Tuning Thingamajigs: Ecological implications of tuning practices and theories in a California arts non-profit

Music for People and Thingamajigs  

            Thingamajigs began in 1997 when two old friends met for the first time and started the Music for People and Thingamajigs Festival, a still extant annual forum for composers and performers working with homemade original instruments and/or alternate tuning systems. Started as an art project at Mills College in Oakland, we are now a California non-profit that also features a band, an international exchange program and an educational program featuring hands-on instrument building.  When Edward Schocker and I created the festival we wished to honor and showcase the long tradition of West Coast Experimental musicians working with unusual tunings and materials.  17 years later, many of our mentors are frequent contributors to the organization as performers, advisers, and musical collaborators.

             Thingamajigs particular music ecology has developed organically over the years, driven most strongly by the compositional concerns and inspirations of our founding members and artistic collaborators.  We are best known for our work with alternate tunings and materials, but site-work, durational work, experimental forms and collaboration are also central to our activities. In this article I will focus on tuning theory, offering brief sketches focused on the tuning methodologies of composers who have had a direct influence on our work.  I hope to evoke how the sometimes complementary sometimes competing sets of methods and ideas that inform tuning the musical interval contribute to a lively living conversation about how to  better integrate and express the complicated relationships between what is called human and what is called nature.

            A tuning(n.) documents or scores an act of tuning. Tuning(v.) is a meeting of theory and practice involving numerous transpositions between materials in time and space. It can get complicated, even when we are only speaking about tuning the strings of a guitar one to the other. It was common in the family folk music culture of my childhood to soften the frustration of somebody's tuning difficulties on an instrument with, 'Don't worry, it was tuned at the factory.'  An absurd thought then that nowadays, with the advent of digital tuners that physically mount on acoustic instruments or plug-in between an electric instrument and its amplifier, is a lot more like reality. Just turn the little knob until the light flashes green.

            The tuning theory that green light gets excited for is called 12-tone Equal Temperament.  By the far the dominant tuning system in Western music theory and practice, it doesn't reflect the tuning reality of many of those practices including American popular song and blues.  In my family music we don't use digital tuners.  This is not because we are anti-technology. It's just that they do not actually help us to tune our instruments the way we need them tuned.   Our tuning is local to factors that the tuner, and the theory it reproduces, can't compass.  We 'sweeten' our tunings to sound the way we like them to on our various instruments, tune differently for different songs, and tune differently depending upon which other instruments we are playing with.  We tune the voice to the place.  As we think through some technical, social and rhetorical aspects of tuning the musical interval, we might keep, 'tuned at the factory,' in our minds to help us re-think a tuning practice and theory that has become too clearly bounded and self-assured - too prone to repetition. 


Partch's One to One

            Harry Partch designed and built his own musical instruments and tuning systems in order to enact a musical vision he saw as directly oppositional to the dominant languages of Western music in the early 20th Century, languages he found to be abstract and alienating. Partch's most significant legacy is his extensive research into 'natural' or 'just' relationships to tuning the musical interval based in the work of Greek theorists such as Pythagoras.

            Partch centers his aesthetics in the concept of 'one voice.' He values 'Corporeality' and vilifies 'Abstraction.' For Partch, corporeality is not simply the body, but an activity which addresses the here and now, the time and place, of its becoming. Abstraction signals the transcendent and is expressive of 'pure' forms.  He finds vernacular speech to be the best example of corporeal music, and believes that such music retains both the musical qualities of speech as sound and its assumed ability to communicate ideas directly to the hearer.  Abstract music alienates because it becomes its own language, thus negating the body. Abstract music, in a sense, speaks for itself.  The solution, for Partch, lies in Monophony.


...an organization of musical materials based upon the faculty of the human ear to perceive all intervals and to deduce all principles of musical relationship as an expansion from unity, as 1 is to 1, or - as it is expressed in this work - 1/1.  In this sense of growth from unity Monophony is a development of the theories deduced by Pythagoras of Samos on his monochord, in the sixth century B.C.; beginning with the whole string of the monochord, or 1, Pythagoras divided the string into two parts and produced the interval 2/1, then into three parts and four parts, producing the intervals 3/2 and 4/3.  In another sense Monophony may be regarded as an organization deducible from the sounding of one tone, or the sound of 1, or 1/1; in this sense it is an evolved expression of phenomenon of the overtone series... (1974, 71)


            In this schema, Partch's Monophonic tuning systems become an extension of 'one voice' by virtue of the fact that each tone in the system is an aspect, or partial, of the whole system. The resulting relationships between partials are not equal, but consonant from the standpoint of whole-number ratios and theories of the overtone. In Equal Temperament, on the other hand, there is an arbitrary starting point for a series of equal relations. In America, for instance, 'A' is equal to 440 cycles per second. Once this point is established the set of relations are theoretically self-similar across the tuning. Equal Temperament is a kind of ultimate abstraction, a theoretical frame which is then imposed on the sounding bodies which enact it.  Monophony, in theory, takes the sounding body as its starting and ending point.

            Partch likened the situation of a composer of his time, faced with only the 12 pitches of Equal Temperament, plucked and fixed from a potentially infinite continuum between the octave,  2/1, to that of a painter forced to use only primary and secondary colors. He used as many as 43 pitches to his octave, based in just intonation principles, and built entire orchestras of instruments on which to realize his music. Part of the difficulty in appreciating Partch's music lies in developing a sensitivity to very minute changes in pitch which we are accustomed to ignoring altogether, or to hearing as outside of proper tonality. Partch's work presents an enormous challenge to the listener, asking us to hear consonance in a variety and subtlety largely uncharted in our musical practices.


Acoustically, the sympathetic vibration of sound waves of different frequencies related as the ratios of small whole numbers (see Interval); psychologically, a harmonious sounding together of two or more notes, that is with an ‘absence of roughness’, ‘relief of tonal tension’ or the like. Dissonance is then the antonym to consonance with corresponding criteria of ‘roughness’ or ‘tonal tension’, and the consonance–dissonance dimension admits of degrees of relative consonance based on either criterion. The ‘roughness’ criterion, however, implies a psychoacoustic judgment, whereas the notion of ‘relief of tonal tension’ depends upon a familiarity with the ‘language’ of Western tonal harmony. There is a further psychological use of the term to denote aesthetic preferences, the criterion generally used being ‘pleasantness’ or ‘unpleasantness’ (Palisca & Moore 2011).


            Besides suffering from a lack of variety, Partch felt that Equal Temperament was out of tune, dissonant. He states:


Any temperament, equal or otherwise, involves varying degrees of flatting or sharping of the acoustically correct ratios so that any tone of the temperament can serve in several senses - for example 'C' as the first step in the scale on 'C,' as the second step in the scale on 'B' or 'B-flat' etc. and still convey the 'impression' of correct intonation (1974, 70).


When Partch alludes to 'acoustically correct ratios' he is making a specific distinction between dissonance and consonance.  For Partch, following acoustical research by Helmholtz (1912), the two entities that make up dissonant harmonic intervals beat perceptibly against each other, while in consonant harmonic intervals they do not.  The frequency relationship of consonant intervals can always be expressed as small whole number ratios.  Partch considers such ratios to be acoustically correct.  Equal temperament is 'out of tune' to the extent that it modifies the whole number consonances, creating beating harmonic intervals, for the reasons Partch states above.  While Partch expounded upon the clarity and correctness of 'just' tuning, his most favorite materials, speech and nature, are just as resistant to the intervallic specificities of his tuning systems as any other.  It is this appeal to a systematic universalism, played against his preoccupation with the very materials most resistant to such appeals, which opens productive ruptures in his tuning theories.

            Arnold Schoenberg, who thought dissonance in terms of complexity (Tenney 1988, 7), considers Equal Temperament in a different manner.  His '12-tone' technique does not treat Equal Temperament as an adjustment or approximation of earlier tuning systems.  Instead, it treats it as an organic whole with a set of particular properties.  Principally, it takes advantage of Equal Temperament’s uniformity to implement a parallel coeval or flattened hierarchy of notes, extending its motif of 'substitution' to its logical conclusion.  Schoenberg solves for the intervals given him by releasing them from their prior commitments as substitutes.  The resulting music asks us to appreciate the intervals for what they are, not what they could be, and achieves a kind of systemic corporeality akin to how 'Vertov's call to use the camera for its own properties ­- making an enthusiastic distinction between the cinema eye and the human eye ­- serves to further extend it' (Trinh, xii).

            Consonance does not only define a vibrational rule, but is achieved by a fulfillment of expectations, or by an experience of beauty. These expectations and experiences vary widely among music cultures, and the vibrational rules change, too. For instance, it is common practice in Balinese gamelan music to create pairs of 'unison' notes which beat against each other to create a beautiful shimmering tone, and Japanese gagaku music makes use of multiple tuning systems which intersect in a very complicated mesh of beating and non-beating intervals.

            For me, consonance lives in the perpetual failure of 1 to equal 1, in the tension of almost the same, and dies when sameness is assumed and the differences erased.  It is then the description of a perceptual field and its possible boundaries.  For instance, a theoretically 'simultaneous' dyad is a slice of time divorced from its duration.  In practice, the harmonic interval never stabilizes, as the sound must continually oscillate within inconsistently vibrating materials, including our eardrums.  Tuning for consonance means staying alert to the dissonances which continually arise in the time and space of performance.  Consonance forgets the difference that dissonance remembers.

            Despite the variety, flexibility and beauty of Partch's musical productions, Monophony, like Equal Temperament, is still a system imposed on the physical architectures used to actualize the tunings. The materials we find in the world do not always respond with acoustically correct ratios,[1] or to equal divisions of the octave. Responding to the full corporeality of music means finding voice as an embodiment of place, as a particular meeting of space and time. This requires strategies, processes and theories which remain open to changing conditions and environments. 


Alternative corporealities


I am sitting in a room for voice and electromagnetic tape (1969)  - Alvin Lucier[2]


I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now.

I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed.


What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech.


I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.   


The commonness of the speaking, and straightforward account of the process allows the audience to experience the phenomenon of room resonance in an unusually direct expression.  The repetition of the speech, by way of the tape recordings, allows the audience to track, over time, the cumulative effects of such resonance.  The sound of the speech, from a tonal standpoint, becomes more clear, less noisy, as the words become less decipherable, replaced by the ringing of dominant speech-tones.  The voice is both silenced and articulated by the processes involved as the room, the microphone and the tape machine reinforce only those tones within the speech whose wavelengths correspond to their architectures.  What is silenced is the ability of the voice to communicate words, while what is articulated is the underlying tonal and rhythmic structure of the speech. 

            In Lucier's work the tuning strategy is often derived from the materials in use.  In such pieces as Silver Street Car for the Orchestra (2002) for solo triangle and Music on a Long Thin Wire (1992) he coaxes the pitch intervals out of the materials rather than imposing an interval structure upon them.


In Silver Streetcar the player dampens the triangle with the thumb and forefinger of one hand while tapping the instrument with the other. The performance consists of moving the geographical locations of these two activities and changing the pressure of the fingers on the triangles as well as the speed and loudness of the tapping. During the course of the performance, the acoustic characteristics of the folded metal bar are revealed (Lucier 2002).


Unlike the Pythagorean string experiments from which Partch drew so much of his theory and inspiration the 'folded metal bar' contains highly irregular partial tones which do not always correspond to the whole number ratios required in just intonation theory.  These tones are also very high in register, giving them a confusing locational quality within a closed room. The tones tend to bounce around the walls and recombine in unexpected ways.

            In, Music on a Long Thin Wire, Lucier drives a single string with an electromagnet to set it in motion. The long length of the wire brings into play regions of the harmonic series which are rarely heard on shorter wires because they would be out of our audible range. These regions of the harmonic series also produce more complex ratios than we are accustomed to hearing, even in just-tuned schemes. In addition the differing tensions on the string over its long run, inharmonicities inherent in the material, as well as 'interference' from other air patterns in the room, including simply walking past the instrument, combine to complicate the tuning possibilities.  Lucier describes the work as,


a simple, essential exploration of the Pythagorean string that's so long that it starts from that idea but it takes it out of that scientific realm into a more imaginative realm (Perfect Sound Forever 2000). 


            In both works, the physical properties of the materials lend themselves to an unpredictable variety of frequencies. The drone-like quality of the compositions tune the ear to small scale changes in pitch and timbre - the ear goes looking, as it were, for difference. The space of performance also plays a large role in how we hear the tuning, as the architecture supports particular frequencies over others. In the case of the long wire, it even helps determine which partials are excited in the wire. Here, Monophony does not enact a theoretically correct tuning upon a material or environment, but finds its own tuning as the result of processes set in motion by the composer.  The processes are investigative in terms of tuning, curious as to what may be discovered. They enact a score which both tunes and is tuned by the materials at hand.


The Long Fade Out

            Eliane Radique's, Naldjorlak, is one of a series of pieces written by the acclaimed electronic composer for acoustic instrumentation - here, solo cello.  Laetitia Sonami, who has a stated dislike for 'instruments' and considers Eliane to be her mentor, calls this work the 'most electronic music' she has ever heard.  You will have to imagine it. Her guy[3] is playing every last part of the cello. Yes, the strings - but also the headstock, that little pin that extends down to the floor, the wood body - and it never once sounds like 'music for strange little gadgets' or something. And rarely, even when he is playing the strings with what looks like standard technique, does it even sound like a cello. The musical aspects I know well - slowly shifting drones, exquisite tunings, tight formal unfolding of ideas. It sounds a lot like the music she has made for years, on a 1970's analog synthesizer called an ARP, except more so. Even more alive. 

            The durational aspect of Eliane's compositions, how she sticks with a single base sound and makes very small adjustments within it, allows the time and space for an audience to work through her particular ordering of silence. The processes are transformative.  A hum can be a silence - the hum of the fridge, the hum of my computer.  Her music is a hum which beckons you inside of it.  About halfway through the piece the hum stops dead, only to re-emerge as a series of discontinuous swells moving in and out and up and down.  These swells, initially disorienting, become the new normal in a short space of time. 

            Eliane is a practicing Tibetan Buddhist who almost became a nun, but her meditation teacher told her she had better stay a composer.  Her work has often involved and evoked states of consciousness and spiritual matters as its theme.[4]  The presence of the cello and the performer put the consistency of her musical vision into sharper focus and lead me to ask a chicken and the egg question. Did she train the ARP to make that music all those years, or did the ARP train her? It's a kind of cyborg consciousness.


On a ferryboat in Maine I look over the side at the Atlantic Ocean, which I have lived beside for most of my life, and it looks pixelated.  It has never before looked pixelated.  I understand that particular vision of the ocean as made possible by a technology which has happened in my lifetime.  I can trace its effects.  I never saw a pixelated ocean until I saw a pixelated screen.

Within my current vocal practice I find more resonances.  While the most visible models for the work come from Central Asian traditions such as Tibetan, Mongolian, and Tuvan throat-singing techniques the influence of electronic music, including Eliane's, and of industrial sound in general  is unmistakably present.   The partials in my voice are not only acoustic. They are social/spiritual/animal embodiments of the energies I encounter in the course of my life - of what I leave myself open to, to what opens me.

            The pixelated ocean is a meeting of scores, the ocean's and mine.  Similarly, Eliane's tuning of the ARP and then the cello is not dependent upon a definition of electronic or acoustic, is not a translation between them.  They are the outward expressions of a particular musical sensibility in collaboration with a set of materials.  Eliane's aesthetic is temporarily embodied in the materials at hand.  Eliane doesn't like to say goodbye, preferring to use a recording terminology - she calls it 'the long fade-out.'


Tuning by Listening

            Over the course of a long career in music Pauline Oliveros has been steadfast in her assertion that the act of listening is a creative act with material consequences:  that listening is composition itself. Pauline's main instrument is an accordion which has been modified to play in just intonation, a form of monophonic tuning.  However, the sound of her accordion, and its particular tuning reality, is just one of the many levels of vibration being attended to. 

            For Pauline, the total space/time of performance is the temporary, indefinable wholeness within which her tonality is operating.  Her tuning is based in the awareness that there is always another term to tune.  The intervals available on her accordion do not serve as the basis for a closed system of pitches, but are nested within larger systems.  The tuning does not serve as a model.  Instead, she uses the familiar vibrations to make sense of the unforeseen ones she encounters in performance.


            Pauline makes a formal distinction between hearing and listening. 


To hear is the physical means that enables perception. To listen is to give attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically (2005, xxii).


Her main critique of Western musical practices is that they privilege hearing over listening. There is an emphasis on techniques, meant to reproduce the music of the past, which require the attention of the musician to be focused on the physical and mental challenges of enacting the score, leaving very little space/time for the musician to listen to what they are producing, and almost no space/time for the performer to interact with other sounds or energies.

            Pauline's pedagogical goal is to create practices which encourage listening.  Less concerned with 'intrinsic values' of what is called music, she advocates a process of engaging expanded notions and awarenesses of sound.


...sound is not limited to musical or speaking sounds, but is inclusive of all perceptible vibrations (sonic formations). The goal of Deep Listening is to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum of sound - encountering vastness and complexities as much as possible (xxiii-xxiv).


            This relatively quiet shift in perspective has some radical repercussions. Each composition is that practice of deep listening, continually re-applied such that each moment is an attempt to hear to the limit of our abilities. What the score requires is an attempt to investigate what cannot be scored ahead of time. Improvisation and composition collapse into each other as what I call composition in the presence of audience. Each performance must admit the direct influence of sounds and energies which are unforeseen, arising in the time/space of the performance.  The last time I saw Pauline perform she asked the audience to 'consider the windows in your lives.'



            The Thingamajigs Performance Group emerged from long-term collaborations between its ensemble members. TPG creates pieces in a group collaborative process that often incorporates spoken word and multimedia elements, a process more akin to that of experimental theater companies or dance troupes than standard music ensembles. The core ensemble members have been working together for over 10 years and have devised this unique system of creation through a deep musical and philosophical understanding that comes with years of working and developing together.

            The strategies we've looked at so far in this article share commonalities which, when taken together, form the backbone of how TPG considers tuning and ecology. There is a concern for diversity and inclusiveness in the choosing of sound sources and materials, and a marked collaboration with the space of performance.  While natural systems and materials are highly valued, the human/nature dichotomy is often subverted.  I've dubbed our tuning strategy, "paratuning" because it operates alongside or beside traditional notions of tuning, admitting of strategies and possibilities which trangress genre boundaries.  The orchestration for a typical texture might go something like this: an out of tune Equal Tempered accordion, a free reed instrument tuned to Japanese gagaku music, harmonic overtone singing, and a pitch-modulated delay system. This is just one of many combinations we use where the resulting sound can best be described using terms like mass, density, and character.

            In this environment each instrument follows an inner logic that constantly seeks to tune itself to itself and its surroundings.  It is a collaboration without compromise with each element free to fully express its potential as sound.  Fixed pitch instruments with various tuning systems are allowed to rub up against each other while freely pitched instruments negotiate the rich gaps and netherlands between them. The process is additive. Instead of abandonding one system for another we simply use them all and see what can be made of them.


Thingamajigs Pedagogy

            This wide-open approach to tuning features prominently in our programming as an arts organization.  In our educational programs we encourage experimentation with all types of sound combinations and teach Just Intonation principles where appropriate.  There is an emphasis on the interaction between everyday materials and sound, and we use natural and/or re-purposed material whenever possible.  We feel that when people make use of the materials they find around them in their daily lives, when they transform them into a musical instrument, it reconnects them in a visceral way to their environment.  Similar to how  love of surfing led to the creation of the Surfrider Foundation, a coastal environmental watchdog group, increased attention to the characteristics of our sound environment may invite us to take a more critical look at the material conditions of our everday life.

            The act of creating a new musical instrument is also an act of composition.  We encourage people to make the music they would like to hear in the world on instruments that mean something to them personally.  In the process we keep alive an age-old tradition of musicians and common people making and using the tools of music from materials found in their immediate environment.  We take the tuning out of the factory and  place it back into our daily lives.


Dylan Bolles makes performances with people and environments, many of which involve the design and construction of new musical instruments and the cultivation of co-creative relationships based in listening practice. He is co-founder of thingamajigs.org, performs regularly with Thingamajigs Performance Group and received his doctorate in Performance Studies from UCDavis. 

Thingamajigs promotes, presents and performs music created with made and found materials or alternate tuning systems.  Its non-profit mission is to develop and nurture the exploration of alternate materials and methods of creating sound, and promote collaborative efforts with other artistic disciplines not generally associated with festivals of music.




Works Cited

Helmholtz, H. von, 1912. On the sensations of tone as a physiological basis for the theory of music,         Longmans; Green.


Lucier, A., 2002. liner notes for Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra, on Ever Present (CD),             New York:      Mode Records.


Oliveros, P., 2005. Deep listening : a composer's sound practice, New York: iUniverse     Inc.


Palisca, C.V. & Moore, B.C.J., 2011. Consonance, Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online.    Available from: <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/06316>.          [26 Nov.  2011].


Partch, H., 1974. Genesis of a music; an account of a creative work, its roots and its fulfillments, 2d         edn, New York.


Perfect Sound Forever, 2000. Alvin Lucier on 'Music on a Long Thin Wire,' interview by   Jason   Gross. Available from <http://www.furious.com/perfect/ohm/lucier.html>. [30 Nov.          2011].


Tenney, J., 1988.  A History of ‘Consance and Dissonance’, New York: Excelsior Music   Publishing Co..


Trinh, M-H., 1999. Cinema Interval,  New York: Routledge.

[1]   For instance, while strings are unusually amenable to demonstrations of Pythagoras' theories, wind instruments such as the bamboo flute are notoriously variable in their distributions of partials.

[2]   http://www.ubu.com/sound/lucier.html. contains a publically available recording of this work

[3]   Charles Curtis

[4]      e.g. Biogenesis and Songs of Milarepa


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