NOTE: After a little break, the research project is gonna restart in 2014. We are currently working on a new web site.
The very basic idea of the “Dynamic Intonation” Instruments research is to invent some musical instruments based on a “dynamic intonation” rather than a fixed scale, trying to represent, on a touchscreen for example, intervals relations between pitches, more or less consonant intervals using different colors, and where the playable pitches could smoothly change dynamically. Somehow, it’s like having an instrument where a “little piano-tuner” would constantly retune the keys, depending on the melody you play/want to play on it. Through this is a very simplistic idea of a complex and ambitious research, still, the ultimate goal is to built some instruments relatively simple to learn by adults or even children.
The harmony research in itself is still in a beginning state and rather private for the moment, but here are posted few scattered elements about the musical instruments/musical system that we are prototyping.
Pitch differences as small as commas are sometimes hardly heard, even by professionals musicians, and therefore, precise pitches, scales and intonations chosen to make music are often wrongly viewed as minor technical aspects of music, even in music conservatories. It’s probably with good reason that a huge amount of musical scales studies are viewed as mathematicians fantasies, but all those hardly heard pitch differences, put together, have the most dramatic consequences, over the centuries, for the music that we are able to create: For example in the middle age, while singers were instinctively singing nice thirds, european instruments could only play very false thirds because of the simple way they were tuned, and as a consequence, keyboards instruments only slowly started to play polyphony from the XIV century while vocal music already had four voices since the XII century: The limits of the tuning used at that time postponed for three centuries the opening of the polyphony on those instruments relatively to vocal polyphony![ref] Today, 99% of the instruments in the world are tuned in the “equal temperament” tuning, and this temperament is already 250 years old. No other tuning system have been able to go beyond its disadvantages, and this is the goal of the present research.
Today, we know that some polyphonic singing traditions like for example bulgarians voices are able to create some harmonies that are impossible to be reproduced on any playable instruments because of their dynamic way to place the pitches. The present research claim to built such instrument, and much more, being able to view on the screen the harmonic relations that we hear in the music we are playing.
Since April 2011, Our team have being developing the software research tool, associated with tactile devices, a wacom-screen and several iPads with a dedicated app. Using a combination of Java and MaxMSP, we have been working on the instruments interfaces (the harmony research in itself), specific data-structures for the research tool, and sound synthesis associated with gestures controls.
*** DEVELOPERS NEEDED ***
To join our team of developers in Berlin, we are looking for two experienced full time DEVELOPERS with excellent skills in object-oriented programming and design patterns. One really good which mathematics, with possibly some good experience in scientific computing and algorithms, and the other one with good experience of serialization. (We are coding in JAVA)
We wouldn’t call that music yet, neither, but here are some babblings of, not even the instrument that we are trying to build, but of some simple research tool prototypes, on the “wacom-screen” (see post bellow), and no real changes of tonality yet, which is the goal of this whole research…
1- Just playing with the 2 pens over consonances drawn on the tablet-screen:
2 – Exploring harmonic consonances:
3 – Searching for some musical steps based on the harmonic No. 7 and more… some of the intervals sound a bit oriental (often the case with 7th-harmonic’s based intervals):
4 – Very late last night after partying, trying glissando harmonies:
Writing about the harmony research without sounds and a paper to draw on is tricky, but in short, the goal is to built some tactile visual instruments / a musical system, based on a “dynamic intonation” rather a “fixed scale” , that will nicely combine the non-compromisable advantage of the Equal temperament, Tonality changes/modulation, with the advantage of natural/irregular scales (like indian ones), More rich and witty consonances.
Musical consonances are like the starry sky. The ancient Greeks just knew few stars: Only the octave, perfect fifth, and perfect fourth were viewed as consonances. Around the Renaissance people like Zarlino then started to see new stars more clearly, pure major and minor thirds, pure major sixth, etc… then the instruments and the music started to be revolutionized little by little by this knowledge. (The final point of this revolution, in the 18th century, is called “Equal Temperament”, which is today used in 99% of the musical instruments worldwide) Then since 150 years, we started to realize that the darkest parts of the sky are in fact full of stars. The problem is that the difficulty to manage different consonances together in a music, increase exponentially with their quantity, and so far nobody has managed to build a better musical system than our 250-years-old 12-notes-scale with theses new stars. (The microtonalist approach – that simply divide the octave in a bigger quantity of notes, 24, 36, or more – is not that helpful, but often lead to weird dissonant music that occasionally give headache after a while. This is because augmenting the number of notes in a fixed scale will always augment exponentially the quantity of dissonances in it, far faster than the quantity of consonances…) The solutions are a bit complex but might lead to instruments that are easy and lovely to play with.
Another important point in this research is that while playing “dynamic” just-intonation scales, the music we’re starting to experiment doesn’t have a big polyphony at the beginning, but is mostly monophonic or biphonic, and playing it using usual repetitive keyboard computer sounds is not wonderful… Therefore, the harmony research is linked with a sound synthesis research, which is looking for a “violin-like” or “saxophone-like” expression, using pressure sensing and various sensors.
Originally, every musical scale in the world has irregular spaces between its steps. This is because looking for the consonances between notes naturally produce an irregular distribution. But if we want to change the tonality in the middle of the music that we are composing, it won’t work with such scale because most of the steps will not mach anymore as illustrated in the picture below (some consonant intervals will become very dissonant). This is why european instruments couldn’t play polyphony before the XIV century while vocal music had four voices since the XII century, and this is why Indian music, based on very rich irregular scales, is, by principe, “monotonal”, with always this never-ending drone played behind by the tampura, and this also why 99% of the instruments worldwide are now using the european “Equal Temperament” which, by equalizing all the steps in the musical scale, permit to change the tonality freely anytime… with the downsides that almost none of the intervals are truly consonants and that the playable consonances are by construction rather limited in quantity. Of course fretless instruments, and voices, can still improvise around it with more rich harmonic content, but the structural basic of any music in the world is – until now – a fixed scale. Except, to some extent, in some very rare and hard to learn polyphonic singing traditions like for example Bulgarians Voices, the possibility of combining all kind of consonances with the ability to change tonality anytime, is a goal that haven’t been reached yet.
An example of the strange animals that we sometimes get on our screens…
Since April, our team of maxers/Java developers have worked on the structure of the research tool/modular instrument that we are building :
- Powerful java presets structure in Max with versions of presets/newly added parameters management/names/dates/scrolling bar/colors :
- Modular structure of the instruments with interchangeable controllers/instrument interface/sound synthesis.
- Automation of all kind of Max-UI-objects and gesture events. (recording, playing, overdub)
… And on the different parts of it :
- Instruments interfaces
- Sound synthesis
- iPad app for a version of the prototype on a set of various iPads put together to have a bigger screen.
- Voronoi algorithm (also ported on the iPad): One of the “moving-tactile-keyboard” is going to be a weighted voronoi surface that will look a bit like this example of the algorithm, below, but more simple!
This is the first gestures controller prototype for this research.
Wacom says that the only tablet with ‘multiple-pens’ possibility was the intuos2 serie. We customized an intuos2 A4 with a screen over it: Then we have a simple to make, polyphonic, (deep) expression sensitive screen.
Even if some DIY touchscreen could be pressure sensitive (‘DSI’ on : Getting Started With MultiTouch – NUI Group Community Forums ), they might not be as easy to built and to use. And even if it is now possible to get the ‘finger-size-area’ on the iPad (kind of expression sensing), this is not as nicely sensible (low resolution of the capacitive sensor, and only updating when sliding fingers).
Beside the fact that we have to hold two pens (not that easy for the left hand), instead of directly touching the screen with all the fingers, this DIY screen have some interesting Wacom possibilities for music : Deep pressure sensing with choice of different types of nibs, possibly more precise movements than with the fingers, sensitivity to the orientation of the pens.
Details about the building:
We wouldn’t call that music yet, but this was the very first “dynamic just intonation” experiment made already many years ago on a keyboard where each key was corresponding to an interval shift up or down:
Out of the subject of this blog, here is an example of music i was composing a long time ago, just digitalised from an old cassette tape: