May 14th, 2013 Jon
Codes Of Ascension is a new piece for solo electric guitar which I will be performing at the upcoming American Festival of Microtonal Music concert on May 19th at Spectrum in NYC. This piece is in 13-limit Just Intonation, and is performed on the 12-Tone Ultra Plus guitar in an open tuning which allows new JI intervals, including all of the pitches from La Monte Young’s The Well Tuned Piano. For those unfamiliar with The Well Tuned Piano, it is La Monte’s 6+ hour solo piano work in Just Intonation, played on a Bosendorfer Imperial Grand piano. I first saw the piece performed in 1981, when I met La Monte, and I was assistant piano tuner for the 1987 performances. This is one of my favorite compositions, and Codes Of Ascension is in the tradition of this piece and is dedicated to La Monte. In both pieces, there are themes and chords that are used to improvise, with the result that each performance can be very different.
I have worked with many of these pitches in the past - there is a section in The Nature Of Music book on the 63rd and 189th Harmonics, and my works such as Evolution For Electric Guitar and Orchestra use these pitches and make musical use of the comma. But having all the pitches of TWTP available helped me to understand the relationship these pitches have to each other - La Monte has come up with a very deep and profound pitch set. For my piece, I am also using my 13-limit pitches, as well as some pitches which are natural extensions of those in TWTP.
I came up with the open tuning for a friend, Carolyn, who was studying guitar with me. When I started playing the tuning myself, I wrote down voicings for three days, and then realized that the three pages I had written outlined a piece. After developing the themes, I understood that they were signposts to point in certain directions, but that, like TWTP, the themes and voicings had to be used to create the piece anew with each performance. I think this style could be used in a group performance, and I hope to do that in the future. I would like to thank La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela for their many years of inspiration.
April 27th, 2012 Jon
In 1953, composer George Russell’s book ‘The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization’ was published for the first time. It laid out a new modal direction for playing jazz music. Russell’s root scale follows the natural Overtone Series, the Lydian note being the sharp 4th degree, which was used to approximate the natural 11th Harmonic. The theory had considerable precedent in the work of Ravel, Scriabin, Debussy, and some of the works of Bach. It was picked up by Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and helped give rise to the modal jazz movement. Miles’ biggest selling record, Kind Of Blue (1959), utilised this approach, and it became adopted by a great number of jazz players.
Many ‘modern’ jazz players use this approach, and the Lydian Flat Seven scale has become a standard part of the language.
Of course, Russell’s Lydian Flat Seven scale was rendered in 12-Tone Equal Temperament, so the 11th Harmonic of 551 cents was replaced by the closest available 12-Tone ‘Lydian’ note at 600 cents. Now, since each step in 12-tone Equal Temperament is 100 cents, the most any interval can be mistuned from Just is 50 cents, and Russell’s Lydian note is off by 49 cents. As such, this ’sharp 4th’ note approximates other Harmonic Series intervals more closely than it does the 11th Harmonic. Russell’s ‘Flat Seventh’, at 1000 cents, is 31 cents sharper than the true Just Harmonic Seventh of 969 cents. And the 13th harmonic, which completes the scale, is not even accounted for.
George Russell’s concept, which clearly used the Overtone Series as a basis, resulted in some great music. However, it has been almost 60 years since he first proposed it, and the precedents occurred decades before that. It is time to tune up the notes and see what music can sound like when using the actual pitches that Russell was only approximating, the 8th - 16th Harmonics. In order to do this while maintaining the freedom to modulate provided by standard 12-tone Equal Temperament, we can build a natural Harmonic Series on each of the 12 standard pitches. This is the basis behind 12-Tone Ultra Plus tuning, and it is the reason that this tuning points the way for the future of jazz. Whether playing modally or playing over chord changes, using the actual Overtones of each of the standard 12 notes represents the fulfillment and natural expansion of Russell’s concept.
April 18th, 2012 Jon
I originally designed the 12-Tone Ultra Plus fretting system to give guitarists access to pure Harmonic Series pitches without having to abandon the standard 12 pitches they already knew. It took me 20 years of playing microtonal guitar to come up with a way to combine tempered and Harmonic pitches. Although originally designed for other players, I have found myself using this system more and more, including 3 songs on the 3rd Willie McBlind CD and all the songs on the Fretless Brothers ‘Footsteps’ CD. 12-Tone Ultra Plus has become the most popular alternative tuning system. Here I will explain the basic concept behind the system.
As stated in my book, The Nature Of Music, I believe that the first complete scale found in Nature, the 8th - 16th Harmonics, is the place to start when building a Just Intonation system. The basic concept of the 12-Tone Ultra Pus system is to use each of the 12 standard pitches as a potential tonic on which to build a Harmonic Series to give, in effect, a modulating 13-limit Harmonic system.
The standard 12-Tone Equal Tempered system approximates the 8th - 16th Harmonics in some ways. The perfect fifth of 3/2 is approximated within about 2 cents, and the 9th within about 4 cents. The major third is further off, being 14 cents sharp. However, changing this interval everywhere on the guitar would require replacing all the frets, as it is impractical and unplayable to put frets 14 cents apart.
So, the major third on the 12-Tone Ultra Plus is not changed. In practice, this note can be left out of a chord voicing so as not to interfere with the Harmonic notes, or it can be played by another instrument, or can be sung, or played on guitar using bends, harmonics, etc. Or, something I have been doing lately is to tune the guitar to an open chord, such as G or D, and tune the major third string to a pure 5/4 Just major third. There are also many other types of Harmonic thirds to explore, and most of these have rarely been heard.
So, using the standard pitches for the tonic, 9th, perfect fifth, and major third/major seventh, we can add the Harmonic pitches that are not even approximated in standard tuning, the 7th, 11th, and 13th Harmonics. The 7th Harmonic, 7/4, is over 31 cents flatter than the standard version, (which really approximates the minor seventh, 16/9). The pure 7th is a beautiful consonant interval, and the Ultra Plus guitar has this interval available on 11 out of the 12 standard pitches (the 7th of Eb is left out).
The next interval added is the 11th Harmonic, 11/8. At 551 cents, this interval is almost exactly in between two standard pitches, so it is not approximated by standard tuning and is about as different as you can get. Although it can be alien sounding at first, this interval also has a consonance to it that is revealed by deeper listening. There are 3 frets on the Ultra Plus guitar that give pure Harmonic 11ths of various 12-Tone notes.
The other interval added to complete the 8 - 16 scale is the 13th Harmonic, 13/8. At 840.5 cents, this interval is also very different from any standard interval. I believe this interval is a consonance, and I have used it throughout my music. There are two frets on the Ultra Plus guitar that give Harmonic 13ths of various fundamentals.
So, combined with the 12-Tone pitches, this gives us an 8 - 16th Harmonics scale from many different starting places. Also, these new pitches can be used in endless ways to give many other Harmonic intervals. For example, we can use the 7th Harmonic of A, G half flat, on an E tonic to give the half minor third, 7/6. Or, the G half flat can itself be used as a tonic, to give a Super Major chord, or an Underone chord. 11ths and 13th can also be used as neutral thirds, or tonics, or in a huge number of different ways.
Other microtonal tuning systems, such as 19-tone and 31-tone equal temperaments, have been around for a long time. They provide unique sounds, moods, and feelings not otherwise available. But these tuning systems have not gotten large numbers of musicians to switch from standard tuning. It seems clear that in order for tuning to evolve, musicians need to be able to agree on certain pitches to be able to play together. It also seems clear that standard tuning is so entrenched that is is difficult to get people to change. Why not, then, keep the standard pitches and add more pitches, straight from Nature’s first complete scale. This is the concept behind the 12-Tone Ultra Plus tuning system.
April 17th, 2012 Jon
There has been some discussion recently in the microtonal community about Undertones and the Undertone Series. Since I have used the Undertone Series for many years, I will talk about it here.
One way of looking at the Undertone Series is to see it as a mirror image of the Overtone Series. So, starting from an A fundamental, going up the Overtone Series from the 4th to the 5th Overtone gives a pure Major third, C# (ratio 5/4). The mirror image of that would be going down a 5/4 from A, which gives the Undertone F (ratio 8/5). The Overtone of 3/2, the perfect fifth, would go down a perfect fifth from A to give the Undertone of D (4/3). The seventh Overtone, 7/4, would go down a 7/4 interval to give B half-sharp (8/7).
If we put these Undertone pitches together so far, we have D, F, A, and B half-sharp. The D, F, and A provide a pure D minor triad. So, the mirror image of a pure A Overtone major triad is a pure D Undertone minor triad. The seventh Undertone, B half sharp, falls between the major sixth and Harmonic Seventh of D, and this Undertone Seventh has a very distinct sound. Completing the Undertone Series to the 16th Harmonic reveals a D scale that has a neutral 7th of C quartertone sharp (16/13) and a minor sixth of Bb (16/15). The resulting minor scale is not a mode of the major scale, but a direct symmetrical mirror image that is unique. If the Overtone Series provides us with our major scale, then it seems the Undertone Series is the true derivation of the minor scale.
Undertones are not, however, some unusual phenomena that require a mirror to exist. In fact, they exist wherever there are Overtones, as they are really Overtones looked at from a different angle. For example, if we use the 7th Harmonic of A, which is G half flat, as a tonic of a minor triad, then adding an E natural gives us the Undertone minor seventh chord discussed above, but with G half flat as the tonic instead of D. So, the E note is an Undertone relation to the G half flat, even though both of these pitches are Overtones of A. This Overtone/Undertone relation happens throughout the Series.
The 12-Tone Ultra Plus guitar has many notes that can be used as tonics to provide this Undertone 7th chord, including F half flat, G half flat, A half flat, B flat and a half, D half flat, etc. The Undertone minor 7th chord is available on all these pitches. One example of this can be heard on the bridge of the title song of the Fretless Brothers release, Footsteps, which lays on a C half flat Undertone minor 7th. It seems that when dealing with Overtones, we cannot escape the Undertones.
March 5th, 2010 Jon
The new Pitch cd is out, called ‘Gems’, and it features a half-hour performance of Harry Partch’s U.S. Highball. This was recorded live in the studio, with Johnny Reinhard on voice, Joshua Pierce on chromelodeon, Skip La Plante on Kithara, and myself on guitar. Harry Partch was a central figure in tuning, and his book ‘Genesis of a Music’ is highly recommended to anyone seriously interested in the subject.
U.S. Highball was inspired by a transcontinental train trip during Partch’s hobo days. This is an early quartet version, still in Partch’s 43-tone Just Intonation. The tuning is used masterfully to convey the sounds and feelings of hitching a ride on the rails across the country. It is expressive, humorous, and unique, and sheds a different light on what Partch himself considered his most creative work. It is available from the American Festival of Microtonal Music website, and we should be getting some copies on the FreeNote store soon.
November 10th, 2009 Jon
We just got back from the Great American Guitar Show in PA, it was a hoot. There was a lot of activity at the FreeNote booth, and our luthier Darren did a great job prepping the guitars and necks. On display were Ultra Plus, 19-tone, and fretless necks and complete guitars in all price ranges. Many of the people walking by during the demo had never seen or heard of any other fretting system besides standard. There were many questions, like ‘how do you fit your fingers in the small spaces between some of the frets?’ (You don’t have to, your finger just has to stop at the right place). Also, ‘what style of music is this for?’ As with standard fretting, any style of music can be played using alternate tuning systems. Rock styles can benefit from the purely in tune notes that allow new, unheard power chords. Jazz players can find new chord progressions and melodies to play over. Blues players can play all the blues notes as chords and fretted pitches. Folk and country players can play simple, solid in tune chords. And avant garde players can go wild. Some players showed up who knew us, or who knew of Just Intonation or Harry Partch. Rob Birch had actually played the Marimba Eroica in the Partch Ensemble at college, this is the marimba that is so low pitched that it really can’t be recorded, it must be heard in person. Rob was one of the players who got a great deal on a FreeNote guitar at the show, and we wish him and the others all the best and look forward to hearing some of the new sounds they come up with. The next performances with La Monte Young’s Just Alap Raga Ensemble start this week, on Friday the 13th. This time we are doing Raga Darbari, which is in a 7-limit Aeolian minor, using 7/4 for the seventh and 7/6 for the half minor third. This one is just fretless Sustainer guitar with voices and tabla. Naren Budhkar is the tabla player, he really has a great feel, and one of the best things about playing this music is that the drums are tuned and play in the same key as the piece. This is such an important concept, as it never made sense to me that the drummers in American music are the only ones who don’t have to play in tune! Tuning a drum set to the key of the song is something I started doing on the Cowpeople record. When using a more Just tuning system, it can really make a difference when the drums are in tune, and it also allows the drummer to play melodically.
August 17th, 2009 Jon
In the October 2009 issue of Guitar Player magazine, when asked what new gear discoveries he’s excited about, Steve Vai mentions that he’s using the bent fret True Temperament necks on his 2 favorite guitars (pg. 61). These necks attempt to address some of the intonation problems found on a standard guitar neck. The bent frets do not provide pure Just Intonation pitches, or any new pitch identities, but it is a step in the right direction. The problems of standard fretting are being acknowledged by one of the most visible guitarists around.
Some of Vai’s statements are misleading. He states, “The tempered scale is sort of out of tune with itself. If you tune a piano to a C chord, and then play an F chord, one will sound out of tune.”
Actually, the tempered scale is in tune with itself, but out of tune with the natural Harmonic Series. And if you tune a pure C chord on a piano, you can also tune a pure F chord and both will be perfectly in tune with no conflict. You could even tune a pure G chord and that would be in tune as well. The problem would arise on a chord like D, as the D note from the G chord would be out of tune with the A note from the F chord. This is why more than 12 pitches are needed to play music in tune.
June 29th, 2009 Jon
We are back from the MicroTime Tour. Part of the funding requirements included speaking to the audience before some of the shows, and this proved to be an effective way to get people to understand the music they were about to hear. Few listeners have a deep understanding of the Harmonic Series, fewer still know about Just Intonation tuning systems, and almost no one seems to know about Just Intonation Rhythm. And although these can be developed into a fabric of great complexity, the basic concepts and their Natural origins can be illuminated more simply. Most people are surprised to hear that Nature has a tuning system that contains beautiful chords that remain mostly unheard, as well as rhythms that have groove and humor. Another part of the talks that seemed to resonate with the audiences was the Difference Tone demonstration, where I played two high Harmonic Series pitches and produced a moving bass line of Difference Tones that was not actually being played, but was easily heard as I changed one of the high pitches.
It turns out that the only people who seem to know something about Harmonic Rhythms are scientists who are working with what they call Harmonics Theory. This has been used to predict the existence of particles that were previously not predicted, and were later proven to be exist. It has also been used in determining the distances between galaxies. The scientists that adhere to this theory feel that all is vibration, and that Harmonic Theory is the Universal organizer. To quote Ray Tomes, “The universe is a musical instrument and everything in it is vibrating in tune with the larger things that contain it. I belive that there are no other laws in the universe than this. All the other laws of physics appear to be the result of the wave structure that leads to the Harmonic law”. This seems in keeping with the current String Theory which has been at the leading edge of physics for some time. Harmonic Theory may even be the ‘Theory of Everything’ that Einstein searched for most of his life.
Focusing on the Harmonic Rhythms at multiple gigs with the 13 O’Clock Blues Band on this tour enabled the whole group to get to another level in executing the rhythms. Joseph Leibhart and Dane Johnson provided skilful and inspired playing, bassist Mat Fieldes rose to the occasion with his usually solid style combined with great musical understanding, and drummer Lorne Watson shined on both drums and Kalimba. Babe Borden surpassed herself again with monumental energy and explosive performances on autoharp and vocals. My deepest appreciation goes to these musicians, and thanks to everyone who did sound, booked gigs, and did promo etc. A great way to kick off the summer!
June 15th, 2009 Jon
Is this the end of music as we know it? So asked a music writer from the south after hearing the Bad Thing cd. He feels that the band is ‘taking this music in an entirely new direction’. This writer has a feel for the blues, as well as an understanding of the role that blues music has played in shaping the music of our time.
Blues was the fuel that propelled the rock revolution. From the blues, rock took the beats, the tonality, the blue notes, the stage antics, and the lyrical themes. These were the elements that would revolutionize music. The early blues players didn’t have electronic tuners, they tuned their guitars to an open chord and played with a slide. They were microtonal at a time when most American music wasn’t (and still isn’t). Musicians like Charlie Patton and Blind Willie Johnson had a keener sense of pitch than is displayed by most modern day musicians. Patton was like an early rock star, playing guitar between his legs and behind his back, living life in his own way, and finding refuge in the music from the pain of his Black/Indian mixed heritage. Many forget how revolutionary this music was in its time. The shuffle rhythms, the 13 1/2 bar forms, the bent notes he would hit with his slide and voice, had not yet found their way into mainstream music. The blues was, from its inception, a rebellious and progressive musical style.
There are some, known as blues nazis, who profess that they like only the ‘old fashioned blues’. These people really have no perspective on the music, and limited knowledge of the early masters. Then, blues was not restricted to 12 bars, or 12 pitches. And being hammered into a formula is a sure way to kill the music. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf kick started Rock and Roll by bringing their music to Chicago and plugging in, setting the template for the rock bands to follow. The Rolling Stones named their band after one of Muddy’s songs, (a one chord stomper) and used old blues songs for their early repertoire. Hendrix started off his Monterey Pop Festival performance with Wolf’s Killing Floor. Led Zeppelin used Water’s version of Willie Dixon’s You Need Love for Whole Lotta Love, (and eventually paid Willie for it). These facts also derail claims by supposed ‘new music’ people who feel that the blues can offer nothing new to music. In truth, the blues has always been fertile ground for musical innovation. Cranked tube amplifier distortion first heard on blues records is now standard, as is the tonality established by the early blues players. Today, the 13 O’Clock Blues Band is playing Harmonic Music with Harmonic Rhythms that have seldom if ever been heard before. And a simple blues album by Willie McBlind may turn out to be the most harmonically advanced release of the year. Maybe this is the start of the end of music as we know it.
April 14th, 2009 Jon
The new Willie McBlind cd, Bad Thing, is completed. This was recorded in Brooklyn, and a few of the songs were mixed by Jim Gaines in Memphis. Jim has worked on a lot of great records, including Stevie Ray Vaughn’s last two, and many with Santana, Journey, etc. He took a liking to our music and was a pleasure to work with.
Also finished the La Monte Young gigs at the Guggenheim in NYC. They built a Dream House inside one of the galleries, and that is where we played. As the Dream House on Church st. is running concurrently, this was the first time that there has been two Dream Houses in one city at the same time. The performances went well, and the extra rehearsals allowed us to dig deeper into the raga.