31 Days: Days 1-15

A few articles back, I gave a brief narrative on how the circumstances of my life that led me to decide to create 31 new works in just intonation over 31 days. Once I decided to take on such a project I had to go about actually composing the works—which dominated my life over the next month. All works in the 31 Days cycle were composed using a G = 1/1 system, in which G (or 1/1) is vibrating at about 392 Hz (or powers thereof).


Day 1:  The original conception for this work was to have a theremin sound above the sampled electric guitar. After hearing that result I quickly switched the lead sound to solo violin, which also has less mastering problems than theremin. Over the first half of the project, I found that my works grouped themselves into a few large categories; “Day 1” is in the category of works that is distinguished by a melodic lead line that sings above (or beneath) an ostinato that’s invariably based upon either clusters or close dyads.

Day 2: This work is one of several that features long tones that stack on each other. “Day 2” is also a work that is based upon a relatively small set of ratios, in this case the first 15 partials that derive from 8/7. It does not however strictly adhere to the set of pitches derived from 8/7. Rather it starts in the key of 8/5 and moves eventually into 8/7.

Day 3: When I published “Day 3,” I said I was channeling my inner Steve Reich. Many years ago I went through a pretty crazy Steve Reich phase, and while this work is certainly inspired some of Reich’s pieces (in particular Nagoya Marimbas) the music is really my own brand of minimalism. As the first odd numbered prime day of the project, it was the first day that used the one official rule of the 31 Days project: odd prime number days will have that limit (Scott Thompson on the Just Intonation Network Facebook group inspired the rule). Thus “Day 3” is the first (and only) 3-limit work of the whole set.

Day 4 “Night Music”: Back in 2011 I began work on this piece as an early experiment in just intonation. I was unable to hear the outcomes of this piece until the 31 Days project gave me a reason to do so. My overall impression of the work is not positive; in retrospect, the melodic ideas are not that interesting and the overall use of form and counterpoint are definitely indicative of my works from about 2008-2012.

Day 5: This work was one of the most enjoyable to both compose and listen to. Since this was a prime number day, “Day 5” would be a 5-limit work, and the baroque organ prelude/chorale seemed to be the perfect vehicle for this day. I composed the tune quite quickly—simply singing through a few options and settling on something both sufficiently baroque and in my own style. The rest of the time was spent working out the voice leading. It took some time to omit all the major errors, and there are one or two still nestled in there. But when the work was finally rendered, it was a real treat to hear something in this style without the buzzing and whirring I often hear from equal tempered organs. The temperament of this chorale—to my ears—is not apparent, so unless one is listening closely, it’s difficult to tell this work is tuned in pure intervals.

Day 6: This track is the first of the category of works that used the classic square/sawtooth synth sounds combined with a sampled Rhodes piano. I made about five or six of these works throughout the cycle—obviously I’m a big fan of this combination. “Day 6” features a very small set of fixed pitches mostly based upon a harmonic series built upon D (3/2).

Day 7: Since this was the seventh day of the series, “Day 7” needed to be a 7-limit work. A couple days earlier I decided to compose a piece that made extensive use of the barbershop 7th chord (a dominant 7th chord tuned exactly to the overtone series). Typical of many of my works during 31 Days, “Day 7” began with a series of pulsing major 2nds, almost right away moves into a series of 7th chords. Throughout the work I used lots of unconventional progressions, mostly based upon mediants or tritones, and applied this technique throughout the work’s three distinct sections. Overall, the work lack’s a sense of structural cohesion and sounds like a series of chords simply passing one from one to the next. The real curiousness of “Day 7” lies not in the work, but rather in my perception of it. When I was composing the work, and after I had published the work, the significant pitch drift caused by the 7-limit temperament (i.e., a pitch or note had a few different versions or at different times existed at different frequencies so the chord of the moment would ring in tune) was incredibly distracting. However, near the end of the project (almost a month later), I didn’t find the pitch drift distracting at all. It was as if I had acclimated to this new sound world (more on this later).

Days 8, 9 & 10 “Burly-Q Nos. 1, 2 & 3”: Burly-Q is a spelling of how “burlesque” was pronounced by Americans during the first half of the 20th century. These three works were actually composed a few days ahead of schedule due to a trip I took down to Philadelphia. The three pieces together have a classic “slow, fast, slow” structure and are simple in construction. “Burly-Q No. 2” was based upon some material I had composed many years ago and re-imagined in a fixed-pitch, just temperament.

Some images from my brief jaunt to the City of Brotherly Love

Some images from my brief jaunt to the City of Brotherly Love

Day 11: This is another work comprised of long synth tones, in this case sawtooth waves. As another prime number day, “Day 11” is an 11-limit piece. Ratios based upon 11 are strange: they clearly resemble a raised 4 scale degree, especially when featured harmonically, but melodically they sound ambiguous. There’s no denying the hard ring of adding an 11 to a chord that lines up inside an overtone series however. “Day 11” is a successful use of classic synth sounds, but I do fall back on some cliches of the style at times.

Day 12: “Day 12” has the character of a neo-baroque sonata prelude, but it’s 7-limit tuning causes a lot of pitch drift similar to “Day 7.” Like “Day 7” however, my perception of the pitch drift changed from distraction to acknowledgement. When I listen to the track two months later, I find my experience remarkably different than when I composed the work. I wrote extensive program notes about this piece when I published it; consulting those notes provides an excellent view of my thoughts at the time.

Day 13: The shortest work of the 31 Days cycle is also my least favorite. When I was composing this piece the only direction I had was the 13-limit of the work (the 13th day means a 13-limit work of course) and I consistently felt lost and confused. My choices had almost no intention beyond, “I’ve got to get a piece done today.” My original sketches for “Day 13” quite ambitious: I wanted to make a math-rock style work in that was in 13/8 time. Things didn’t work out that way and this resulted instead.

Day 14: Of all the works, “Day 14” was one of the most experimental (that is to say, the work tests a premise). The piece is based upon a series of long tones. During each long tone the three other voices move chord to chord, always including the long tone as a member of the chord. Additionally, the long tone never changes frequency, the other voices must make the adjustments. By the end of the first minute, the key had shifted up about a quarter-tone. At the end of the piece I abruptly move back to the original pitch frequency; it turns out that I barely notice and it doesn’t bother me. I did receive one comment from someone who did notice the reset, but he claimed to like it.

Day 15 “Fragments”: As they name suggests, “Fragments” is a collection of short ideas strung together. It was about this time that I noticed the clearly “out-of-tune” notes that would abound in most of 31 Days were ceasing to be a distraction. Previously, in works such as “Day 7” and “Day 12,” I would be distracted by notes that weren’t where I expected them to be (in terms of frequency), but now I was judging a note by its harmonic context rather than its linear expectation. “Day 15” was also one of the more enjoyable works to compose, and it was the first of several works that were collections of small ideas.

With 31 Days roughly halfway complete I found myself in the midst of a perceptual shift. I was becoming more and more sensitive to hearing just intervals—especially when they lined up inside a harmonic series. Additionally I became hungrier for new sounds and harmonies. Over the next 16 days of the project I would go in some interesting and unexpected directions.

To be continued…

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