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The microtonal music in the works

of Nicholas Visalli

my approach to microtonal music composition

keeps free from the acceptance of a single
theory, or scale: each composition becomes the
testing ground where confront a given microtonal
instrument (whose characteristics influence the
expressive possibilities of composition) and a set
of sounds at our disposal- also the combinatorial
possibilities are so high that often each
composition becomes the place of
experimentation of new sound aggregates.
The ability of our hearing, on average, in
sensitive people, allows to distinguish sounds in
progression with a minimum of 25/30 cents (1
tone eighth then). In an eighth so we can
distinguish maximum of 44 sounds (11
semitones for 4).
expressing ourselves in cents, then, the series
of 44 sounds in the octave (1200cents) would
be of the type: 25, 50, 75, 100, 125 etc. -
The pitch discrimination threshold for an average adult is around
3Hz at 435Hz, which is approximately one seventeenth of an equal
tone, or 11.899 cents, although a very sensitive ear can hear as small
a difference as 0.5Hz or less (approximately a hundredth of a tone, or
1.989 cents). Tests conducted in 1908 by Norbert Stcker (Zeitschrift
fr Sinnesphysiologie 42: 392-408) of sixteen professional musicians
in the Viennese Royal Opera conclude a pitch discrimination threshold
between one five-hundred-and-fortieth (0.1Hz) and one forty-ninth of a
tone (1.1Hz), or 0.370 and 4.082 cents, with an average of 0.556Hz
(approximately a hundredth of a tone), or 2.060 cents.12 In Tuning,
Timbre, Spectrum, Scale William A. Sethares adds the following to the

The Just Noticeable Difference (JND) for frequency is the smallest

change in frequency that a listener can detect. Careful testing such
as that of E. Zwicker and H. Fastl (Psychoacoustics, Springer-Verlag,
Berlin [1990]) has shown that the JND can be as small as two or three
cents, although actual abilities vary with frequency, duration and
intensity of the tones, training of the listener, and the way in which
JND is measured.
actually my approach to microtonality also implies the transition to the idea of the sound space (even
eighth) as a continuum. Based on what it is possible octave progressions of this type. 30, 70, 95,
135, 150 etc. (always respecting the minimum steps of 25 cents between two progressive sounds).
The sound space understood as a continuum also leads to the possible elimination of the eighth
concept (as it is also real), replacing it with a unique progression within the range admitted by the
concerned instrument.

Several theorists consider only microtonal music in which, structurally, there are microtona steps,
intervals, l (eg: E-Equarto tone) .In this sense, the Middle-Eastern music, where the scales, or
maqam, have a succession of seconds ( although with tuning other than our well-tempered) and
microtonal intervals occur sporadically, as an ornament, it is NOT considered microtonal music, only
music with a different tuning from our music wIth microtones.
So microtonal music is considered essentially one created in Western context, a branch of
experimental music, among whose founders include Alois Haba, Carrillo and many more.
In addition, microtonal music also accepts the vertical dimension (chord) and polyphony (these
elements do not exsist or are unattractive in non-Western music)
Joe Monzo provides the following discussion about the
etymology of microtonal

Strictly speaking, as can be inferred by its etymology,

microtonal refers to small intervals. Some theorists hold
this to designate only intervals smaller than a semitone
(using other terms, such as macrotonal, to describe
other kinds of non-12-edo intervals), while many others
use it to refer to any intervals that deviate from the
familiar 12-edo scale, even those which are larger than
the semitone the extreme case being exemplified by
Johnny Reinhard, who states that all tunings are to be
considered microtonal.
In the West, the concept of microtonality was notably given prominence to during the Renaissance
by Italian composer and theorist Nicola Vicentino (1511-1576), in response to theoretical concepts
and materials of ancient Greek music, and later, by music theorists R. H. M. Bosanquet (1841-
1912), as well as Hermann L. F. Helmholtz (1821-1894), and his translator and annotator
Alexander John Ellis (1814-1890). With regards to the adoption of microtonality by composers in
more recent times, according to The New Harvard Dictionary of Music:

The modern resurgence of interest in microtonal scales coincided with the search for expanded
tonal resources in much 19th-century music. Jacques Fromental Halvy was the first modern
composer to subdivide the semitone, in his cantata Promthe enchin (1847). The first
microtonal piece to use Western instrumental forms is a string quartet by John Foulds (1897); and
the earliest known published quarter-tone composition, Richard Steins Zwei Konzertstcke, op. 26
(1906), is for cello and piano.

HERE are the most important microtonal composers of our times

Julin Carrillo, Adriaan Fokker, Alois Hba, Harry Partch, Ivan Wyschnegradsky, and Joseph
the diversity of tuning implies a different impact on the
listener, professional or amateur, which is: the feeling
is that the previous musical forms are no longer fit to
represent these new sounds. The possible absence of
a dominant seventh chord that resolves the tonic (on
which are built musical forms of the past) is an
eloquent example of the immense work that awaits the
composer. Composer who also is related to the music
of the past and of his time, and that will come unstuck
off this cultural heritage .... a not so easy task.
Microtonal ENTITIES
In the evolution of our tempered system, we have gone from the
universal definition of the 12 semitones to the development and
implementations of new scales , derived from it (from the initial
major and minor, and then adding the East, the whole tone, the jazz
scales, 12 semitones in the dodecafonic music and so on ).
In the current evolution of microtonal music, we are instead in the
first phase: that of definition "of multiple universes." On the other
hand, being almost infinite the number of conceivable pitch, the
work of theorists is to select the finite universes based on certain
properties, between these sounds (often new microtonal instruments
are build considering these relations) . It Is not said that future
developments will lead to identify, within these sets sound, a set of
scales, as defined in our usual sense.
VICENTINO (1511) 31 tone octave (38 cents each step) and the
construction of the archicembalo and archiorgano, from which
the contemporary music has inspired hyugens with the
construction of the Fokker organ
Because this arises after a cycle of 31 quarter-comma-tempered
fifths, the 32nd pitch will be remarkably close to a pitch Already
existing in the system; Thus five of Vicentino's 36 possibilities
Became practically redundant in this system. He suggested That
These five instead be tuned according to Functional the second
manner described below.
the keyboard of the Fokker organ, in a sense, resumes
precisely this arrangement of keys
ekmelic: eighth divided
in 72 parts. (A semitone
divided in 6: 100/6 =
about 15 cents) An
original applications is
the ekmelic organ,
present at the
Mozarteum in Salzburg
and the Augustin
Castilla Avila's guitar
other divisions of the Eighth were, in a sense,
influenced by our system. In fact, the octave is
divided into 24 equal parts (the quarter tones)
in 48 parts (tone eighths), trying, somehow, to
recreate the equal-tempered scales concepts,
modulations already in our system to 12
Personally I prefer the less conventional
systems, ie with an eighth division in non-
multiple of 12 steps.
-In My continuous rethink, redefine the concept of microtonal
music, thanks to collaborations with performers of non-
Western instruments area (India, China, Persia), I'm slowly
moving from a concept of a "predetermined pitch on time", a "
accurate pitch but continuously variable ".
A scale, a predetermined sound set (12, 24, 31, 19 sounds)
are the "limits" that allow the composer to write. The
experience of non-Western music (with variable tuning with the
expressive needs of the performer-composer-improviser),
transposed in my music system, has led me not to formalize
on a single pitch-set, but to evolve, in piece, the density of the
fine-tuning in the set of reference sound.
This methodology is the implementation,
within the microtonal, of the tonal
modulation: in this, the same structures are
placed in different sound levels (tonalities),
as if parallel universes
In microtonal composing field, modulation
is obtained by varying the density and
shifting of fine tuning. Example 1 have a
shift in another region of the overall sound
space ; Ex 2 have a density variation in the
same region. The appropriate image is that
of multi-dimensional universes and then
coexisting and non-parallel (and separate):
our universe in three dimensions (Equal
temperament ) and other 4 and more
dimensions, as the sound density becomes
more structured.
the concept of the eighth enlarged, whereby it is
possible also to think of an interval set greater of
the Eighth with individual elements having a pitch
that no longer occurs (ie falls the eighth concept
C4, C5, C6 etc.). A practical example is the
microtonal clarinet Bohlen Pierce. Using the
characteristics of the clarinet (the same position,
using the key portavoce, returns to a twelfth) the
distance E-B (up) it is divided into 13 steps, instead
of our 17 semitones. (Every step is worth about 146
cents) Various E, C, etc., lying on different keys, will
have a different pitch, not sound an octave.

This technique can also be applied to the PF, the

harp, guitar with moveable frets .
the melody: meaning a horizontal development
of the musical discourse in an organized way
culminating with a climax in the works for violin
alone I made extensive use
an important aspect in the implementation of
these steps is that of the feeling, which must
be as free as possible, diametrically opposite to
a performance of a classical piece.
shakk bar 29_41).) qurba ( 1_8 ; 14_20;28_35
Composing for microtonal
Composing for instruments specially created,of the traditional
non-Western or able to produce microtonal sounds, forces the
composer to seek compositions ad hocad hoc that affect the
piece on both the form and the applicable theoretical solutions.
It is true that the same thing happens with the instruments of
well-tempered tradition, but here the size explodes in
unimaginable way.
In fact, while the equable tools reproduce all at least an octave
of the 12 semitones ( the whole universe at disposal), it will be
very difficult to build a set of sufficiently varied microtonal
instruments with the same setting. Every time the sounds
available,and the mode of their articulation will be different.
this guitar, for all practical purposes, we call ekmelica: in line with this
system, which divides a tone in 6 equal portions (about 33 cents per
step), Augustin has equipped the two main string of the guitar, spaced
by a half step, with other two additional strings finetuned -33 and -66
cents, respectively. My first composition, Faykiyya, seeks to address
some theoretical / practical issues
With Augustin Guitar "WE ARE FORCED" to think microtonal, to rethink
the way we hear the sound space: it "shrinks", necessarily, in a micro
size, no less wide from a creative point of view compared to the
tempered system . We no longer have the twelve semitones in 3
octaves: we microintervals 6, in relation to a tone, which are repeated
about 12 times (an octave and a half). As you can see we introduce a
new paradigm (6 for 12, against 12 for 3), creating a new structured
space: we must now try to imagine the compositional consequences.
Fast switching on 6 strings in the same position
(open strings or barre). This is certainly an element
inherent to the structure of this guitar and I tried to
use it with different functions: opening words, the
opening element (bars 44_47, 90.92); closure of a
phrase (bars 1,4,6,10_11,18, 89_90) as connecting
elements, maybe melodic cells (bars 87_88); steps
with less than six cords: in this case are integrated,
are part of the overall cell that contains them (bars
6_7, 15, 19, 21,22_23,27,31,56,62_68,93
Kayfiyya, bars 10_11; 44_47
Kayfiyya bars 87_88
Gu zheng
THE GUZHENG, the instrument of the Chinese
classical tradition.
Although the Chinese pentatonic music with a pitching
quite similar to ours, the gu zheng lends itself very
well to microtonal composition.
Mishbak, the first work of microtonal contemporary
music for this instrument, explores its microtonal
possibilities with the extreme use of the technique of
the left hand's bending, thus nullifying its pentatonic

This organ is unique of

its kind, with a particular
keyboard, since the
octave is divided into 31
steps. In this case, the
difficulty in interpreting
adds the technical
difficulty in playing a
similar instrument, for
which you require a
special training.
Tayyar Suhulka_i_bra first page

the two works

composed by me,
Tayyar and
Suhula_i_bra, are really
poles apart in their
conception, both from
the pure theoretical
aspect / composition
and from that approach
to the keyboard.
Suhula moves on the keyboard, and it is highly
develop in up to two tones area, but densely
thickened with sounds. The frequent
succession of microtonal intervals in
succession, and the chords of one / two notes
(but with 3 and more sounds) are favored
precisely by the particular shape of the
keyboard, UNIQUE, and not built with
microtonal keyboard overlays such as the
ekmelico organ based at the Mozarteum in
Salzburg. At the same time such a keyboard
makes chords or more temperate steps very
difficult, especially in fast times
Tayyar instead is disconnected from the
dynamics of the original Fokker organ
keyboard (it is played with a classical midi
keyboard connected to the organ, which
allows to create otherwise impossible
drawings) and I concentrate more in
developing the different potentials of the
complex sounds of this suond set (the Fokker-
scale divides the octave into 31 shares). Here
are less present purely microtonal steps (ie
between successive notes of the scale); I work
a lot with steps on the seven notes, but with a
different microtonal pitch : the final combine
this approach with a typical Baroque organ
structure (63_69 bar)
in chords I prefer to distribute the sounds in a
wide range.
Tolgahan Cogulu movable frets
guitarist turkish Tolgahan cogulu has developed
this interesting guitar. Starting from the classical
guitar, he has recreated the frets, making them
moveable and breaking them for each string so
he can get a tuining order for each string
differently. You can also add additional "mini frets"
anywhere on the keyboard, if required by the
score to play a note with some tuning.
This system has clear advantages compared to
a guitar without frets: guitarist, playing on the
frets, does not have to "feel" the microtonal
sound (such as playing the oud): therefore also
not really accustomed performers to microtonal
guitar can play this music. The composer is free
to write without having to worry about "seeing"
the keyboard to assess the feasibility of what is
made. It will be the guitarist to "fix" the frets in the
appropriate positions. This tool, indeed, allows
the construction of a vast microtona repertoirel
being fretless (fixed) instruments , strings permit the composition of microtonal
music. In the music of the middle east and the far east there are strings (erthu in
china; in the Middle East violin) and others. Listen to them , we perceive the different
"tuning" than the way we play.
Clearly it is the cello the instrument where it can best be reproduced microtonal music
, being more "space" between a semitone and the other (and with the real possibility
of producing smaller sounds). Violin in the second octave above middle C is really
difficult to make microtonal steps, if not at very low speeds, or at the cost of
considerable approximations. I wrote many songs for microtonal vl, vl cello duo, duo
vla vl, thanks to collaboration with virtuosos of the instrument.
Of course, as all string instruments, a possible strategy (which some see as simplistic,
but that is actually legitimate and simply involves a certain compositional approach) is
to give a fine tuning to each individual string. Notice how this can lead to a lot of
confusion in the performer, who would not know where to put his fingers: in fact in this
case it is appropriate that sounds as if it was on a normal violin; should, in a sense,
move the fingers in an automatic way.
the harp, at least the current model most widely used, is a diatonic
instrument, then with "only" seven sounds per octave. My most
innovative approach to tuning is to create a different tuning for each
octave. (In fact, you can act on single string). In a sense, this leads
to the definition of a new harp, because I'm going to touch the
concept of always the same octaves, that have so much influence
in the technical execution of the harp.
In sayr mukazziz, for harp and voice, the aforementioned different
division of tuning between the various octaves allowed me to
reinterpret the concept of maqam in Arab music. The composition
then develops in the range of maqam and forays into other octaves
are seen as a kind of embellishment or preparation to various
degrees of maqam own development.
The advent of information technology has definitely given a boost
to the microtonal compositional approach, characteristic of
Western musical riflection. The implementation of software that
allow to obtain any pitch, and the ability to create alternative
timbres to those of the classical instruments, allows the practical
idealization of all foreseeable scales. The only inconvenience of
electronic music, which can to some extent be a limit, is the
mechanical nature of the execution. Aspect that gives a negative
characterization. In my compositions made on the computer, as
you can hear in the example, I invested a lot of time in trying to
recreate a 'human' feeling, with pronounced rhythmic
randomizations trend: undoubtedly the music is much more
valuable (eg choose one of pieces for harp and oud)
MutaWaziF, HARP ; MIRR . OUD