krieger
Occupation: Composer, performer, improviser, saxophonist
Current Release: "Silversonic", Ulrich Krieger's collaboration with house producer John Tejada is out July 16, 2021 via Palette.
If you enjoyed this interview with Ulrich Krieger, visit his official website for more information.
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?
For me there were two main early events: first, I stumbled upon a broadcast with pieces by Stockhausen and Nono on German public radio (SWR 3 back then) at their regular, weekly ‘new music’ slot at 23:00 hour. I didn’t really fully understand what I was hearing, but I loved the sounds! For me, it was the continuation of the experimental and prog rock bands I had been listening to. From there on, I listened to the program every week.
Not so sure about alternate tunings, but it probably was when I heard Harry Partch for the first time at the Berliner Festspiele in the early 1980s.
What artists working with alternative tuning systems are you personally interested in? What approaches do you find inspiring?
I am especially drawn to just intonation and especially the sub-style of it that works just with parts of the overtone series (not traditional scales). Some of my favorite composers in this style include: LaMonte Young, Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Horatio Radulescu, and James Tenney.
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?
Many books were filled with this question (laughs).
Of course, I started out by learning the traditional list of consonance and dissonances in school. But today, we hear and use many intervals, such as the seventh or ninth, which historically were dissonances, basically as consonants. They do not need to be resolved anymore (impressionism, jazz, blues) and are used freely in rock, pop, electronica, film music. This shows that part of consonance-dissonances understanding is cultural and the sensation of it changed over the ages.
With my involvement in just intonation this changed quickly for me. There are no absolute consonance or dissonance anymore—it is always relative. For the purposes of this interview, let me say in a nutshell, I follow the overtone ratios: smaller ratios are more consonant than larger ratios. A 3/2 is more consonant than a 5/4, which is more consonant than a 7/8, etc.
So, in a sense the terms consonant-dissonant have really very little meaning for me anymore.
What were some of the most interesting tuning systems you tried out and what are their respective qualities?
There are several, but the ones that ‘impressed’ me the most are just intonation, especially in more complex JI systems such as 7- or 11-limit, equal temperament systems that approximate JI (like 31-tone equal) and the under-discussed, under-appreciated anarchic free tuning—meaning pieces where the tuning system is not fixed, but open, free and up to the performer (e.g. most of John Cage’s number pieces or his Atlas Eclipticalis).
What I like about JI is the sound of it, its flexibility and openness.
The anarchic non-system creates a lot of sonic potentials, which I love, like beatings that can create a feeling of rhythm.
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 feel that any particular tuning system implies a specific kind of music or genre. But the other way around, certain music sounds like it does due to its tuning system (!) and would change drastically, if a different tuning system would be used.
Two examples: Indonesian Gamelan and Indian Raga. If you would use 12-tone equal temperament for these musics, they would not be the same. Which should lead us to re-think using 12-tone equal for anything composed before 1900. Personally, I never could appreciate Mozart (honestly) before I heard him being played on period instruments and in period tuning.
Yes, I think different tuning systems have different expressive states and different musical philosophies. I would even go so far and say that playing mediaeval music in 12-tone equal is not playing this music at all.
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?
The challenge is first to understand and second to internalize the system. For me, first there is the intellectual approach of understanding the system, theoretical as well as practically: a) where do these intervals come from and b) how to realize them practically on a saxophone or clarinet, fingerings and intonation. Once understood, I have to internalize it, being able to pre-hear and feel the intervals. I start using precisely tuned sine waves, which I try to match on my instrument. Once I have those, I start playing intervals against sustained sine waves, then small melodies, etc.
How, if at all, has performing in a different tuning system changed your creative practise?
Working in different tuning systems has made me much more aware of sound and the relationship of tuning and sound—as I already mentioned with Mozart. I use intonation not in a right/wrong way, as still mostly taught in schools, but in an expressive way.
Listen to old country blues: the guitar might be tuned in equal temperament, but the singers often sing “out-of-tune”—if we use the guitar tuning as normative reference. But exactly the difference of the played equal temperament guitar chord and the sung, same, but different intoned pitch, is an important element in blues, rock and jazz.
I started to use a lot of microtone when playing with bands (Lou Reed, Faust). Quarter-tones, for example, are great tension-building ‘dissonances’, which I often use in rock playing – as much as JI intervals.
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?
Yes, and I think this is because how our ears functions, we have a much more precise hearing for intervals that sound together rather than in succession. Even an amateur can hear the difference of 1 cent beating, if played as harmony. But a 1 cent difference melodically is heard as change in timber, not pitch. Experiments show that the smallest interval linear to be heard as interval is around 10-12 cent (aka a 1/6th tone) even for professional musicians.
Ok, my personal relationship to melody is maybe an unusual weird one. For many years I have avoided to use melodies in my music, it was solely based on sound and rhythm/structure—melody was something that emerged out of these elements, actually much like in good techno. Melody for me was, and still is, an element and function of sound—rather than the other (traditional) way around. So, with a new pitch environment I enter another sound world.
But looking closer, it changes the expressive possibilities. Where a traditional equal temperament tritone has a strong tension, which I can resolve or not, a natural 11/8-tritone sounds pretty consonant and sweet. So, my expressive possibilities and modes change significantly depending on the tuning.
With electronic tools, playing and composing in just intonation has become a whole lot easier. Do you find this interesting?
Yes, I do, especially for composing and being able to hear back what you wrote. These tools also made the microtonal world more accessible for beginners and computer-based musicians. Logic already comes with about 50 preset tunings of all kinds: historic western, gamelan, contemporary, just intonation, etc. This is a great way for beginners to hear the sound a certain tuning has, but it also offers wonderful possibilities for techno, drum n bass and any other type of electronica to easily move away from equal temperament and experiment with new sound (aka tunings).
I feel ultimately this development will be the end of the traditional 12-tone equal system. Electronic dance music is all about sound and rhythms. So why not use a better, fuller sounding tuning than the 12-tone equal and/or one that comes with more interesting beating intervals that could influence the rhythms of a track.
Books, websites, articles or other sources of information recommended by Ulrich Krieger:
There is a lot out there, here are a few that come to my mind immediately:
David B. Doty – Just Intonation Primer (best and easiest introduction into just intonation I know of)
Harry Partch — Genesis of a Music (classic, but might be difficult for beginners)
Tonalsoft- Encyclopedia of Microtonal Music Theory
—and here especially the analysis of Robert Johnson’s blues Drunken Hearted Man
Plainsound – Marc Sabbat-On “crystal growth” in harmonic space —this is pretty advanced stuff
American Festival of Microtonal Music
(check out “for Johnny Reinhard” for solo bassoon written in a 128-notes per octave tuning)
(new videos every month. My ‘MicroRock’ video on microtonal rock music should be on there in August probably).