Harry Partch: The Metal Years

Phil Ford

Dial M reader Michael Ethen, a musicology graduate student at McGill University, sent me a very funny, Spinal-Tap-like Youtube moment this morning. Van Halen is starting to play their old hit "Jump"* at an arena concert and the synthesizer intro goes all microtonal:

Apparently, the reason for this train wreck is that the synthesizer intro was played back at the wrong setting — 44.1 Khz as opposed to 48 Khz. I'm not really sure what this means, but I'll just reproduce it uncritically from more informed sources. Interested parties are directed to this blog post, which goes into the kind of technical detail normally reserved for JFK assassination theorists' quarrels over ballistics. Whatever the reason, though, the result is pretty funny:

I can’t tell which is funnier, this long-hated cheesebag-anthem turned
into a much more interesting, atonal mess in front of thousands of
paying customers or the hilarious soldiering on of the Van Halens as
they look at each other from inside the trainwreck. Eddie tries to
transpose on the fly and match the wildly fucked up keyboards but the
great thing there is the difference in pitch is non-musical – about 1.5
semitones sharp. So there’s no frets he can choose to fix the problem!

If Harry Patch were alive he'd blow a gasket at this point — a microtonal difference in pitch isn't "non-musical," it's just outside the universe of equal-tone temperament. Partch looked at guitar frets like they were the bars of a musical prison, and microtonal composers ever since have talked about how liberating it is once you start hearing microtonal intervals as musical sounds and not noise. Composer/blogger Kyle Gann compares hearing music in just intonation (where the semitone divisions of the octave are not all the same size) to seeing in color after living in a black and white world:

My teacher, Ben Johnston, was convinced that our tuning is responsible for
much of our cultural psychology, the fact that we are so geared toward
progress and action and violence and so little attuned to
introspection, contentment, and acquiesence. Equal temperament could be
described as the musical equivalent to eating a lot of red meat and
processed sugars and watching violent action films. The music doesn't
turn your attention inward, it makes you want to go out and work off
your nervous energy on something.

On a more subtle level, after I've been immersed in just intonation for a
couple of weeks, equal temperament music begins to sound insipid,
bland, colorless. There are only eleven types of intervals available
instead of the potential several dozen that exist in even the simplest
just system, and you don't get gradations of different sizes of major
third or major sixths the way you do in just tuning. On a piano in just
intonation, moving from one tonic to another changes the whole interval
makeup of the key, and you get a really specific, visceral feel for
where you are on the pitch map. That feeling disappears in bland,
all-keys-the-same equal temperament. As a composer, I enjoy having the
option, if I'm going to use a minor third interval, of being able to
choose among the 7/6, 6/5, 19/16, and 11/9 varieties, each with its own
individual feeling.

Far beyond the mere theoretical purity, playing in just intonation for long
periods sensitizes me to a myriad colors, and coming back to the equal
tempered world is like seeing everything click back into black and
white. It's a disappointing readjustment. Come to think of it, maybe
you shouldn't try just intonation – you'll become unfit to live in the
West, and have to move to India or Bali.

Composers love saying stuff like this — "if only you could experience music as richly as I do . . ." Still, it's an interesting thought.

*a sentimental favorite of mine — I remember sitting in our basement rec room when I was 15 years old and watching it on "Friday Night Videos," which was (I think) the first Canadian broadcast to show music videos (this was before MuchMusic, the Canadian MTV clone, started up). This was the summer I was dating my first girlfriend, and "Jump" was kind of "our song."** God, that's kind of embarrassing.

**On second though, more like "my song vis-a-vis my girlfriend, though she may not have been aware of it." This doesn't make it any better. Why am I telling you this?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to Harry Partch: The Metal Years

  1. Mark says:

    This was great.
    My question is whether we use microtonality in an equal-tone context. For instance, the use of vibratto by horn players or guitarrists bending their notes, variations on pitch that enable musicians to immitate the human voice.

  2. Scraps says:

    I remember when I first read Gann’s pieces on the modern hegemony of equal temperament, as I gradually comprehended what he was talking about, it was like having a huge impenetrable glass wall revealed, on the other side of which was a world of fascination into which I could not pass.
    The most specifically frustrating thing was his lucid explanation that we never hear “The Well Tempered Clavier” the way Bach wrote it, and that it is effectively ruined by equal temperament because he wrote for the pleasing intervals in each key and avoided the bad-sounding ones, all of which is washed out now. (If I am remembering this correctly.) I’ve looked for a version played in Just Intonation with no success, though I know it’s been done once or twice.

  3. Jeff says:

    Scraps: check out the new recording of WTC I by Richard Egarr on Harmonia Mundi:
    He doesn’t use just intonation, but rather the tuning recently argued (in the pages of Early Music) as being that preferred by Bach in (and alluded to in his doodle on the title page of) the Goldberg Variations.

  4. ben wolfson says:

    “So there’s no frets he can choose to fix the problem!”
    This guy’s mind will be blown to pieces the first time he hears about bending.

  5. Scraps says:

    Jeff, thank you!

  6. Ryan says:

    I was just telling a friend today about a jump-rope routine I did to this song in elementary school. This recording makes me question our move to double dutch at the chorus…

  7. Ben: Not blown to pieces. Yes, it’s child’s play to hit a fretted single note, and then bend a quarter-tone higher. But it takes much more skill (and practice) to hit a single note *exactly a quarter-tone higher*, i.e. fretting it and bending it before picking the string. Yes, of course doing so is well within EVH’s abilities, and I have no doubt he could do so on the fly.
    Now try doing that with a chord (even just a two- or three-note power chord), or with an entire musical line. I imagine EVH could do it with considerable practice, but on the fly–or in the hands of any mere mortal–the result will be quite unlistenable.
    A more practical possibility might be to engage the whammy bar just so… but I never use that particular device of the devil, so I can’t verify that it’s doable.

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