I was talking with Sasha Zamler-Carhart, director of Ascoli Ensemble, about the ways that our ensembles approach tuning. Ekmeles’s approach to tuning Gesualdo in 31-note equal temperament is a mostly harmonically focused – 31ET being a keyboard temperament -and is about aiming for pure verticalities. Sasha’s group, specializing in Medieval music, and often reading from original manuscript parts, approaches tuning in an entirely linear sense. Of course they make sure they begin lines and cadence together, but reading from parts and singing in Pythagorean tuning – which is beautifully melodic, but only harmonically satisfying for major seconds fourths and fifths – has led them to consider tuning in this way.
Our most recent project, the premiere of Randy Gibson‘s “Circular Trance“, was an almost totally vertical experience. Scored for an array of sine wave drones in addition to the seven singers required, the piece’s complex just intonation tuning system requires us to constantly listen vertically, and to subsume our voices into the tuning of the drone. Perhaps the most linearly conceived work that I’ve ever performed is the first movement of Johannes Schöllhorn‘s “Madrigali a Dio”. The pitches for the singers are graphically specified on a 3 line staff representing the full compass of the voice, so that the pitches are only determined relatively within each voice, and are free to interact with the other voices at any interval, tempered or otherwise.
Despite these extreme examples I think I do my best work tuning diagonally, imagining both the melodic contour of my own individual part, and the way it will interact with the other parts as they go along. In reality, tuning with an ensemble of voices is a constant game of listening and subtle adjustments. Rules and approaches to tuning are a jumping-off point and a reference; but in practice, the voice is both a producer of an infinite continuum of pitch, and fallibly organic.