Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bohlen Pierce Scale

The Boston Globe had an article a few days ago about the Bohlen-Pierce scale that includes a demonstration played on a Bohlen-Pierce scale clarinet. Once the pitches are sounded a few times, the music doesn't really sound that "out of tune" to my very western ears, but if I were asked to sing the scale in tune, or duplicate it on the violin, I know that I wouldn't be able to do it by ear. I am able to play quarter tones, when necessary, but there are ways to use technical means to assure they are in the right places when playing the instruments I play (string and flute-like instruments).

I have always wondered if western musicians who write microtonal music and play alternative-scale instruments can sing "in tune," without the help of a specially-designed instrument, within those systems.

Has anyone reading this wondered the same thing? Can anyone (who doesn't have perfect pitch) explain how a person with only a western musical background could sing microtonal or alternative-scale music accurately.


Anonymous said...

I have often asked very avant-garde composers of microtonal music to "hum a few bars" from a score which they claimed was quite playable. Without recourse to an instrument capable of even standard Western tunings, some of these composers couldn't sing the pitches or even their own notated rhythms correctly. It only validated what I have learned from a few trusted composers, that many of today's composers are just humbugs, writing "eye music" which they cannot hear themselves. This has lost me a few possible friendships, but there it is. Composers who write down what they cannot hear nor merely reproduce by lightly singing something through are pulling the avant-garde wool over our collective eyes, hoping not to be found out. Since their work fails to attract audiences anyway, they are of course grateful to tenure to keep them fed and clothed.

PMG said...

@Anonymous, since when is a composer's ability to play his or her own music a validation of its value? That's the point of having good performers! Within the musical logic of much new music, the point is to push technique forward, perhaps beyond what the capabilities of an ordinary person at this moment in time--just as composers have done throughout history.

I suspect what you are actually saying is that you simply don't like the music you are being asked to play, which is perfectly fine. But conflating your own aesthetic preferences with a critique of complexity in music is a fallacy at least as old as Phillippe de Vitry.

Anonymous said...

In response the professor of music, my non-proefssorial remarks do not equate to a composer being able to fully play all parts to everything he or she wrote. Of course that would be impossible. I was rather more limited in my comment, simply offering first-hand experience that many modern composers whom I have met actually cannot fully mimic the rhythms they have set out for a single instrument, in the manner of what has been perhaps contemptuously but also rightly called "eye music." To ask a composer to merely show how a certain passge might "go" has been proof often to me that some but not all modern composers are manipulators of symbols on a page but not sounds in the air. They leave that to performers. As to validating value of a given piece of music, I shall leave that to audiences and time, not to sales pitches from the music industry and assertions from properly-approved critics. As to pushing technique forward, nothing in recent piano technique of late has managed to show the virtuosity of a Lizst or the inventiveness of a Gershwin, no matter what university degrees follow the name. Ditto for the great fiddle players, whose prodigious technique is barely even challenged in much "new music." As to the "logic of new music," it seems much as the logic of anything. Some things make sense, and some things seem just posturing dressed up for the parade of the old, orthodox avant garde "after all these years." As to conflating my opinion with the audience at large, I do not. My opinion is solely mine; enjoy what you like to enjoy. But don't complain when I don't buy the ticket for your next concert based on my supposed "conflation" of preferences and critique. Fancy talk doesn't fill a hall with paying guests, but a good tune does. I plunk down my dollar for them now and again, and don't need footnotes in the program to tell my how old-fashioned or out-of-date my tastes might be. Ars nova? Yup. it's been around that long. Sometimes the old becomes new again. Ask Arvo Pärt.

Anonymous said...

Even people with perfect pitch may not be able to hum or sing 12-tone music well, let alone microtonal music. The voice is an instrument like any other, with its own unique limitations and challenges, and unless one has had training with that instrument, it's unfair to expect one to play music with it.

Unknown said...

Performing a microtonal piece vocally is possible with the right training. The most important element in learning a song (for me) is being able to reproduce the intervals between notes, to be able to do it by feel, not by ear. After learning this, it becomes muscle memory and often my voice will sing the right note, even if I'm not sure of it, or I'm trying to sing a different one.

Anonymous said...

I sing "Stick Men" in the car on
the way to work, usually follwed by themes to various Tokusatsu shows in some crazy language I don't fully understand either.

Used to play clarinet, or had it beaten into me more accurately. Wouldn't touch a clarinet for that reason, but more than happy to rip frets off a guitar.

I don't understand written sheet music, but have no problem to play by ear including BP. I do get the math, and only think math and fractions and log when I play.

Sometimes I play original stuff.
That doesn't make me a composer.