Board member Chris Bailey has a nice chat with our newest board member, Bruce Hamilton.
UnTwelve: When, and what music(s) first made you aware of a world outside of 12-EDO?
BH: I think I was vaguely aware of alternate pitch space growing up but not explicitly until college where I was introduced to Ives and Partch, among a few others. This was at Indiana, and as I stayed on to focus on new music as a percussionist and composer I was further intrigued by the work of microtonalist John Eaton, who at that time was on the faculty. For whatever reason, it was a few decades before I decided to properly embrace microtonal music as a composer and improviser. It was really a burgeoning interest in some non-Western music that led me to question my reluctance to jump out of 12-EDO. Probably like many other listeners, I thought "this sounds so strange to me, but it must sound 'just right' to the musicians and other folks in that culture...so maybe it can be just right for me too!"
UnTwelve: What kind of steps (or mis-steps) did you take as you got started trying out composition in non-12-EDO?
BH: I've really only been at it in a semi-serious way since 2010, and I've worked mostly by ear. I still consider myself a newbie, but I am quite happy with where it's gone for the most part. I've yet to do any notated microtonal works (glissandi & bends aside) and I have a fairly primitive understanding of tuning and temperaments. That hasn't stopped me from lots of experimentation, some of which has ended up in recent work. I have a dedicated spinet (piano) at my workplace where I tinker out different relationships (some JI, some EDO-based, some empirical weirdness); and I am always retuning our stringed instruments at home. With the computer I have mostly used LMSO to retune Reason; though I also use MetaSynth, Absynth, Max and Csound for microtonal & harmonic series work (some of this goes back years). My university studio recently acquired alt-tuner and a U-PLEX controller & some H-Pi software but so far my students have used them more than me (that may change soon). Also at home we have H-Pi's Xentone ear-training software which my son and I have great fun with. Most of the micro aspects of my all-microtonal album Compulse were done with LMSO.
UnTwelve: How do you (now) approach composition in general? Is there anything specifically different about how you approach a microtonal composition vs. a "non-microtonal" composition?
BH: Well, first of all, I'm eclectic and switch between songwriting, chamber music composition, ambient electronica, noise music, free improv etc., so my approach will tend to change a lot. Sometimes one or more parameters are more important than others; and sometimes things are guided by the technology at hand. There have been plenty of electronic tracks that started as 12-EDO that ended up in the xen realm. Others were designed to be microtonal at the outset. It alters the process a bit but my overall thinking is probably my usual intuitive application of compositional methods (which sometimes includes improvisation). I think a pretty large chunk of my non-12-EDO work is really 12-EDO extended or altered rather than something completely different. I do have some work in other EDOs that kind of finds its own way, where intervals might occasionally break out of 12-EDO/meantone categorical perception, perhaps more so when I focus on neutral intervals. That's something I'd like to explore more, but I've been happy enough simply using different versions of 12-EDO/meantone intervals and the amazing timbres they can contribute to. [This is certainly the case in my recent works involving fixed 12-EDO instruments, e.g., Attractors for piano, vibraphone and recording, where the recorded part produces pitch halos around the live parts.] I use JI and the harmonic series in some of my more drone-based work, which I suppose is typical. One thing I do quite a lot is double a line of music with various mixed tunings: I'll simply copy the same MIDI data to a bunch of tracks and try different scale combinations until I find something that works. It's kind of a quick & dirty method, and unscientific, but it can be magical. A lot of my music over the decades has dealt with the simple idea of things drifting apart and coming together (rhythmically, texturally, melodically, harmonically); perhaps some of my xen work is an extension of this interest. Several microtonal improvisations and some compositions can be heard at my Soundcloud page.
UnTwelve: Microtonality, and tuning in general, like many aspects of music, has a tendency to attract a lot of theoretical and meta-compositional thought and accompanying verbiage. A few questions about this:
- Does such thinking ever go into your composing? In other words …. do you make use of theoretical knowledge, in a conscious way, during your composing process(es)?
- What do you think is a healthy relationship between theory and practice, in general?
BH: Given my fairly minimal understanding of microtonal theory, I'd say very little theoretical thought goes into my process. I use my ear and trust my instincts, even in my 12-EDO music. That said, I know *a lot* about 12-EDO theory, and I suppose there are always conscious pitch decisions that are informed by what I understand (i.e., beyond intuition). I would guess that a healthy theory/practice relationship is different for everybody. I plan on increasing my knowledge of non-12-EDO, for my own edification and creative exploration, and because I would like to be able to teach it properly. However, such learning is on a long list of "things I might get to one of these summers" along with learning SuperCollider, circuit-bending, building instruments, finishing that one pop album, revisiting old works...all of which, because of limited time, take a back seat to music-making here and now. Still, I do expect my microtonal music to expand in scope over the next few years.
UnTwelve: Do you think there is anything missing from the zeitgeist(s) of microtonal composition today? Any areas of focus that micromposers tend to ignore??
BH: Despite some research and involvement in some of the microtonal communities I have the sense that there's way more stuff happening than I'm aware of. I don't feel like I'm in a position to criticize the scene; mostly I see a plurality of methods and styles and interests, and that seems good. I think there's so much that can be done...to me it's one of the obvious paths out of the recycled music business that Western culture is kind of stuck in. I don't think 12-EDO/meantone or even straight up diatonicism is exhausted, but certainly it's rare to hear anything truly new. This might not really matter, but humans are explorers and personally I'm incredibly excited to be inhabiting new pitch space. Presenting a wide array of microtonal music in shows I organize, and on the Spectropol label, gives me great pleasure; in fact, I think it would be almost irresponsible not to do it!
UnTwelve: Your Spectropol label has featured a number of fascinating composers, many of them I had never heard of. Where do you know them from (I'm thinking of Dan Stearns, Marco Oppedisano, Brendan Byrnes)?
BH: Mostly from the internet! A certain percent are from folks whose music I encountered in various internet groups and forums; more recently this has been Facebook oriented. Another group are musicians that contacted me after I started the label. And the rest are folks I actually know in person: some old friends, some from the new music conference scene, and some local Bellingham/WWU people. Dan, Marco and Brendan are among those who I know (so far) only from the web (and an occasional phone call). Part of the fun in presenting and promoting is getting to showcase people like this. I think their work is special.
UnTwelve: Let's talk about Compulse, and your electronica work in general. What are your influences? I hear Autechre for one thing, and the titles seem vaguely reminiscent of them as well....I really like the sexy hook at the beginning of the first song in Compulse. Are you able to speak about where that came from? It sounds like some kind of JI sonority, perhaps?
BH: Haha, Marc Weidenbaum (disquiet author) mentioned Autechre as well. I can see that, as far as the titles (mine are just random spur of the moment file names that stick) and I suppose the sound sometimes, though I think my stuff is a bit more harmonically motivated than a lot of the Autechre I'm familiar with...which actually is not very much. I kind of think whatever genre I'm dabbling in is influenced by a wider assortment of musics, so it's really hard to pinpoint. As for "electronica" (if we can lump all pop-ish non-vocal electronic music into that) I like certain records by Squarepusher, Mouse on Mars, Four Tet, Matmos, to name a few off the top; and noisy stuff like Merzbow. I also like ambient/drone music, but tend to like obscure artists more than well-known ones. In fact, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen is one of my favorite electronic(a) artists, and he doesn't play the PR/commercial game at all. [For that matter his creative process & tools are pretty non-mainstream as well.] Xypher is is mostly quartertone (24-EDO), but yeah the main chord at the beginning is pretty close to JI. [I'm sure a few folks in the Xenharmonic Alliance could suss it out.]
UnTwelve: How did you do the drum patterns (technically and/or musically speaking)?
BH: The drums on this record are mostly sequenced with Reason though I also played V-drums on some tracks (like Xypher). Usually I'd wing up some patterns in the Redrum module; then once placed into tracks move stuff around a bunch to make it more interesting. I'm a drummer so I am comfortable dealing with playing/sequencing and combining drums at any point in the process. In some older Skiks work I used some tweaked pre-existing loops but haven't done so in quite a while.
UnTwelve: what MIDI and/or other instruments or gear did you use in the composition?
BH: This is mostly Reason/LMSO-based material; with some V-drums, some Fender Mustang, some audio generated and/or processed in Max or in Metasynth and then mixed in Digital Performer on an aging MacBook, unfortunately with headphones. At some point I might rematser it. I have an M-Audio standard keyboard controller which obviously means I'm always learning new pitch layouts when using it for retuned virtual instruments.
UnTwelve: sixT . . . from your SoundCloud---it's a ton of fun. Was this a slow improv massively sped up, or something algorithmic?
BH: That's a bit of fun with Reason's arpeggiator. Improvised, then tweaked. Again with Reason samplers retuned by LMSO (to 16-EDO).
UnTwelve: Thanks, Bruce!!!
For more on Bruce and his music, check out his website: http://brucehamilton.info