Last week, I gave a pair of seminars at Purcell School on tuning and microtonality. I had a huge amount of fun, facilitated both by the excellent guidance of Mira Benjamin and some fun, silly new inventions: the Hyasynths.
In the last year, I have undertaken a journey in my understanding of intonation. I have worked with microtonal pitch since 2017, but as a performer, my experience of microtonality was limited by the instruments I play. I play piano for fun and electronics as a professional; in neither capacity do I tune pitches as I perform them. For me, tuning is a mechanical or conceptual process that I undergo prior to performance: perhaps using Oddsound or Pianoteq to set up a microtonal tuning for my instrument. This gives me a very different experience of tuning to many of the performers I work with, for whom tuning is a constant concern when playing microtonal pieces.
I wanted to shift my understanding of pitch, and so have spent the last year building a new synth. I’ve dubbed this the Hyasynth: named for Giacinto Scelsi, whose experiments on the ondiola allowed him to expand his interactions with tuning. I’m working on new pieces for this synth, the first of which I demoed at Ciel festival in France in July.
An unplanned benefit of this approach, however, has been its potential for teaching. Learning about intonation can swiftly become overly theoretical, with discussions of pitch choice mired in numerical systems and unfamiliar terms. The maths is not, in truth, so difficult, but it can sometimes feel like you’ve got to walk students through the harmonic series, ratios, or the exponential nature of pitch first, making the first 45 minutes of learning extremely dry.
The workshop Mira and I put together, and I trialled last week at Purcell, starts with some listening and brainstorming, but very swiftly moves into having the students play microtonally. This is made much easier by the use of a set of basic Hyasynths: finding a microtonal pitch becomes as a simple as turning a knob and listening. (They also have a fun novelty factor, in that they sound like the Clangers and look like the time machine your uncle built in his shed.)
The intuitive controls allow for the difference between tunings systems to be properly explored. We turned the speakers up nice and loud and had a good listen to the difference tones too, which was a really ear opening experience, I think!
Massive thanks to Daniel Fardon at Purcell for hosting us and WRoCAH, my PhD funder, for providing the financial support to develop this programme.
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