A discussion with Stephen Weigel
Stephen Weigel is an up-and-coming young evangelizing force in the microtonal community. His most notable achievement in this regard is the creation and leadership of the Ball State University Xenharmonic Music Alliance, known on campus as the "XMA". He has a Bachelor of Science in Music Media Production at Ball State, and is staying for a Master's degree in Music Composition. Besides his leadership of the XMA, he teaches aural skills and supports the BSU Chamber Choir and Choral Union ensembles. Stephen’s work has been featured at EMM 2016, SCI Nationals 2016, The National Audience Awards 2014, in various online video games, and numerous BSU concerts. A multi-instrumentalist and singer, he is comfortable with piano, voice, guitar, and saxophone, and his vocal experience ranges from chamber and concert choirs to barbershop. As a theorist, he is noted for the addition of important numerical principles to the set-theory canon ("All-scalar set theory"), which he has presented on the university lecture circuit.
We first met Stephen at the UnTwelve camp in 2016, and were impressed with his energy, intellect, industriousness, organizing talents, and passion for teaching his students and fellow musicians about microtones. Although his career is just beginning, we feel he is a born natural teacher and leader, and someone to watch, so we took the time to talk to him about his activities, both educational and musical. Samples of his compositions can be heard on his Soundcloud page. -Aaron Krister Johnson
UnTwelve: Stephen, tell us about your Xenharmonic Alliance at Ball State. What are your goals for the group, and what are some activities?
SW: Good question! I’m always excited to talk about the Alliance because of how successful it has become in the last year alone for interested music majors, though it’s also open to others. The Xenharmonic Alliance at Ball State was around for a year prior to the 2016-2017 academic year, but at that time, I wasn’t really trying at all to get it publicized for timing reasons. Then, in Fall 2016, the initial conditions were just right: not only was the Xenharmonic Alliance now officially backed by Ball State’s organizational site, Benny Link, but a wave of new freshmen, un-poisoned by false notions of “music theory = 12-equal only” had arrived at the school and were bright-eyed and interested, as well as some others, such as another graduate student and late composition major. I should also briefly mention that the organization is actually named the Xenharmonic MUSIC Alliance, or XMA, just so that potentially interested students could know that it has to do with music from the name. I always tell people, “we’re the only Ball State organization that starts with X!” Easy to remember. My big goal for the group is to get as many people interested in xenharmonics as possible. Unfortunately, this goal is vague by itself, but I have several on-the-ground ideas for getting this out there more at BSU. The main way to promote it should be by making music! This is why I’ve been having XMA do improvised jams to the tuning of the month, so get a feel for how the music sounds. We definitely like some tunings better than others – I think the group are fans of Godzilla, and 19-equal generally [ed. note: "Godzilla" temperament is a 5, 9, or 14 note scale built from stacking intervals that are 4 steps of 19-equal in size]. Unfortunately, it’s hard for some people, who either aren’t piano players, or whose instruments require radical techniques to play with significant microtonality, such as our clarinet player. I have plans to make the organization much more streamlined next year, so that attendance, practice, and participation will all correspond in a positive way. I’m also creating a Xenharmonic Call for Scores for Spring 2018, seizing opportunities based on Ball State’s promotional emails, and trying to get certain key figures to come to Ball State for the learning opportunities and publicity, likely during the aforementioned Call for Scores’ recital. The monthly schedule for the XMA is as follows: Week 1 features Xenharmonic listening. Week 2 features a Regular Temperament theory worksheet and discussion, OR a Lecture on another topic, either presented by a member or myself. Week 3 features the Tuning of the month (or our choice) presentation by a member/discussion. And, week 4 features the Tuning of the month (or our choice) jam.
UnTwelve: What do you suppose are the qualities of Godzilla temperament and/or 19-edo that make them attractive to your students in their jam sessions? And are there any "bad" tunings, or "bad" tunings at least for certain purposes?
SW: I think the XMA likes it because of familiarity: not that they're overly familiar with 19, but we have been talking about it a little bit more than other equal tunings due to chance. I also own "2.5" 19-tone equal tempered instruments: a guitar, made by my uncle Dennis Kagy, a half-finished marimba, which I'm working on, and a keyboard which I've arranged into a 19-shape. The diatonic structure and meantone notation also makes it pretty easy to talk about, and I think that's appreciated. As far as "bad" tunings go, yes, tunings can be bad depending on the music you want to write and how idiomatic you want everything to be. Most music students at BSU would just say that 12-equal is idiomatic for everything - clearly not true, according to every non-European culture, and most of European culture until equal temperament started to be used. For the purposes of XMA jamming and learning, I try and keep the scales simple, using about 5-9 notes for the "diatonic" material, so to speak. I also try to stick to equal temperaments when jamming for the sake of understanding, because those transfer easier, although deviation definitely happens when necessary / educationally beneficial. I do feel like a small number notes being treated as "diatonic" is friendlier for sure... maybe memorizing a 10-note scale is getting on the edge of manageability? At any rate, we can't be using too many notes at once, as the keyboards can only handle about one octave or so... So I guess it's un-idiomatic for exploration's sake to use something with a lot of notes if you're expecting 12-equal Halberstadt (standard piano keyboard) keyboard usage. If you want to make non-Just, or high-limit-Just intervals sound powerful to the ear, more repetition is needed. I wouldn't go so far as to say that just intonation or good temperaments are the only tunings that should be used for harmonic timbred-instruments and/or choirs, but there's an ease and smoothness to its thinking and quality that shouldn't be underestimated. You can work with any tuning with enough practice, unless there's too many notes. Personally, I've never gone above 31-edo (at least when pitch is quantized in my compositions).
UnTwelve: You've recently shared that you are doing a lot of exploration and work with 11-edo. Can you tell us what you find compelling about 11-edo and what kinds of things you are doing, and also doing with your XMA group pertaining to 11-edo?
SW: Certainly! Well, it’s really hard to express why I like it so much, but I guess calling it ‘extremely xenharmonic’ would be appropriate! It is constantly challenging, and thus exciting, to my ear, and it is strikingly unfamiliar in every single way. Making music without perfect fifths, but with about the same number of notes as the usual 12, feels right in my workflow. Coincidentally, the guitar trick I’ve copied from Clem Fortuna and Ivor Darreg is working very nicely to play 11-equal music on a 12-equal guitar (bridge raising): the acoustic guitar is just a little more difficult to hold down with the fingers. Paul Erlich has also pointed out that the 10-cent errors make the string-tuning process imperfect, though this can be mitigated with a slightly stretched octave, and by tuning to a synth. I should also mention that part of the reason I wanted to get into 11 was because you said on a FB post that 11 couldn’t be as beautiful as 12 or its justly tuned analogues. Determined to prove you wrong (chuckles), I have succeeded in making some beautiful sounds, but they’re certainly not the same, as they involve timbres where you can’t hear a lock and ring. The two most compelling scales in 11-edo for me are definitely Machine and Orgone, which name regular six and seven note structures that this community talks about, and are ‘puns’ on the diatonic and octatonic scales where ‘Ti’ stretches to equal ‘Do’ in both. One can easily voice lead these scales smoothly and gracefully to one another, it’s just that none of the chords sound remotely like major or minor, and I love that – that smoothness, combined with new harmony. As for the XMA, we played a brief 11-tone jam on June 1st, but other than that we haven’t talked about it very much, and attendance on the jams has been low, again because of timing reasons. The instruments I tend to set up for them are the hammered dulcimer, electronic keyboards, and guitars if applicable. These are all easily re-tunable. I would love to go through our 11-tone jam recording and post the sweet spots of the jam online, but I just haven’t had the time yet. One more thing: I’m writing a whole 11-tone equal tempered album, so by no means have I been idle with this tuning during May: it’s just that everything isn’t completed enough yet to show everyone. The album will be titled, “The Agnostic Depression of the 21st Century,” and every song is planned / written, but not yet notated (other people are helping, so they need music!).
UnTwelve: I believe what I said, or meant to say, about 11-edo, was that one couldn't really write an effective love song, or joyful love song in it. It's obviously great at being "alien" sounding! Do you think you could write an effective love song in it? Do you think something as passionate as Isolde's Liebestod (from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde) can be done in 11-edo without sounding like a distorted fun-house-mirror version of something trying to be 12-edo-"ish"?
SW: Oh, almost undoubtedly. I wish anything like that was on my upcoming album: so far, "Unusual, Unreal, Unbelievable You" is more of a cross between wishful thinking and a love song, and not nearly as passionate-sounding as any art music. I definitely plan to write music like that in 11-edo, however, though I haven't visualized any chord progressions. I don't know if putting things like that in 11 would work for people who aren't used to xenharmonic chords, but I think it has the potential to sound very joyful, although in a much different way than 12. One thing that 11 would be able to do more effectively is lead to more unexpected key areas... since everyone's used to 12 so much, the unexpected changes in the long, held chords aren't as surprising as they could be. It could be done so that the super-major third would be the most resolved kind of sonority.
UnTwelve: You've described yourself as a "modernist". Modernity, by definition, breaks with tradition. Yet, audiences and musicians find great meaning, community, and comfort to a large degree in tradition. How do you think the optimal balance between tradition and experimentation is achieved?
SW: I don’t quite know, but I do know that recognizability and repetition are extremely important in figuring out the answer to this kind of question. Fortunately, I’ve found that when audiences have at least one “foot” in tradition, everything’s fine and you can still experiment (for songwriters, this is a repetitive structure, for composers, this is the recognizability of a pleasing design and texture changes that compliment the chosen aesthetic). The great thing is, songwriters are still lukewarm with xen, so I’m ready to fill a niche, as a truly experimental songwriter with xen-harmony. I should also mention that, unfortunately for the irony of the modernists’ supposed worldview, they HAVE created a tradition – to mercilessly hunt down the new aural possibilities that music affords! That’s the very reason why I started in microtonality. At Ball State, no composer to my knowledge besides me has written in xenharmonic tuning except Dr. Patrick Chan, who has written multiple pieces in quarter tones (whether that's xen or not is a topic for another day). Modernists still have standards, too – and there are lots of tropes and rules for good writing that have been established through experience, most notably in computer music genres such as fixed media, acousmatic, and musique concrète; their traditions are well-established, and they can just do more with music than songwriters, or acoustic-only composers, generally. Probably the biggest pro of being a modernist is that you really get to dig in to music in a meaningful way, and the biggest con is that you appear demanding and overly detail-oriented to people who don't like music very much.
UnTwelve: Let's talk compositional process. I always enjoy asking other composers whether they are "bottom up" or "top down", typically, when they write (or a mix). By that I mean, what is your thinking on the relationship between content and form when you write? And in what ways might using various microtonal tunings affect that thinking?
SW: It depends on the piece, although most of the time, what I tend to do is start “top down,” and then violate my own top down rule locally when something sounds better to me during a given moment than what I had “pre-composed”. That seems to be the method that works most ideally for me in creating something interesting. I often use improvisation to come up with something that I like, though microtonality makes that harder. I have been in keeping with the rule of constant change – where I constantly shift the material around to provide interest, even in my songwriter-based works, where that kind of change registers as variation instead of a new section or hybrid of previous sections. As for content and form, I consider it very important that the audience be able to recognize the theme or themes, so I often repeat them an appropriate number of times, and I always make sure they are distinct and that I know where the ear is focused at any given moment. This varies from piece to piece, largely because of context. I would say that microtonal tunings affect this process when they involve modulation and long-term change, and not so much for situations of local, prolonged tonality (which also don’t tend to sound as xenharmonic to my ear). This was especially true in my guitar piece “Tenacious Chorale,” which was played in 9-tone and 8-tone equal temperament. The 9-tone movement cycled through modulations of septimal minor thirds, treating that as its main consonance, while the 8-tone movement could be viewed as being in two keys at the same time because of the ambiguity of its “major/minor in inversion triad.” I was very aware of how these changes would have to work out over time while I was writing that piece. My piece “In our own Lonely Worlds,” is similar, and many songs on my upcoming 11-edo album will deal with modulation over long periods of time. I have one song on that album (Unusual, Unreal, Unbelievable You) which purposely uses ambiguous modality as a part of the form – for example, if you’re in C major, but use the right implications, you then sound like you’re in D Dorian, or E Phrygian, etc… it’s that same idea with Machine in that particular song. As of now, only two of the songs on there have no desire for modulation.
UnTwelve: Thanks for chatting, Stephen. We'll certainly look forward to what your initiatives are producing!
SW: Thank you!!