Feb 14

JI Composers: Randy Gibson

This is the third in a series of conversations with composers who work in just intonation, and other microtonal systems. Questions from Ekmeles are bolded, the composer’s responses follow. This is another specially timed edition, since Randy Gibson’s Fifth Annual Avant Music Festival begins this Friday.

Composer Randy Gibson - photo by Stern Weber Studios for Avant Media

Composer Randy Gibson – photo by Stern Weber Studios for Avant Media

Why not 12-note equal temperament?

I stopped using equal temperament a long time ago. I always had a hard time in my ear training classes, and growing up playing a pitched instrument, but never really considering pitch (I played the Marimba for many many years), my relationship to pitch was always unusual. When I began studying with La Monte Young, my ears were really opened to the possibilities of Just Intonation, and what had been some simple experiments developed into a richer understanding of how pitch can function.

I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a “microtonal” composer. Rather, I’m interested in the harmonies that can be created through just intonation, these are often even more “tonal,” more consonant. I guess I feel like my goal is not one of microtonality, but one of harmony, although I get excited by some of the very small intervals that I use.

Why the systems and pitches you use?

I’ve been working in the same tuning system, refining and improving it, for the last 5 years, and everything I write is a part of it. It’s a simple system made up of very simple intervals, all over a unified fundamental. But there’s an incredible wealth of material that can be pulled from it, and the reason I keep returning to it is that there’s more and more to be discovered, and by keeping it the same from performance to performance allows us to continue to refine our understanding of the tuning and how to perform it.

In my most complete statements of the tuning we’re not even using all of the possible pitches. They’re all there in the drone, but we’re performing on a simple scale, creating harmony, exploring their resonance, and just this exploration of, say, the central chord, the lower half of the scale, the upper half of the scale, and the central chord again is taking us around three hours. This is the piece I’m presenting on March 1, Apparitions Of The Four Pillars In The Midwinter Starfield Under The Astral 789 Duet.

For something like Circular Trance Surrounding The Second Pillar (my piece for Ekmeles) or The First Pillar Appearing In Supernova (my new cassette for Cassauna), I’m just working with a single facet of the tuning, a single interval class and exploring all of the possibilities of that.

What was your first encounter with microtones?

I can put this into three parts that mirror my development as a composer.

The very first time I truly heard something microtonal, and I was aware enough to understand that it wasn’t “normal” pitches, was probably a recording of Cage’s Ryoanji that I credit as having been the inspiration for me to begin composing. Of course, the microtonality in this piece is completely abstract, there’s only a single pitch happening at once, so this doesn’t get to the harmony.

For that, I would look at my time playing in a Balinese gamelan in Colorado. The instruments themselves, of course, are not in equal temperament, they’re in their own pentatonic scale (I unfortunately don’t know the exact scale that the gamelan I played in was tuned to), but furthermore, the halves of the orchestra are tuned slightly apart to create beats, that shimmering quality of Balinese gamelan music. This experience led me to begin to explore how pitch and tuning could be used to create a feeling.

When I came to New York, I came to La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela. Dream House and their performances with the Just Alap Raga Ensemble were the big influencers here, the otherworldly sine wave drone of Dream House was revolutionary. I had originally known mostly about Young’s more conceptual pieces of the 60’s, these elegant instruction pieces were incredibly influential on my thinking, but it was Dream House, and ultimately the raga performances that really opened my ears to the expressive possibilities of just intonation.

What piece of microtonal music that you didn’t write is most important to you?

There are probably two pieces, both by La Monte Young, that I think are the most important to my development: The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry in Prime Time When Centered above and below The Lowest Term Primes in The Range 288 to 224 with The Addition of 279 and 261 in Which The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped above and Including 288 Consists of The Powers of 2 Multiplied by The Primes within The Ranges of 144 to 128, 72 to 64 and 36 to 32 Which Are Symmetrical to Those Primes in Lowest Terms in The Half of The Symmetric Division Mapped below and Including 224 within The Ranges 126 to 112, 63 to 56 and 31.5 to 28 with The Addition of 119 and his solo cello composition Just Charles And Cello In The Romantic Chord.

The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry… is the music heard at Dream House, and is a breathtakingly beautiful example of vertical composition. Every spot in that room is vibrant and individual, you get the sense that no-one else is hearing the same thing as you. As big and imposing as the composition is, it’s still incredibly private and personal. With enough time in the drone, whole new sound worlds open up and your thinking is forever changed, the vibrations are that powerful.

Just Charles And Cello was very important to my development as well. Taking a single chord from The Well Tuned Piano, that chord being The Romantic Chord, La Monte crafts a piece of music that is beautifully expressive and powerful. The casual listener might think that a piece that is maybe four hours long on a single chord might be “boring,” but it’s not, it’s completely captivating. I was at every single performance in New York in 2005 and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced.

Nov 13

JI Composers: Taylor Brook

This is the second in a series of conversations with composers who work in just intonation, and other microtonal systems. Questions from Ekmeles are bolded, the composer’s responses follow. This is a special edition, since we’re premiering Brook’s Motorman Sextet this Friday, November 15th, at the DiMenna Center.

Composer Taylor Brook

Composer Taylor Brook

Why not 12-note equal temperament?

I do sometimes use 12tet, however I consider 12tet as one possibility among many. Perhaps a better question for most composers would be: why use any temperament at all? I look to just intonation as a default tuning system because it is not a temperament, but the most direct way to think about intervals. Indeed, all temperaments are in relation to just intonation, a deformation of JI that serves an end that may have to do with the music or the construction of the instrument. With this in mind, if I choose to use a temperament then it should be a meaningful part of the composition. For example, in my new work for Ekmeles, Motorman Sextet, I employed pythagorean tuning in quotations of an organ prelude by Buxtehude in order to better invoke how the tuning of a Buxtehude piece would be realized by voices as well as create a division between the quotations of Buxtehude and my music.

Taylor Brook - Motorman Sextet score excerpt

Taylor Brook – Motorman Sextet score excerpt

Why the systems and pitches you use?

I tend to approach each new piece I write from as fundamental a place as possible. Most of my pieces begin with an idea that has nothing to do with pitch, and so pitch will then be controlled to serve some larger goal. Not until I have a clear idea of what I want to do with a piece, will I begin to think about how I will use pitch. This means that many of my pieces use very different systems or sometimes no system at all for pitch. With this said, I always think about pitch from the basis of just intonation. It’s important to remember that just intonation isn’t a system, just a way to measure the acoustic consonance of an interval, and so one must carve out a system from it as many composers do with 12tet.

What was your first encounter with microtones?

The first piece I heard with microtones was James Tenney’s Bridge and Flocking for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. I was in high-school at the time and I was good friends with Tenney’s daughter and so was curious about his music and bought a CD of his works. I must say that I didn’t really understand or enjoy his music until years later and this encounter was not so meaningful to me other than bringing forward the idea that such a thing would be possible.

What piece of microtonal music that you didn’t write is most important to you?

I’m not sure about it being the most important, but the most meaningful microtonal piece for me is LaMonte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano. During my undergraduate studies I spent a lot of time in the electronic music studio with another composer named Jacob Sudol. Jacob was doing his masters and gave me a lot of great recordings. One time he played The Well-Tuned Piano for my on the super-hi-fi speakers at the studio and it had a very strong effect on me. This piece is very direct and allows for enough time to deeply feel all of the pitch relationships as they are presented in different combinations and textures. It somehow invents and completes a genre of music all its own. Many composers have attempted to write pieces like this, but in my opinion, The Well-Tuned Piano is one of these truly unique works.

Mar 11


Minimalist composer Randy Gibson, curator of the Avant Music Festival, is currently working on a piece for Ekmeles. I’m just starting to explore the sound-world he’s developed, and wanted to share some of the unique aspects of the tuning systems.

Randy is working with what he calls “pillars” of just intonation intervals to build scalar tunings. Just intonation, for the uninitiated, is a tuning system which involves small whole number ratios. These were originally developed by the ancients, and the ratios corresponded to string lengths of simple monochord instruments. Pythagoras is credited with the discovery of these ratio tunings, the simplest of which are derived from the lowest primes. Taking 1 (or 1/1) as the tuning frequency, multiplying by 2 will yield the octave, 3 (expressed as 3/2 to put it within the range of the octave) the pure fifth, 5 (again, 5/4 to drop it into the proper octave) will yield the just major third. You can also think of these intervals as being derived from the overtone series; the 2nd partial is the octave, the third partial the fifth, the fifth partial the major third etc. These perfect intervals were, for various reasons, gradually left behind for tempered tuning systems, which eventually led to the 12-note equal temperament we find on modern keyboard instruments.

The tuning of the piece for Ekmeles focuses on the prime number 7, a ratio favored by Randy’s teacher and mentor, La Monte Young. Most of Young’s seminal work The Well Tuned Piano is in septimal tunings, and the use of 7 is prominent in his work generally. Most simply, the seventh scale degree in this upcoming work will be tuned as 7/4. This is the natural, lowered minor seventh we encounter in natural brass instruments. The majority of the rest of the scale is constructed by building a “pillar” of 7/4 ratios on top of this first 7/4 ratio, yielding, in descending scalar order, 49/32, 343/256, and 2401/2048. Note the powers of seven as numerators (the denominators again function to move these ratios down within the octave range). Much like the simpler ratios noted above, the numerator of the properly reduced fraction also represents the partial to which the note corresponds. This pillar also means that the interval between 7/4 and 2/1, the septimal second, is also repeated between 49/32 and 7/4, 343/256 and 49/32, and 2401/2048 and 343/256. Randy fills out the scale by including several lower primes, 9/8 (a true major second above the tonic) and 3/2 (the perfect fifth, which lies between the 2401/2048 and 343/256 in the scale).

Intervals constructed from lower primes are easier to hear, but Randy’s scale is actually very singable! He’s provided the group with a sine wave drone, which includes most of the pitches from the scale in various registers, so much like Indian classical music, properly tuning these notes is a matter of resonating with the drone. The experience of singing just-tuned music is a physical one, in a way that is difficult to describe. Each interval takes on a unique character borne of its ratio, and the way the waves interfere. The piece is in its earliest stages now, and I look forward to spending the time internalizing this unique tuning system.