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16 May 2018

Satellite Gamelan at LA MicroFest

Greg Schiemer Image: Greg Schiemer  

Greg Schiemer reports from LA MicroFest where his award-winning work Transposed Dekany was recently featured in a concert together with works by Lou Harrison, Bill Alves and David Doty.

Inspired by figures like Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, and Erv Wilson, LA MicroFest has been the showcase for experimental intonation, composition and instrument-building in the greater Los Angeles region for over two decades. Following celebrations, in 2001, to mark the centenary of Harry Partch's birth, MicroFest spread to the UK and other centres in Europe. Tuning diversity has been one of its hallmarks. The Huygens-Fokker Institute documents over 4,000 known musical scales in the Scala scales archive. These will never be replaced by a single system of equal-tempered tuning while MicroFest continues.

An Australian work for a consort of iPhone players featured in a recent concert program at LA MicroFest. The concert Metallophones and Cellphones took place at Drinkward Recital Hall, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, California on 22 April 2018. The work in question, entitled Transposed Dekany and created for a large consort of iPhone players, uses the Satellite Gamelan, an iPhone app written in Objective C by this author. The app embodies both the composition and a set of hand-held instruments used to play it. Each player alternately plays an on-screen microtonal keyboard or gently shakes their phone to ring individually tuned handbells.

The app would never have seen the light of day without the Pocket Gamelan, a microtonal performance project using java phones developed with funding support from the Australian Research Council from 2003-2005. The app has undergone continuous development ever since Transposed Dekany won the Vice-Chancellor's Prize in the SpaceTime Concerto Competition in 2012. On that occasion it was played by a consort located in several global venues interconnected via the internet. It has been performed in subsequent revisions by established consorts including traditional gamelan musicians at the Bandung International Digital Arts Festival, choristers from Melbourne's Astra Choir led by John McCaughey (see: ASTRA program, pdf) and smaller ensembles in EuroMicroFest, Freiburg and the International Conference on Auditory Display, Canberra.

Music by Lou Harrison and Bill Alves opened the concert. Harrison's two works featured gamelan with soloists. In his Serenade, the Harvey Mudd College American Gamelan accompanies a suling played by Rachel Rudich. And in Main Bersama-Sama, gamelan and suling are joined by French horn played by Audrey Lamprey. Both Alves's works Liminal Landscape and At First Light involved video and electronic sound combined with music played on traditional gamelan instruments, bringing together dual legacies of computer animation pioneer John Whitney and experimental intonation pioneered by Lou Harrison who combined traditional gamelan tuning with Western classical instrumentation. Alves has been one of the prime movers in MicroFest since its inception.

Next in the program came David Doty's Suite in the Cinna Tuning. An upright piano was retuned to a tuning created in 1955 by Lou Harrison for incidental music he wrote for a play called Cinna. Like the tack-piano used in Harrison's original Music for Corneille's Cinna, presented at MicroFest in 2001, the piano hammers in Doty's work were prepared with thumb tacks giving the instrument a hybrid tone quality somewhere between clavichord, prepared piano and the lush retuned piano sound heard in Terry Riley's Harp of the New Albion. Unlike Harrisons's original work, Doty's suite had several movements each exploring a facet of the original Cinna tuning. The piece is memorable for the sound of chords with pure harmonic 7ths in five different movements named after historical scales described in Doty's Just Intonation Primer. These movements are: septimal slendro, Ptolemy's syntonon diatonic (a movement evocative of 17th century clavichord music), Didymus' chromatic, Ptolemy's malakon diatonic and Al Farabi's chromatic. The last two movements are pianistically challenging and pianist Alexis Alrich rose to the occasion.

The concert concluded with Transposed Dekany played by a consort of 15 players drawn from the Harvey Mudd Gamelan, augmented by students and faculty from several of the Claremont Colleges. Players literally handle some of the first software instruments developed by composer and computer music pioneer Jean Claude Risset, to explore a harmonic world rarely visited using standard musical instruments.

Each iPhone became a hand-held instrument tuned in one of many synthetic 10-note scales devised by contemporary tuning theorist Erv Wilson1. The scale called a dekany is generated from harmonics using Wilson's combination product sets method. The app subdivides players into five instrument families each tuned to play the scale in a different scale transposition. And to enhance concert presentation the app also transforms each phone into a hand-held stage light that illuminates the faces of players as their instrument family becomes active.

To access instruments for the performance at MicroFest, players registered as app testers with TestFlight. This allowed them to download and install the Satellite Gamelan app just as the Astra Choir had done for the performance in September 2017. The app is designed to be easy to play and quick to learn and enable a consort of up to 80 musicians to experience what it is like to perform concert music in an alternative tuning. The app relies on conventional sound projection in a concert venue with acoustics suitable for music played by unamplified instrumental and a cappella ensembles. Consequently, the concert setup time is just a few seconds, the time it takes each player to launch and configure the app.

A consort of seasoned players can have the performance concert-ready in a single one-hour rehearsal just as performers did at MicroFest on 22 April. Any group interested in playing the work is invited to follow suit. The app can be downloaded free of charge for up to 90 days allowing ensembles to prepare, evaluate and present performances of the work. On-line technical support is available if required. Transposed Dekany is also suitable for a consort of inexperienced players making it ideal for group performance in senior high schools, or TAFE and University music programs where resources are limited.

It needs to be said that the Satellite Gamelan app is unsuitable for audience participation. There is a place for a different kind of mobile music making app, something in the mould of Golan Levin's Dialtones (A Telesymphony). Nevertheless, while seasoned players have learned to play Transposed Dekany in under 30 minutes it is not possible to train an audience in a few seconds. Moreover, software instruments created by a composer working at Bell Labs more than a half century ago deserve a special place in the concert hall. Would there be a composer, in the last century, whose work has had more impact on the future of music than Jean-Claude Risset? In Transposed Dekany his instruments can now function in a technology founded on the patent for spread-spectrum communication2 that evolved from George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique almost a century ago.

The challenge this poses is two-fold: are musicians ready to embrace a technology with origins in the concert tradition or can this new instrument technology only be seen through a postmodern lens blind to the connection between tradition and innovation ? And is there a place within the twenty-first century concert tradition for the tonal diversity of the world's musical traditions rediscovered by musical movers and shakers like Partch and Wilson?


1. Narushima, T (2018) Microtonality and the Tuning Systems of Erv Wilson. London: Routledge.

2. 1942 Secret Communication System Hedy Kiesler Markey, Los Angeles, and George Antheil, Manhattan Beach, Calif US Patent Office 2,292,387 August 11 1942 accessed 02/05/2018. See also: 'Shortly before Pearl. Harbour: The Lamarr-Antheil Frequency-Hopping Invention' in Price, R (1983) Further Notes and Anecdotes on Spread-Spectrum Origins, IEEE Transactions on Communications Vol. COM-31, No.1 pp. 89-91.

Further links

Greg Schiemer - AMC profile

Satellite Gamelan (http://satellitegamelan.net/) - see also: register to download BETA version

Subjects discussed by this article:

Greg Schiemer reports from LA MicroFest where his award-winning work Transposed Dekany was recently featured in a concert together with works by Lou Harrison, Bill Alves and David Doty


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Xenharmonics are the future?

Microtonality is one way forward out of the straight-jacket of 12-tone equal temperament. At present, there are really only two ways this can be achieved: (1) using extended techniques on standard instruments (e.g. special fingerings and/or multiphonics on woodwinds, bitones on fretted instruments, the human voice, etc.) or (2) by using digital devices such as computers and/or synthesizers. I see it as a disadvantage - Greg may well disagree with me on this! - that devices not primarily designed for optimal sound-quality (iPhones) are adapted to articulate microtonal scales. I look forward to the time that established acoustical instruments are designed and manufactured to produce such scales. (Quartertone flutes and brass instruments exist already, but aren't widely used.)


Greg asks:

"Would there be a composer, in the last century, whose work has had more impact on the future of music than Jean-Claude Risset?"

Yes. In the field of electroacoustic music, John Chowning (inventor of Frequency Modulation [FM] sound synthesis, used in the ubiquitous Yamaha DX7 synthesizer). More generally, I'd say Karlheinz Stockhausen stands head and shoulders above Risset. Stockhausen's astonishing originality and array of innovations are still being teased out and will ramify well into the future.

Pioneers, not celebrities

Ian, I posed a question because there might be more than one answer. Thanks for yours. Like most musicians who have heard music by Stockhausen we can be both in awe of a major twentieth century figure who set music on a trajectory where innovation disconnects with tradition. But when we remove celebrity from the equation and look at an individual musical contribution in the context of a fledgling technology a fresh perspective becomes possible. For Stockhausen, the coal-face was one of many major electronic studios that emerged from the Europe European Broadcast Union post WW2. For Risset, it was a telephone company that had recognised digital signal processing as a way to change voice communication radically. In that context, Risset’s catalog of musical instruments was pivotal in enabling other musicians to work with software. Millions from many musical traditions across the globe now use computers for music even though they might never have heard of Risset. Chowning too made a significant contribution but nevertheless in his keynote address at the 1993 International Computer Music Conference in Tokyo, he too acknowledged the significance of Risset’s work.

Ensembles over individual instruments.

As far as acoustic instruments, it is better to have an ensemble of instruments than individual instruments that can't work with each other. The problem with traditional instruments is their timbre evolved to sound best in Equal temperament.