Jul 162017

Xen-Arts is extremely pleased to present here the first in what will be a future series of Xen-Artist Showcase articles that will endeavor to feature, celebrate, acknowledge and highlight the work of individuals and groups working in the field of microtonal and xenharmonic music, including, but not necessarily limited to composers, musicians and music technology developers that might be of potential interest to visitors and readers of this site from around the world.

First up in our Xen-Artist Showcase is a feature about the work and music of Brazilian-born orchestral conductor, multi-instrumentalist and microtonal music composer, Fabio Costa, currently residing in the creative centers of Berlin Germany, including a generous and illuminating interview with the composer himself.

Fabio Costa | Xen-Artist Showcase 01

Microtonal Music Background and Intonation Preferences

Xen-Arts: It would be very interesting to learn about your formative discoveries and experiences with exploring alternative intonation systems (temperaments, just-intonation, non-octave, historical, traditional, etc.).  How did you first become aware of musical instrument intonation systems outside of the ubiquitous Western 12-tone-equal-temperament, and what were some of the early inspirations and factors that led to you actively composing music with them, if indeed they were not already a facet of your cultural experience, musical training and traditional background? What were some of the categories of intonation systems that were of initial interest to you in those formative times, as well as those that are now at the center of your current practice and research?

If being able to freely modulate through many possible – and harmonically stable – tonal centers of a microtuning system is important to your compositional style(s), please discuss how this informed your current intonation choices.

Do the requirements of your compositional style(s) require that you have a complete, densely microtonal gamut (microchromatic: J. Ligon, polychromatic: D. Catherino) tuning system mapped to your instrument(s) at all times, or do you tend to switch freely between intonation systems that may feature arbitrary numbers of tones or theoretical structures?

Fabio Costa: I believe the main experiences that primed me for xenharmony were on the one hand an exposure to the original performance movement of old (baroque & renaissance) music and on the other hand, I have played the oboe between ages 17 and 25 also professionally in orchestras, which soon made me aware of the tuning issues within the 12-ED2, mainly regarding the (major) 3rds in chords (in a woodwind section in the orchestra for instance). I have received have a decent education in foundations of mathematics and my curiosity drew me more and more to the overtone series and the harmonic implications thereof. At the same time, some compositions of mine in 12-ED2, for instance, my Prelude-Meditation for Organ:

…employed tonal cadences that I only later would identify as approximations of higher-limit natural intervals of the overtone series, such as 7:9:11 . With the tools I had at hand, I transcribed that piece into 19-limit just intonation, moved by the curiosity of how it would sound. I wasn’t aware at the time (2009) that other equal temperaments existed, which could approximate those intervals. That only happened in late 2014 through a composer colleague that made me aware of that. Since then I started delving deeper into this area, also leading to a collaboration with the Huygens-Fokker Foundation in Amsterdam, which houses the 31-ED2 organ built by Adriaan Fokker in the 1950s and organizes a musical life around it.

My particular compositional interest goes toward the possibilities presented by higher harmonic limits and of enharmony, which of course is related to equal divisions of the octave.

Microtonal Music Practice and Performance Experiences

Xen-Arts: Obviously, there is a period of acclimation in hearing, composing and performing in non-ED2-12 systems. Could you illuminate what have been your experiences regarding the willingness and enthusiasm of performers in embracing both the rigors of accurately rendering the intervals of particular intonation systems, as well as the notation systems used to convey the intervals, melodic and harmonic forms in a particular compositional scenario?

Fabio Costa: My experiences were above all with 31-ED2 together with musicians around the Huygens-Fokker Foundation, which have a solid background in renaissance and baroque music and also in part some experience with 31, but even those who have not seem to transition very intuitively to 31 notes, which I believe is given through the familiarity of 31 with meantonal tunings of renaissance/baroque but also through some intuitive feeling of harmonic relations that 5 limit performance in J.I. develops.

One important aspect in my view is the possibility to actually perform with musicians, who inevitably will come from a 12-ED2 background, so I think one has to find a compromise between good sound and the complexity of many notes (such as 41 or 53), especially maintaining a reference to traditional 12 notes. In this sense I believe adaptive systems are the best practical way to go in that particular context, for instance using 24-ED2 and correcting the “bad” intervals of it (7, 5 etc) in performance. This was very effectively done for instance by my colleague composer Sander Germanus with musicians from Calefax & DoelenEnsembles:

…or with 4-tone pianos:

Of course a purely electronic medium does not impose that limitation.

Instrument Preferences

Xen-Arts: Acoustic, classical, or orchestral music experiences with alternative intonation systems, including insights and visions for the future? Your instruments of preference, both ED2-12 and microtonal? What features might embody your dream-controller(s) for rendering microtonal and xenharmonic music compositions, embracing without bias, acoustic, electronic, computer-music, or MIDI oriented instruments of any kind?

Fabio Costa: I am fascinated by all “error” elements that make up real sound by physical instruments, such as noise in the first place, but also the various inharmonicities and irregularities (of partials for instance), which help dilute the errors/imperfections of the systems based on equal divisions of 2:1 themselves. For instance the Organ, that has much noise and turbulence, makes a complex harmonic web, such in the final section of my Aphoristic Madrigal:

…sound surprisingly “just”, considering that many errors of 31 are not at all negligible (10 cents) and become very apparent with relatively simple electronic sounds.

Xen-Arts: Yes – I agree. Your ED2-31 composition is not only exquisitely beautiful to my ears, but for all practical purposes, virtually ‘just’ sounding. The sensation is as if I’m hearing a section of the harmonic series rendering the harmony here, and the organ with its timbral noise component lends an organic and ‘breathing’ quality to the composition. The performance and impeccable intonation of the singers is spectacular as well. Excellent work!

I was also equally impressed by your “…and while there he sighs…” for the 31-tone Fokker-Organ:

Fabio Costa: Another good example for this relation between tuning system and physical medium is the piano, of which the stretched overtone series compensates for the very sharp major third and makes 12-ED2 sound good on it; I believe this was one of the main factors of this system becoming the standard in a 19 century dominated by piano music. In fact, I think the piano sounds less well in just-intervals, out of that same reason.

Microtonal Music Technologies

Xen-Arts: Mechanically accurate intonation is a fairly recent feature and possibility of music technology, and prior to the late 20th century, for all practical purposes, not widely available to musicians and composers seeking to explore the new vistas and sound-worlds of alternative intonation systems. How, in your view, have these new technologies that enable rendering high-precision microtonal intonation systems impacted on your music, as well as the broader and potential cultural implications of their use in music composition around the world?

Fabio Costa: Certainly technology can’t be underestimated, I believe it is perhaps the main propelling factor for xenharmonic music gaining popularity, not only from the side of generating sound by computer but also because of the new phenomenon of the diffusion over the internet in its many platforms.

Microtuning and Timbre

Xen-Arts: It has been my long-held observation that Timbre Is The New Harmony in contemporary music, and there is, objectively speaking, an obviously huge arc extending across, and uniting, various historical and contemporary musics and intonation technologies that deal with these specialized types of practice, and which embody an awareness of the correlation between intonation and timbre, as for example, in the work of John Chowning (FM synthesis pioneer), to William Sethares (author of Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale) to the acoustic and orchestral styles such as Spectralism (composers including Murail for instance), as well as traditional musics, such as Indonesian Gamelan (where intonation and acoustic beat-patterns may respect, and be designed in correspondence to non-harmonic timbre relationships), etc.

Obviously though, among the most common kinds of tuning and timbre correlations that traditional musicians, as well as contemporary microtonal and xenharmonic composers work within – perhaps intuitively rather than theoretically – are ones that deal with the (quasi)harmonic-series timbres of acoustic instruments, as well as the high-precision harmonic-series waveforms of electronic and computer music instruments, and how these timbres interact with particular intonation systems.

Being that, generally and objectively speaking, all intonation and intervallic relationships are ones that deal directly with tuning and timbre interactions, how do microtuning and timbre relationships manifest in your particular compositional vision, and what do you see as the broader cultural and compositional implications of technologies (as well as musical styles that may potentially emanate from them), that enable musicians and composers to directly control the modal-vibrations of their instruments, either through computer-controlled manipulation, or otherwise composing in timbre-and-modal-vibration-aware styles where intonation choices reflect  – and respect  – the relationships between the timbre of the musical instruments and the intonations used in a particular music context?

Fabio Costa: As exposed above, I do think there is a strong relationship between timbre and tuning, also in what regards the overtone series, as in the example of the piano. But in my (acoustic) experience the adaptation of the harmonic partials to the tuning system isn’t very effective; the incorporation of the various errors, fluctuations, flutters etc (in intonation, spectrum) of actual sound and above all, of the noise component – and the various ways in which this noise it is filtered – could be more effective in producing timbre that is as musical as possible.

Xen-Arts: Thank you very much for taking the time to share your perspectives and insights into your compositonal process with alternative intonation systems, as well as for composing and sharing your piece that features Xen-FMTS in ED2-31:

Costa: “Beginning” (2017) – Electronic Composition – 19-(25-)limit Harmony in 31-ED2

Created exclusively with own synthesized sounds made with XEN-FMTS synth software by Xen-Arts as a VSTi plugin within Reaper Software, with Scala scl. files for 31-ED2 (equal division of the “octave” 2:1).

Composer’s Website:

Fabio Costa

YouTube Channel:



Fabio Costa | Conductor

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