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Author Topic: Just Intonation Composition  (Read 55344 times)
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Andrew Meronek

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« on: Dec 31, 2007, 08:01AM »

I'm currently doing some research and experimentation with justly tuned composition. Is there anyone else on here who has experience with this stuff?

If you don't know who Harry Partch is, you probably don't know what I'm talking about.
« Last Edit: Apr 10, 2008, 12:58PM by Andrew Meronek » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: Dec 31, 2007, 09:45AM »

I have experience with it only to the degree that most proficient players of non-keyboard instruments and vocalists use it naturally. So any composition written for them would almost by default be written for just temperament.

If you are referring to writing compositions specifically for fixed-intonation instruments like piano but having them tuned in just temperament, then no, I have never done that.

I suppose that one could write for winds/strings and rather than trusting the players' ears to guide them into acoustic perfection, could use some kind of symbols in the music to suggest pitch alterations that would bring the pitch more into line with just temperament for whatever chord/scale was happening at the time. Seems to me that if your players were good enough to pull that off, they would probably be playing in tune already.....
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Andrew Meronek

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« Reply #2 on: Dec 31, 2007, 10:58AM »

The trick is that just temperament allows for a lot more pitches per octave than 12, and there are a couple other issues I've come upon as well.

For example, the ratios 6:5, 7:6, 11:9, and 19:16 all refer to minor thirds of varying types. Traditional notation doesn't really help distinguish these.

And modulating can get thorny, too. There are at least three basic routes to take there: modulate to the new pitch without adusting any of the ratios, like old practice before equal temperament hit it big (the main reason why each key is thought to have it's own character - in an unequal temperament, they literally do), play chords justly but modulate via equal temperament as most instrumentalists do nowadays, or modulate via going to the new pitch, keeping the justly tempered tone and adjust all the ratios to that tone, as a capella choirs tend to do. Each will have it's own unique sound.

 . . . so how do you notate all of this?
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« Reply #3 on: Dec 31, 2007, 11:00AM »


If you don't know who Harry Partch is, you probably don't know what I'm talking about.

There might have been a few around before Harry hit the scene...
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Andrew Meronek

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« Reply #4 on: Dec 31, 2007, 11:02AM »

There might have been a few around before Harry hit the scene...

LOL

Touche!
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« Reply #5 on: Dec 31, 2007, 01:13PM »

The trick is that just temperament allows for a lot more pitches per octave than 12, and there are a couple other issues I've come upon as well.......

 . . . so how do you notate all of this?

Okay, I see what you are getting at now. You want all the possible permutations of just temperament available on call. The only way I see this happening accurately in a performance situation would be either with tunable instruments (piano, harp, etc.) or electronics. The notation would be to specify the exact tunings in Hz in the score. Then in performance, players would have to switch instruments at the appropriate times. Certain instruments might be able to be re-tuned on the fly.

That's the real world. In theory, you absolutely could come up with a reasonably concise and specific notation system for performance by "ear-tuned" instruments or voice. I'm not sure what that would look like but I'm sure it could be done. But I'm not sure it would ever be able to be performed accurately unless it was very simple stuff musically.
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Andrew Meronek

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« Reply #6 on: Jan 01, 2008, 03:08AM »

 . . . so performances by the Kronos Quartet and the Kepler Quartet don't count?

 :-P


I do know that string quartets are more than capable of handling some just temperament systems having, say, 16 to 20 pitches per octave. As is a certain brass instrument . . .

Oh, and notating the tuning isn't quite as simle an issue. There are two approaches that I've found: pitches based on fequencies, similar to our five-line staff system, or pitches based on their relationship to other pitches.

What little stuff I've been able to find still uses the five line staff, but, depending on the composer, combined the staff with using both ideas: adding more symbols besides sharp signs, flat signs, double sharps, etc. before notes, or literally writing fractions above notes. The former tells you where in your instrument to play a note; the latter tells you what to listen for. The former can get really messy if there are a whole lot of different pitches to deal with; the latter is a lot cleaner with numerous pitches but is completely foreign to most performers and is thus very hard to read.

I've been thinking of a compromise, writing cent adjustments over each note, which makes the fractions much easier to understand in terms of where to play a note on your instrument . . . but you no longer know what to listen for.

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« Reply #7 on: Jan 01, 2008, 10:57AM »

. . . so performances by the Kronos Quartet and the Kepler Quartet don't count?

 :-P

Touche.

Okay, apart from very elite small chamber groups that play together constantly, good luck! ;-)

Quote
I do know that string quartets are more than capable of handling some just temperament systems having, say, 16 to 20 pitches per octave. As is a certain brass instrument . . .

Which may answer my next question, which is what your intended instrumentation was going to be.

Quote
I've been thinking of a compromise, writing cent adjustments over each note, which makes the fractions much easier to understand in terms of where to play a note on your instrument . . . but you no longer know what to listen for.

Maybe a system of arrows up or down next to the notes, different lengths of arrows indicating how sharp/flat to play the given note. Makes the piece writable in standard notation, which makes it easier to get readings. Then, with practice, the performers can refine the intonations. Might work. Don't know
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Andrew Meronek

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« Reply #8 on: Jan 01, 2008, 08:33PM »

Touche.

Okay, apart from very elite small chamber groups that play together constantly, good luck! ;-)

Which may answer my next question, which is what your intended instrumentation was going to be.

Maybe a system of arrows up or down next to the notes, different lengths of arrows indicating how sharp/flat to play the given note. Makes the piece writable in standard notation, which makes it easier to get readings. Then, with practice, the performers can refine the intonations. Might work. Don't know

Yeah; I've seen the arrow idea, too. Positively, it's a very straight-foreward, simple tool; negatively, it still doesn't tell the performer what to listen for. And I think it may also be a tool that some composers have tried with some success.

I've even considered using something besides a five line staff; however I know that whatever solution I get, I have to be able to write the music using five line staff notation if I ever want it to be performed, even if it won't be the most ideal way of writing it.
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« Reply #9 on: Jan 01, 2008, 09:01PM »

Pass me down my diamond marimba...
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« Reply #10 on: Jan 02, 2008, 11:42AM »

Pass me down my diamond marimba...

I will, as soon as I dig out my trusty 16 position slide chart! :D
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« Reply #11 on: Jan 02, 2008, 11:48AM »

Yeah; I've seen the arrow idea, too. Positively, it's a very straight-foreward, simple tool; negatively, it still doesn't tell the performer what to listen for. And I think it may also be a tool that some composers have tried with some success.

I've even considered using something besides a five line staff; however I know that whatever solution I get, I have to be able to write the music using five line staff notation if I ever want it to be performed, even if it won't be the most ideal way of writing it.


You might have to create two versions, a "readable" one and a truly specific one. I feel your pain, man! 

I'm a little confused about the phrase "negatively, it still doesn't tell the performer what to listen for." What DO you want the performer to listen for? (Sorry if this is a stupid question, but I don't want to erroneously assume the obvious when discussing something nontraditional. ;-))
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« Reply #12 on: Jan 02, 2008, 08:18PM »

You might have to create two versions, a "readable" one and a truly specific one. I feel your pain, man! 

I'm a little confused about the phrase "negatively, it still doesn't tell the performer what to listen for." What DO you want the performer to listen for? (Sorry if this is a stupid question, but I don't want to erroneously assume the obvious when discussing something nontraditional. ;-))

Five-line staff notation for a single instrument (i.e. you don't see all the notes everyone is playing on your part) cannot tell you what part of the chord you're playing, even with up/down arrows or cent adjustments. I just think it would be neat to be able to tell the performer something like: "your D here is the 5/4 ratio major third." That way, the performer knows what kind of harmonic color to listen for when playing the note. I think that'll ultimately be a more effective way of thinking about controlling tuning and color in ensemble playing than just showing cent adjustments or arrows.

Does that make sense?
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« Reply #13 on: Jan 03, 2008, 09:07AM »

Pass me down my diamond marimba...

It just so happens that one of the recordings I'm waiting for has as part of the instrumentation a diamond marimba . . .

 Eeek!
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« Reply #14 on: Jan 03, 2008, 02:59PM »

Five-line staff notation for a single instrument (i.e. you don't see all the notes everyone is playing on your part) cannot tell you what part of the chord you're playing, even with up/down arrows or cent adjustments. I just think it would be neat to be able to tell the performer something like: "your D here is the 5/4 ratio major third." That way, the performer knows what kind of harmonic color to listen for when playing the note. I think that'll ultimately be a more effective way of thinking about controlling tuning and color in ensemble playing than just showing cent adjustments or arrows.

Does that make sense?

Okay, so it was the obvious after all! Embarrassed!

So, how to impart this much info note by note... hmmm... Well, I'm not sure that you should have to with players of the caliber that you would be aiming to write for. When I play music, anything from solo to orchestral to jazz to big band, I am constantly aware of what chord tone I am playing if the music is based on relatively traditional tertiary harmony. So for myself, a small arrow or a 5/4 next to the note would suffice. You don't have to tell me I am playing a major third because I already know that. Maybe I am wrong here, but I have to imagine that most good chamber musicians would share that ability.

Sometimes less is more when it comes to notation. Today, composers tend to micro-manage players a little to much IMHO. In the past, much more was left to the players, who were trusted to understand the stylistic conventions of the music. Of course, you want to write stuff that is NOT conventional, at least in a modern way. Perhaps instead of specific markings on every pitch you might be able to achieve the same effect more simply with some good performance instructions and then very minimal markings on the music itself. I am all for simple, direct, efficient communication from composer to performer!

Don't forget, just because you figure out a way to mark every pitch as you want it down to the cent does not mean anybody will be able to play it to that level of precision....


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« Reply #15 on: Jan 03, 2008, 09:47PM »

. . . if the music is based on relatively traditional tertiary harmony.

Good key point.

Even in traditional tertiary harmony, there are some grey areas.

For example, there are two major thirds, one 14 cents flat and one 35 cents sharp. Arrows might help here.

And there are more than 3 minor thirds, but the most commonly used ones are 6:5 (16 cents sharp), 7:6 (33 cents flat), and 19:16 (2 cents flat). In this case, a downward arrow simply won't do because there are two downward options. And each tuning creates a unique color, so this can be pretty important.
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« Reply #16 on: Jan 03, 2008, 11:32PM »



I do know that string quartets are more than capable of handling some just temperament systems having, say, 16 to 20 pitches per octave. As is a certain brass instrument . . .


I do not think this is the case.  String quartets, the good ones anyway, will adjust some chords to have simple ratios.  You can call those chords just tuning, most people probably would. 

But temperament really means adjusting the scale to remove the comma, and I know of no string players who can play a tempered scale.

And part of the reason this even works for stringed instruments is that they are driven rather than struck or plucked, affecting the way the harmonics line up. 

A lot of digital pianos have a button for changing temperaments.  Have you tried playing some familiar pieces in various ways?  If you don't have one, sneak into a music store and use the display models. 
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« Reply #17 on: Jan 23, 2008, 12:53PM »

since this is a trombone forum, i know that roy nagorcka has written some JI pieces for trombone. when he does he divides each half note into ten equal parts. he writes in regular notes, but with an arrow and a number over each note... the arrow for which way to adjust, and the number for how many cents that way.

ie 3V means 30 cents down.

i think that some of his pieces for trombone are recorded.

clarinet is another instrument which is easy to play micro tones on.
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Andrew Meronek

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« Reply #18 on: Jan 23, 2008, 07:14PM »

Hmmm . . .

I looked up Roy Nagorcka on Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia, and came up with nothing. Is the spelling correct?

FYI, I am using a solution similar to the one you describe, in order to create notation that is easier for performers to interpret. Except I just give cent adjustments, like +18 or -31. My thought is that a performer, once playing through the piece, will start to recognize that +18 is the adjustment for only a couple possible chords and will have a very specific sound, even compared to +16, which would normally be indistinguishable, but which would be used in other chords thus giving the performer an expectation of a different sound.

Oh, and if that is a picture of you, hooray for trombone chicks! We need more of 'em! That, or I've been in the Army way too long.
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« Reply #19 on: Jan 23, 2008, 08:38PM »

Ron Nagorcka, perhaps?

http://www.ronnagorcka.id.au/
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