In this month’s WIRE magazine there’s an excellent primer on ‘Militant Tuning’ by Philip Clark, outlining music composed with alternative methods of tuning to ‘equal temperament’, which has dominated Western music since the 18th century. This is something I’ve been interested in ever since I reviewed Catherine Christer Hennix’s The Electric Harpsichord last year. Here’s a short summary with some excerpts to listen to.
Johann Sebastian Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier (performed by Robert Levin)
Bach’s ‘well-tempered’ tuning is often cited as a major influence on the development of ‘equal-temperament’, but they were not interchangable. In the 18th century there was no mechanism available to tune to perfect mathematical ratios, and Bach would have relied on ear, allowing for far more variation than the history books suggest.
Pandit Pran Nath, ‘Raga Kut Todi’ (from The Raga Cycle)
I posted a short documentary about this guy a couple of weeks a go, so it was great to see him pop up again. His influence on composers such as Terry Riley was profound, but he was not a militant tuner as such because equal temperament does not exist in his tradition.
And here’s some amazing footage of Riley going solo in 1977. It’s incredible how fresh this still sounds; it’s not unlike something by Emeralds.
Wendy Carlos, ‘Beauty in the Beast’ (from Beauty in the Beast)
Carlos described her own composition as “the most unusual music I’ve ever heard”, and this really is quite strange. But also very pretty, I think, demonstrating thepossibilities of different tuning methods.
Tony Conrad, ‘Refusing to Cross the Bean Field at his Back’ (from Slapping Pythagoras)
And at the other end is this very noisy jam from Conrad featuring Jim O’Rouke, performed with a mixture of violin, guitar and accordian drones. Brilliant.