Jan 192018

When one considers that the ubiquitous Western 12-tone-equal-temperament is but one node on a vast continuum of musical instrument tuning possibility, as well as the centuries long collective project between researchers, theorists, instrument designers, hard/software developers – including a vanguard of visionary experimentalists preceding our current century who bravely stretched the stylistic limits of all that came before – collectively working to inspire musicians, composers and performers to explore other alternative intonation systems, modes of pitch expression and musical instrument designs created for them, it has been the long held hope that we would eventually be able to appreciate the fruits of that long background of historical effort in the form of significant bodies of new works that feature the exciting sonic potentials, new melodic and harmonic resources embodied in microtonal and xenharmonic musics. Thankfully, we are now seeing an exciting harvest of these new sounds and compositions from all over the world, that are as rich and varied in approach as the individuals, styles and intonations of the musicians, composers and performing ensembles that have made it all manifest in the living music of our time.

Microtonal and xenharmonic music is a physical music (Corporeal Music was actually the phrase coined by the late theorist, composer and instrument designer, Harry Partch to describe his approach); new sound forms that directly engage the mind, body and ear in ways that are entirely out of the scope of any single globally accepted contemporary intonation system or idiomatic stylistic approach, featuring subtle pitch inflections and expressive nuances, new intervals and tonalities, and symbolic sonic meanings which are akin to languages that intuitively and deeply resonate with musicians, composers, performers and listeners alike. It’s an ongoing and ever evolving story and vocabulary developed through ages from a prehistorical deep-time out of memory: pre-pipe-organs, pre-pianos, pre-computers; perhaps a collective memory of a sort that informs us of the vast creative possibilities that lie outside of the intonational standardization, homogenization and mechanical industrialization of musical instrument designs, and their associated gestural modes of pitch expression in our current 12-pitch-gridlocked times.

Being a physical, body and ear music that recalls the great historical cultures and oral teaching traditions engendered in them, there is indeed a grain involved in its generation that often lies outside of the formally taught or learned systems which one must discover empirically through practice, experimentation, hard/software/acoustic instrument building, and actual music making to reveal the deep secrets of its greater potential. The grain that is often embodied in contemporary microtonal and xenharmonic music is one that extends through the vocalist, as well as the performing ensemble of musicians, including the design of the instruments used to render the music. It is a manifestation of the unique character of the vocal and ensemble performance techniques, including as well the special tone-qualities of the musical instrument timbres that enable hearing, performing and ensemble intoning of new pitch-grid structures when working with alternative musical instrument intonation systems. Forgiving a perhaps too obvious Barthes pun, let’s refer here to this unique character and grain required for the performance of microtonal and xenharmonic music as the xenosong.

It is in the context of the new ten-track record, Do Owe Harm (2018) – sonic cinema from the creative minds of vocalist, musician, composer and bandleader Justin Curfman’s excellent touring group, Feeding Fingers – that a fusion of all of the components of the xenosong are on full and vivid display. Here on Do Owe Harm, there is a synthesis of characterful, impassioned and soaring melodic vocal intoning technique, impeccably performed and recorded ensemble synth-and-guitar rock band performance, featuring specialist custom guitar and synthesizer instrument designs (guitar-neck from xenharmonic guitarist and luthier Ron Sword. Fretless bass. MTS microtuning enabled Korg Monologue and a selection of Xen-Arts virtual instrument softsynths), all of which are rendered using a remarkable range of microtonal and xenharmonic tuning systems and “superimposed with a surface layer of familiar equal temperament in an effort to synthesize the two into a natural state of polytonality”, a compositional approach that Curfman refers to as ‘polytonal’.

In a future just arrived, the shimmering microtones and xenharmonic ensemble textures on the excellent, Do Owe Harm, are showcased front-and-center, leading in 2018 as one of the best new xenharmonic records of late. Highly recommended.

1. In Hallways Feared From Birth
Microtuning: Wendy Carlos – Beta (63.8 Cents)

2. Arrive a Leech
Microtuning: 15-EDO (Equal division of harmonic 2 into 15 parts)

3. Do Owe Harm
Microtuning: 22-EDO (Equal division of harmonic 2 into 22 parts)

4. Fontanelle
Microtuning: 17-EDO (Equal division of harmonic 2 into 17 parts)

5. A Happy Lust for Alphabets
Microtuning: 31-EDO (Equal division of harmonic 2 into 31 parts)

6. Hate Yourself Kind
Microtuning: Wendy Carlos – Gamma (35.1 Cents)

7. I Have Tried Laughing
Microtuning: Bohlen-Pierce (Equal division of harmonic 3 into 13 parts)

8. Motion Cues
Microtuning: Bohlen-Pierce (Equal division of harmonic 3 into 13 parts)

9. Tallow
Microtuning: 14-EDO (Equal division of harmonic 2 into 14 parts)

10. A Year of Crawling
Microtuning: Wendy Carlos – Alpha (78.0 Cents)

Feeding Fingers | Website

Feeding Fingers – Do Owe Harm | Bandcamp

Tephramedia | YouTube Channel

Jacky Ligon
January 2018

 Posted by at 9:33 pm

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