Toward the Practical Use of Alternative Tunings:

FUJIEDA Mamoru (composer)

The Creation of Monophony Consort

Equal temperament refers to the tones produced through the simple division of an octave, and as such is a practical, handy temperament divided into approximately equal intervals. The convenience of the temperament led to its widespread use following the mass production of the piano in the 1850s, and at present, it is widely used as the basis for the standard method of tuning. However, the equalization of intervals in the method causes negative effects on harmonies. How important is it to simply divide a non-keyboard instrument into 12 pitches? Inspired by the different intervals and diversity of harmonies created by Just Intonation, composer FUJIEDA Mamoru reveals some of the discoveries he has made by exploring the possibilities of various temperaments as applied not to electronic instruments, but acoustic instruments.

Fujieda image 1

Fujieda image 2

M. Fujieda: Patterns of Plants (1st Collection)

M. Fujieda: Patterns of Plants (3rd Collection)

More than seven years have already passed since I returned to Japan after finishing my studies in California. The most valuable experience of that period for me was getting to know Harry PARTCH and Lou HARRISON. At the time, the many unique instruments that Partch had produced were in San Diego, where I happened to have been living, and I was lucky enough to be able to come in contact with them myself. I was also lucky enough to meet and talk with Harrison several times. In this way, with my ears and body, I was able to get a sense of their experimental spirit. It also came to my attention that one of their more important activities was the creation of alternative tunings based on Just Intonation.

On listening to Partch's music, one immediately senses a folk atmosphere and an abundance of energy--it would be difficult to describe this music as refined. With Harrison's music, particularly his gamelan pieces, it is difficult to distinguish it from the music that influenced him. Their music seems to lie far outside of the modern/contemporary value system, which in regard to artistic expression has placed such a great emphasis on individualism and innovation. It is natural in a way that the East Coast avant-garde composers displayed so much antipathy toward the music of Partch and Harrison. What makes their work so important is that the emphasis they placed on tuning was an attempt to overcome the standard criterion of modern expression. Partch openly criticized the tendency toward abstraction in modern expression. To free oneself from the criterion of modernism, he said, one must first reject equal temperament, and then begin to think up new tunings. Harrison too, through his understanding of the diversity of tunings and temperaments, made an attempt to restore the rich possibilities of harmony that modern Western composers had abandoned, while at the same time approaching music outside the modern Western tradition with a daring dynamism..

.In reviewing the compositional styles of the century from the viewpoint of tuning as conceived by Partch and Harrison, the reason it was necessary for SCHOENBERG to invent the twelve-tone technique becomes apparent. With the equal intervals of twelve-tone temperament making it possible to measure half-tone units, the homogeneous relationship between tonalities is diluted and all that remains seems to be a more systematic negation of tonality (in other words, the new "tonality" of atonality is created). The mass production of the piano in the 1850s led to the proliferation of equal temperament. The vicissitudes in 20th century compositional styles began with the twelve-tone technique, after the utilitarianism of equal temperament had prepared the way for it.

Being equal, the intervals in equal temperament led contemporary composers in the direction of complicated, structured techniques. Despite this, when played in combination, the intervals sounded acoustically inexact, making it impossible to create powerful or subtle tones within simple melodies or harmonies. For instance, playing a simple melody in the pentatonic mode on an equally tempered piano sounds trite; this clearly shows how inadequate the temperament is for dealing with a diversity of modes. To create satisfactorily complex acoustic results from these equalized, artificial intervals, many contemporary composers combined minute figures and used the technique of weaving groups of sounds (tone-clusters) together as well as a variety of other methods to develop unique ways of playing an instrument or orchestrating to deviate from this temperament. Out of this, the idea arose that "complex things are good things," and this type of compositional expression became established almost to the point where it was the greatest common denominator in "contemporary music." In fact, equal temperament played an inordinate role in these developments.

This was the tragedy that struck "contemporary music." And it can be thought of as having been caused by the inability to combine intervals in equal temperament. Even though "contemporary music" came to be based on this greatest common denominator, there have been a host of contemporary composers from around the world who have incorporated their own traditions and nationalities through elements of sound. These individuals have been rejected by audiences who say their music is "too difficult to understand." To this sort of response, however, it is possible to say that music is not meant to be an experience, although the implication that a piece has been intended to be understood completely can be found in the music. Here again equal temperament rears its ugly head. With the exception of the octaves, why are the unharmonic intervals in equal temperament able to produce a sense of satisfaction in the listener? Contemporary composers, who seem to have been intrigued by nothing other than complexity and structure, overlooked the fact that the intervals they had accepted as a precondition of the temperament might in some way be acoustically defective. The peculiar expressions of "contemporary music" in all their complexity and insanity were created to offset the defects. To escape from the insanity of contemporary expression, Partch and Harrison offered the suggestion that, beginning with tuning, music should be reconsidered. How exactly are their teachings reflected in my own music? This is not an easy question to answer. It began with the time- and energy-consuming work of composers like Partch with the creation of his instruments, Harrison with his gamelan activities, and La Monte YOUNG and Terry RILEY with their attempts to carefully retune the piano, and their enthusiasm to deal face-to-face with the problem of tuning.
After I returned to Japan in the late 80s, I began to do improvisational performances using computers and synthesizers. One reason for this was that with synthesizers that could be tuned according to Just Intonation (the Yamaha TX81Z and TX802 have functions that allow them to be tuned to microtones), I was able to train my ear. By training my ear, I was able to get some idea of the wide variety of different intervals and diverse modes that are inherent to Just Intonation. However, as time went on I began to think that rather than exploiting the power of the synthesizer, I would like to explore the possibility of using temperaments with real musical instruments. It was at that point that I encountered the koto.

As music director of the Interlink contemporary music festival, I decided to invite Just Strings, a group whose repertoire consists of music played in Just Intonation, on the advice of Lou Harrison. John SCHNEIDER, the leader and guitarist of the group, proposed that they perform Terry Riley's "In Just C" (a Just version of the famous work) with some Japanese musicians. And this made me think of the koto, the pitch of which can be fine tuned quite easily.

Before the Just Strings rehearsal, I helped the young koto players NISHI Yoko and MARUTA Miki tune their koto to Just Intonation using my synthesizer as a pitch reference. It was a great surprise to find that the body of the koto also began to naturally emit sound as the Just intervals resonated through it. According to them, it had been natural to tune their instruments with an equally tempered tuner to perform modern and contemporary koto pieces. Even though it is a Japanese traditional instrument, the koto has been baptized in equal temperament. Listening to this reminded me of an anecdote the American music critic Peter YATES tells about STRAVINSKY. While living in Los Angeles, Stravinsky had the chance to see a koto performance. After the performer had played a contemporary piece in equal temperament, he performed a traditional piece in the same tuning. Upon hearing this, Stravinsky protested that the tuning didn't fit the instrument.

Now, in Japan at least, if a musician hopes to make practical use of a new tuning based on Just Intonation, I believe that the koto is the most effective instrument, in light of the way it can be tuned and the size of its resonating body. And the fact that there are young performers like Nishi and Maruta who have the ability to so keenly sense the correct tuning for the instrument is important. Over the last year, I have had the chance to perform with a group centered around Nishi and Maruta that uses tunings based on Just Intonation to play pieces by Partch, Harrison, Riley, and some of my own compositions on koto. Freed from the bonds of equal temperament, the image of the koto, which had become a cliché in contemporary Japanese music, has been shattered, giving us some foresight into the future of global music. I have also decided to form an ensemble called Monophony Consort, so that new tunings and instruments have the chance to meet in more promising situations.

"Monophony" refers to the Just Intonation-based tuning system that was invented by Harry Partch. While hoping to pass the Just Intonation tunings that Partch worked out on to the rest of the world, Monophony Consort plans to begin applying a wide range of experimental tunings as well as performing the works of Partch, Harrison, Riley, and Japanese composers including myself. The group's inaugural performance will take place on March 2 at Xebec Hall, and on March 26 at Tennoji in Tokyo's Yanaka. One of our intentions is to bring back the situation that once existed in which both musical instruments and the human body resonated. In other words, we are aiming to restore the power of sound that contemporary expression has abandoned, and advance forward toward the next musical horizon.

Back to this issue's Table of Contents

Back to Xebec SoundArts Issue Directory

Back to Carl Stone Home