Chris Touhey won 3rd prize in the 2014-2015 competition for his entry, Substance. Chris is a composer from Liverpool, UK, and studied composition at the University of Cambridge and Liverpool Hope University with John Hopkins and Stephen Pratt. Recently, he has developed an interest in 72-edo as a means of combining elements of extended just intonation with traditional systems of pitch organisation that are normally associated with 12-edo. Below is a Q&A chat with UnTwelve's Chris Vaisvil.
UnTwelve: When you compose microtonally what are your methods and approaches?
Chris Tuohey: My approach differs from one composition to the next
but, for the moment at least, I seem to have settled on 72-tone equal
temperament for a number of reasons. Firstly, it offers excellent
approximations up to the 11-limit and reasonable approximations beyond that.
It also tempers out a great deal of commas that would otherwise cause
headaches during harmonic progressions and modulations. From a practical
perspective, it has backwards compatibility with 12-tET, giving performers a
familiar reference point from which to subdivide further. The fact that
72-tET can be divided into 12-tET subsets is important for my piece for this
which was written for 6 pianos that are tuned 1/12 tone apart from each other,
creating a 72-note octave.
In terms of pitch organisation, I construct scales using approximations of the overtones of the fundamental as “chord tones”, and approximations of the overtones of closely-related harmonic series as chromatic notes. These scales are then inverted, providing me with a collection of otonal and utonal “diatonic” scales. The steps of these scales serve as the fundamental pitches of the harmonic areas I explore in my music. I also attempt to import some organisational ideas from set theory, dividing the 72-note octave into 12 pitch class “areas”, each containing 6 pitches. As each of my constructed scales contains at least one representative from each pitch class area, I am able to work with a number of pitch-class sets across the entire length of a piece, modifying them slightly in order to fit within the context of whichever fundamental dominates at a particular moment, but retaining something of their overall character. This allows for a satisfying level of chromatic freedom while simultaneously maintaining a sense of hierarchical pitch structure.
UnTwelve: For a potentially electronic-only work, do you think there is a reason to commit music to paper anymore or has excellent modern recording equipment, sequencers, and digital audio workstations has made this activity less important?
Chris Tuohey: It is less important in the sense that it is no longer the only option, but committing music to paper will always be worthwhile in my opinion. Personally, I enjoy hearing many interpretations of the same score by different performers. When given an element of expressive freedom, a great performer will often bring something out of the score that pushes beyond the original conception and adds a new dimension to the piece. In contrast, a recording has a certain finality to it: the composition is condemned to a static existence. There are many great electronic pieces and recordings, but I do not expect score-based composition to become redundant any time soon.
UnTwelve: Is live performance of microtonal music important?
Chris Tuohey: Live performance is vitally important! I would like to see a much greater number of microtonal pieces being programmed in concerts. As well as helping to promote microtonal music and possibly inspiring others to delve into it, concerts provide a melting pot for performers and composers to exchange ideas and network with each other. There is a thriving online microtonal community, which is great, but connecting in the physical world should be the priority.
UnTwelve: Is there a microtonal culture or tradition that you look to for inspiration?
Chris Tuohey: I have a lot of admiration for the American microtonal tradition. I am a big fan of the work of Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Ben Johnston, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, Ezra Sims, et al. Although they are all united through their use of microtonality, they are worlds apart from each other in aesthetic terms. Their stylistic diversity highlights the wide-ranging possibilities of alternate tunings and quashes the opinion held by some that microtonality is little more than a gimmick. Besides the American tradition, I also take a lot of inspiration from spectral music, particularly the music of Romanian composers such as Horațiu Rădulescu, Octavian Nemescu, and Iancu Dumitrescu.
UnTwelve: Do you still use 12 equal?
Chris Tuohey: Of course! 12-tET is a great system; it is just a shame that it holds a monopoly position in western music when there are so many viable alternatives. As a composer, the primary objective is to have my music performed. Unfortunately, in reality, most performers are either unable to perform microtonal music or unwilling to invest the necessary time to learn it. Because of this, it is hard to foresee a time when I would completely break away from 12-tET, though I wouldn't want to do that anyway.
UnTwelve: What are your future plans for Microtonal exploring?
Chris Tuohey: I have recently composed a short microtonal piece for bassoon which will be performed in the U.S. in May. Beyond that, I am planning to write a few electronic pieces with Csound. I am hoping it will afford me the freedom to explore exotic tunings and temperaments without some of the limitations that usually arise when composing for acoustic instruments.
UnTwelve: Are you a fan of subtle or "in your face" use of alternative tunings or how do you use these extremes?
Chris Tuohey: Tuning is just one aspect of a piece of music. If a composition is seriously lacking in other areas, the use of alternative tunings is irrelevant. I have heard “in your face” pieces that I have really liked and “in your face” pieces that I never want to listen to again. Likewise for subtle pieces. In most cases, my overall opinion of the piece was not influenced by the use of alternative tunings.
UnTwelve: What is your most memorable microtonal experience?
Chris Tuohey: Probably the first time I heard Ben Johnston's 6th string quartet. I came across it completely by chance while searching for something new to listen to. I didn't really know anything about extended just intonation at the time; I just knew there was something about the quartet that was eerily beautiful but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. It piqued my interest and I haven't really looked back since.
UnTwelve: Should microtonal music be promoted as such or simply as music without calling special attention to tuning?
Chris Tuohey: For the majority of people, “microtonal music” is either a completely meaningless term, or not important in the slightest. I think it would be better to let the music speak for itself.
UnTwelve: What would be your dream microtonal situation?
Chris Tuohey: I'm not sure I have a dream microtonal situation. I suppose it would just be nice if more musicians took an interest in microtonality.