On Sinfonia (2nd movement – Music)

Fengjastrútur performing Skálavelli Mengi 2017

The Fengjastrútur concert in Mengi was going to have several older pieces and maybe one or two new ones. The new one grew into a symphony of sorts. Consequently there wasn’t room for anything else on the program. As is the case with many other recent works of mine, this one deals with four elements, sequentially and/or simultaneously.

For most of my concert music animated notation is a de facto thing. It has become my vehicle to express the kind of rhythmic elasticity that the music needs. There really is no other way and it is a thing of its own. Off course the music has grown in symbiosis with it as is the case with any form of notation – years of trial and error have guided me figuring out what is realistic within this medium. The score is a video file. It is fixed. The musicians and I are the only people who get to see it usually, unless you search for the scores online at home. As an audience you cannot see them in concert. The presentation is simple, almost traditional.

Sinfonia Score snapshot

Everybody (the 9 musicians that is) is sitting around a table. There is a variety of instruments, 3 groups of 3. Flutes/recorders, plucked strings/harmonicas, percussion and everyone has some other sound making devices as well. The plucked strings are tuned 1/6th of a whole-tone (33cents) apart (very small intervals). The same is true for the harmonicas although they and the bottles are the only instruments that play in the strict just intonation version of the 36 note in an octave scheme (imagine a piano with 3 times the amount of notes if your unfamiliar with this kind of talk). So many notes spread narrowly, not exactly evenly and not exactly not. The recorders and flutes approximate according to 1/6th tone symbols.

Back in 2006 my backpack was stolen from a hotel room in Denmark. It contained two important things. My first laptop (which luckily did have the most important stuff backed up elsewhere) and the Ratio Book, which I had borrowed from Áki Ásgeirsson and never seen a copy of anywhere since. The book was about ratios and music with the proceedings from some conference in The Hague or something like that. There was an article by James Tenney which opened up my ears and mind to the two-sided nature of note relationships – the relationships of short notes vs. the relationships of long notes, as I see it. In other words, the ear is more specific when it has more time and more vague when it has less time. When it has little time it likes to recognize the contour and rounds things of to the simplest common denominator (or simplest similar ratio) but with more time you get higher resolution and a more specific and subtler sense of, well, harmonicity.

Another Sinfonia Score Snapshot

A mind blowing discovery for me. I had started reading Partch at 20. It was kind of him to write Genesis of a Music for that exact purpose, as he himself said, so that one wouldn’t have to start from scratch like he did. Back to Denmark in 2006, I heard a lecture by Tristan Murail where he played a fake piano sound, based on sine-waves, rounded off to 1/8th of a tone as is a common practice in France nowadays. It sounded right to me. Confirmed what had Tenney said.

This opened me for the possibility that intonation is first and foremost a practice, not just a relationship of fixed entities. My inquiries into traditional Icelandic rímur folk song only strengthened my conviction. The hotel lobby had a internet machine for customers. I had to use it to check my email. A friend had sent out an email saying that James Tenney had just passed away. I was deeply saddened even though I never met the guy, such an enormous everything, great composer, theorist and many other things.

Tenney had guided my view a little further. Intonation is a practice. Just intonation is a moving target or that is to say physical instruments are moving targets. The longer the notes the more relevant it is. Are the Harmonicas therefore not tuned the same as the guitars in Sinfonia? What about the flute and recorders? It depends on how hard you blow into the harmonica, where exactly, and how hard you press the string on the fretboard. Your embrochure and fingering on a wind instrument will vary, as will the instrument. The performers are asked to listen and find a soft landing spot somewhere around there, if they don’t hit the just intonation target, they will hit one of its neighbors. Growing up in a culture that had no resonant spaces for centuries makes one think of pitch as a continuum and rightly so because there is no fixed point in space.

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