ASAC Videos: Pump Organ and No Mule

Thanks to Eric Hardiman for shooting and posting videos from Saturday’s Albany Sonic Arts Collective show.

This is the premiere of a soon-to-be-titled work built around the idea of treating a fader box as a set of pump organ pedals, rather than simple position sensors. Using Cycling ’74’s Max I can control the organ sounds with a variety of gestures: “pumping” the faders makes the sounds louder, rhythmic motion creates harmonics, sudden and abrupt changes add distortion and bite. The samples that appear at 5:30 are from a 2010 recording session with choreographer Jill Sigman (previous story here).

(Start at 1:32 to skip the embarrassing banter and the hopeless yet obligatory banjo tuning…)

“No Mule” is another brand-new tune. The rhythmic chopping effect is a kind of slow-motion walk through a live sample of the banjo. I add a few more live samples beginning at about 4:00 and get into full-on Steve Reich mode by 6:00.


This month’s score from Post & Beam is Fencepost. This is the last song I wrote for the record and has become the sleeper hit of the release.

Download the score as a pdf file: fencepost.pdf
Download the score as a Lilypond .ly file:

Notes on Fencepost

  • The cFCFAb tuning is one I came to after trying a more standard minor (fCFAbC) or sawmill (cFCFG) tuning. I use a Pythagorean temperament based on F which doesn’t change the tuning of the C’s and F’s very much, but makes the Ab significantly flatter than an equal-tempered Ab.
  • The whooshing, windy sound throughout (heard prominently during the intro) is generated by walking on a pair of foot pedals, almost the way you would pump an old pump organ. (You can see this motion in the video.)
  • While recording, I kept missing the foot pedals and accidentally stepping on a mic stand instead. I decided to embrace the resulting bass drum thumps and include them in the piece.
  • Yet another song with bird imagery (YASWBI).

Sedition Edition

Here are some recordings and photos from my June 19 show at Sedition Gallery in Sydney, Australia. The performance was part of the Left Coast Festival 2010.

The first set consisted of duo improvisations by Holland Hopson, fretless banjo and  electronics with Mike Majkowski, double bass.

Holland Hopson & Mike Majkowski; Photo: Terumi Narushima

Hopson Majkowski Improvisation 1.mp3

Hopson Majkowski Improvisation 2.mp3

Hopson Majkowski Improvisation 3.mp3

Hopson Majkowski Improvisation 4.mp3

Next was a wonderful set by Kraig Grady, just tuned vibraphone and Terumi Narushima, just tuned pump organ.

Grady Narushima.mp3

Holland Hopson & Mike Majkowski; photo: Terumi Narushima

Favorites from 2009

Here are few favorite picks of recorded media, live shows and print from 2009. As usual, I’m not much of an up-to-the-minute consumer so some of this may be old news. The exception here are the live shows, of course, so let’s start there…

Live Music

My two favorite shows were at EMPAC. The pummeling dished out by The Boredoms + 9 drummers easily takes the top spot. Garth Knox’s viola and viola d’amore might have been the polar opposite of The Boredoms but was no less riveting. I was also mightily impressed with 2009 ASAC guests Area C and Ben Bracken.

Recorded Music

The only new release on my list this year is Take Me To the Water from Dust to Digital. It’s a solid (maybe even stolid) collection of gospel–no real surprises or major standouts. But combined with the beautiful book I know I’ll be returning to this one often.

Two older CDs of music by Arthur Russel and Julius Eastman are now safely ensconced in my desert island collection:

Arthur Russel World of Echo
Where has this record been all my life? I had heard Russel’s avant-disco but was unprepared for the intimacy and sweet strangeness in this recording.

Julius Eastman Unjust Malaise
A life-changing collection of prescient music from a singular talent. There are so many standouts in this collection that it’s hard to choose a favorite.

And some assorted highlights from the year’s listening:

The Hub The Hub & Wreckin’ Ball
Tim Perkis/John Bischoff Artificial Horizon
Some of the synthesized sounds on these records date them, yet no one has better explored the potential for musicking with communication technology. The Hub is still at the heart of the genre, and sadly the genre is still too small. Maybe all those laptop orchestras with their hemi speakers will carry on some this work. They would do well to revisit these recordings.

Junior Kimbrough and the Soul Blues Boys All Night Long
Languorous sound that builds a Calatrava-style bridge between a juke-joint in Mississippi and the sacred sites of minimalism, drone and raga. On second thought, maybe that juke-joint in Mississippi IS a sacred site of minimalism, drone and raga.

Art of Field Recording Volume I
Another Dust to Digital release. I lived with these recordings for most of the year–and won’t be forgetting them soon.

Gloria Coates Symphonies Nos. 1, 7 and 14
This was recommended to me when it first came out. I’m sorry I missed it until this year.


This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitan was probably the most fun I’ve had thinking about music and sound in a while. His Six Songs is less interesting/convincing, but a good intro to questions about music and evolution.

I enjoyed John Adams‘s Hallelujah Junction more than I expected, based on my experience with Adams’ music. (When will John Luther Adams write a book?) I found his tales about his origins and development illuminating and his writing refreshingly frank. It was especially interesting to read about his life in San Francisco during the 1960s which leads to…

The San Francisco Tape Music Center: an excellent overview of an under-appreciated group of electronic music pioneers and their fascinating intersections with popular culture. This collection puts a new spin on the usual Columbia/Princeton/Bell Laboratory history of electronic music in the US.

Music Technology

I expected 2009 to be about Max for Live, but I never got around to buying Live and then had no reason to get Max for Live. Instead, the one piece of music gear that’s made the most impact on my work in 2009 is an 1860’s style fretless tackhead banjo built by Eric Prust.

Back to the software side, the most notable music software I used this year was for the iPhone

Cleartune is easily the best tuner I’ve ever used. It still makes me a little giddy at how wonderful it is to be able to switch between equal tempered tunings and all manner of Pythagorean, just, meantone and historical tunings. My trusty clip-on tuner finally died this year; I’m not sure I’ll replace it.

SoundLevel is a free, bare-bones sound level meter app. I haven’t upgraded to SoundLevel Pro because the free app does me just fine. The convenience of always having a sound level meter on hand means that I’m much more likely to use it. In fact, it’s become an important step every time I set up a PA or go to a friend’s house to listen to mixes. Not to mention the ability to quickly check how loud that blender really is–time to put in earplugs!

On the productivity/inspiration side of things, OmniFocus for iPhone is essential for me. And the iPhone’s built-in Voice Memos app has become my favorite way to capture a sonic idea or lyric phrase–if only there were a better way to offload those files to my machine rather than having to go through iTunes…

Looking ahead to 2010

Maybe 2010 will be my time for Live and Max for Live. I’ve just started dipping into the Pinewoods International Collection of folk tunes and I expect the book will occupy me for most of next year. I’m hoping that by 2011 I’ll be able to frail my way with ease through all those odd time signatures. Finally, I’m looking forward to making more field recordings with my recently beefed-up rig which now includes a Fostex FR2-LE and a Rode Blimp.

Tablature Overtures

A recent discussion on one of the clawhammer banjo lists touched on two perennial questions of tablature:

  1. Is it a substitute (or better) than learning a tune from a recording?
  2. Why are some tabs so hard to make sense of?

I’m not going to tackle the first one other than to say: both are useful, in my experience. But the second question got me thinking about the differences between tablature and other notation systems.

Tablature describes what to do, not what sound to produce

As someone who learned traditional western notation first, this was a revelation to me. Tablature seems more like a cousin to Labanotation or other dance notation systems than to traditional music notation. I think the possibilities of this type of notation are worth exploring in other musical contexts.

Why is this type of notation a good fit for the banjo? For another instrument (played in a traditional manner) describing physical action may be overkill. For example, each key on a piano produces a unique sound, so there’s no ambiguity when Common Practice music notation specifies a particular pitch. A few fingering notes about how to play the passage usually suffice. The banjo, among other instruments, can produce the same pitch in a number of different ways, so tab can greatly clarify the intended way to perform. This is especially important given multiple tunings that are common with old time banjo music.

(As an aside, I’ve often played around with “performing” the same tune using very different tunings. The motions are identical, but the resulting sound can be quite different. I recently read that gamelan musicians may play the same piece in a different tuning and will refer to the resulting music by a different name altogether.)

This action-oriented quality of tablature can also be an advantage for conveying stylistic aspects of a particular performer. For instance, certain passages may be just as easily performed using pull-offs or drop-thumb technique, so the choice of which to use can illuminate a particular performer’s approach. Of course, tablature is no better than any other notational system at conveying subtle aspects of style such as rhythmic feel or accent.

So again, why can it be hard to make sense of certain tablature? Because it describes what to do and not what sound to produce. If you don’t already know what a particular tune is supposed to sound like, you may have trouble decoding the tablature. And to make it even harder…

Tablature differentiates musical function even less than Common Practice notation

It’s usually easy to tell the intended function of each musical part in common practice notation such as melody vs. accompaniment or figure vs. ground. Sometimes these distinctions are accidental or stylistic. For example, melodies tend to involve the highest notes, and harmonies tend to be outlined by bass notes which are–not surprisingly–low, so the parts are often written on separate staves or their stems point in opposite directions. Foreground and background parts are often differentiated rhythmically and thus barred separately. Even when such rules break down, they often do so in a predictable fashion (i.e. the tenor line carries the melody in Shape Note singing). Or course, anyone who has looked at late-romantic or impressionistic piano music knows that ambiguity abounds even in Common Practice notation, especially the further the music itself gets from the Common Practice era.

Tablature is much less clear, even when given something as simple as an 8-bar, tonal fiddle tune. Of course, some gestures are easy to decode. The typical clawhammer bum-ditty is an obvious rhythm and harmonic filler, but even a string of 8th notes could be ambiguous, with some belonging squarely to the melody and others serving as decoration. Usually the notes played by the fifth string drone are a safe bet to belong to the accompaniment, but with “melodic” clawhammer styles you can no longer assume that activity on the fifth string is unrelated to the melody.

Now back to our original question: why are some tabs so hard to understand? Because with tablature, every action specified must be decoded at least twice: once into sound, and then that sound must be placed in a musical context.

Tax Refund

Here’s your tax refund from The Field Guide: two new recordings from my recent Albany Sonic Arts Collective performance at the Upstate Artists Guild. See photos from the show here.

The first piece features an in-progress version of my Fender Telecaster morphing into an electric 6-string banjo. I replaced the lowest string on the Tele with another high string to serve as a drone. Soon to come are railroad spikes so I can change the pitch of the drone string more easily and my usual allotment of sensors added to the instrument. This piece is played in a traditional thumb lead two-finger style using a modified mountain-minor tuning (dG’DGcd) run through a loopy MSP patch.


Spring Dissent (Bubbling)

The second piece is a modified version of a work for banjo and electronics with the banjo replaced by my Base On, a circuit-bent walkie-talkie. Not much of the circuit-bent sound is heard, though, since it drives an elaborate resynthesis process in MSP that simultaneously retunes the pitches to just-intonation and smears the transitions with glissandi. A touch of feedback in the process opens up slightly unstable areas where the algorithm fights with itself to settle on a consistent pitch.


Wichita Mind Control – Estate Capital

The Shape of Music: Lumpy (and I like it that way)

It may be old news now, but Seed Magazine has published a piece called The Shape of Music that describes two mathematicians’ attempt to represent the multi-dimensionality of harmony and melody using “the geometry and topology of what mathematicians call ‘quotient spaces’ or ‘orbifolds.'” The author does a commendable job of making these and other mathematical ideas approachable for the average reader (unordered sets, anyone?) , but does a pretty awful job convincing me, at least, that the result is meaningful in any musical way.

Here’s a section discussing major chords that opens up some of the problems of this type of analysis.

“These harmonies occupy the center of our musical spaces, and are thus able to take effective advantage of its non-Euclidean twists. Remarkably, in the 12-tone system of notes, these are precisely the chords that Pythagoras identified almost 2,500 years ago: the chords that sound intrinsically harmonious. Far from arbitrary or haphazard, scales and chords come close to being the unique solutions to the problem of creating two-dimensional musical coherence. Contrary to the hopes of generations of avant-garde composers, it follows that the goal of developing robust alternatives to tonality may be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

The shapes of the space of chords we have described also reveal deep connections between a wide range of musical genres. It turns out that superficially different styles–Renaissance music, classical and Romantic music, jazz, rock, and other popular forms–all make remarkably similar use of the geometry of chord space. Traditional techniques for manipulating musical scales turn out to be closely analogous to those used to connect individual chords. And some composers have displayed a profound understanding of the higher-dimensional geometry of musical chords. In fact, one can argue that Romantic composers such as Chopin had an intuitive feel for non-Euclidean higher-dimensional spaces that exceeded the explicit understanding of their mathematical contemporaries.”

First, there’s the wholly appropriate invocation of Pythagoras; this is, after all, an article about music and mathematics. But there’s no recognition that Pythagoras’ simple whole number ratios which produce consonances (octaves, perfect fifths and fourths, etc.) no longer exist in most music heard today. Thanks to equal temperament tuning, the predominant mathematical concept which most composers “intuit” is actually the twelfth root of two–a number Pythagoras would have found abhorrent. It seems our notion of consonance has more to do with cultural norms than mathematical underpinnings. Which turns out to be a better explanation for why “Renaissance music, classical and Romantic music, jazz, rock, and other popular forms” all share a common approach to harmony and melody.

And that brings up another area where this analysis goes off the rails: it defines a huge practice in a limiting way and then uses that definition to justify why the rest of that practice isn’t valid. Paradoxically, this is a kind of logic shared by so many of those “generations of avant-garde composers” to which this article pays backhanded tribute. Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique comes to mind as a mathematically sound system for making music (pitch class sets, anyone?). But the system alone doesn’t ensure the resulting music is great; neither does it invalidate music produced by other means.

The author concludes the article with a mention that the same geometrical analysis is being applied to economics. I imagine they’re on to something here. Maybe they’ll discover that the market has an intuitive feel for non-Euclidian higher-dimensional spaces, too

Pi is such an ugly number. How could circles be so beautiful?

How Did They Do It?

I’ve been playing with different tunings recently, inspired by a SuperCollider patch written by Travis Weller and Dave Benson’s book Music: A Mathematical Offering and Kyle Gann’s Anatomy of an Octave. I built my own little MaxMSP patch to demonstrate the Pythagorean comma. It transposes an oscillator up by 12 perfect fifths and then back down by 7 octaves. The resulting pitch is just slightly higher than the fundamental, a difference of 1.01364… called the Pythagorean comma or the ditonic comma. Fascinating stuff–and tracing the way tunings were pushed about until our prevalent equal tempered system took over illuminates an alternate history of Western music. (Another topic, for later…)

Playing with this stuff makes me wonder how the ancient Greeks figured it out way back in 500 BC. The way I imagine it, physically performing this experiment would require at least 3 strings (1 tuned to the fundamental, 1 tuned to the current target interval, 1 to be tuned to the next target interval) and plenty of retuning. Or maybe it was more like a lyre with 20 strings and plenty of time spent tuning each. In any case, the comma is so small that after tuning so many intervals, I’d be more inclined to explain away a tiny difference as something slipping, the instrument flexing, cumulative errors during the process, etc. But maybe that’s just the banjo player in me…

The answer to my question is likely: they did the math. It ain’t called the Pythagorean comma for nothin’.

Here’s the math:
1/1 (fundamental) up a perfect fifth (1) =
3/2 up a perfect fifth (2) =
9/4 up a perfect fifth (3) =
27/8 up a perfect fifth (4)=
81/16 up a perfect fifth (5)=
243/32 up a perfect fifth (6)=
729/64 up a perfect fifth (7)=
2187/128 up a perfect fifth (8) =
6561/256 up a perfect fifth (9)=
19683/512 up a perfect fifth (10)=
59049/1024 up a perfect fifth (11)=
177147/2048 up a perfect fifth (12)=
531441/4096 down an octave (1) =
531441/8192 down an octave (2) =
531441/16384 down an octave (3) =
531441/32768 down an octave (4) =
531441/65536 down an octave (5) =
531441/131072 down an octave (6) =
531441/262144 down an octave (7) =
531441/524288 = 1.013643264771 = the pythagorean comma