Solo Trios is the latest offering from microtonal composer and instrument builder Paul Rubenstein. It's an intoxicating collection of pieces each highlighting a different tuning and scale. With the exception of "flat bars", the titles betray the scale used: the number is the number of equal divisions of the octave, an "x" is an interval that's included, an "o" one that's omitted. I asked the New York-based musician about his work.
Bruce Hamilton: You've been making instruments for a while. When did you first get interested in instrument building and what was the first one you made?
Paul Rubenstein: The first instrument I made was an electric guitar with movable frets. Intervals and combinations of intervals convey different moods-- I wanted to have access to more intervals, to have more possibilities of expression. Twelve intervals are more than enough for a given piece, but too few for a lifetime of music-making. I was in college, and was deeply interested in as many different traditions of music as I could find information about and hear recordings of-- I wanted to experience as many ideas of how to organize pitch and time as I could. I wanted to see if there was a common thread, or if knowing about a number of different ways of thinking about these issues would lead to new ways of thinking about them which could also work, and lead to practical results. I was also interested in the physics behind music, and psychoacoustics as well.
BH: How long has your interest in different tunings been aligned with your physical craftsmanship?
PR: These have gone hand-in-hand from the beginning. Making instruments grew out of the need to explore other tunings, and my instruments have always been made with the ability to play different tunings as an essential requirement. The instruments have always been a means to an end. The lack of attention to visual aesthetics and craftsmanship attests to that. The instruments serve a musical purpose. People tend to focus on the instruments, rather than musical content, and that's unfortunate. Some people make instruments for the sake of making instruments, or as sculpture; each of my instruments is made with a particular musical purpose in mind-- to get a new timbre or to be easier to play than an earlier version, or to be more compact and portable, etc. If I get to where I feel I have all I need to make the music I want to make, I'll stop making instruments.
BH: How did you you get involved in microtonal music and what are some of your current interests in the field?
PR: I became interested in microtonal music when I was engineering a radio show at my college station. It was a jazz show, and I spent countless hours in the record library listening to Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, John and Alice Coltrane, Miles Davis, and more... each discovery would lead to more, and I went through the world music section devouring everything there, then going to the (book) music library to find out more. This was in '90 and '91. The frets on the microtonal guitar I made at this time were based on the gut frets of the Turkish saz and Persian setar. At first I was mainly interested in traditional scales, but I found that any set of intervals can lead to interesting results, and that it can be more fun to explore scales that don't immediately call to mind a set of cultural associations. At one point I was really into William Sethares' work on spectral mapping and matching tunings to timbres (and vice-versa) but I've come to the conclusion that finding uses for the dissonances in a given scale with given timbres is more rewarding than smoothing them out to make odd tunings sound "nice". I still have the highest respect for his work-- it's just not the direction I've headed with mine.
I'm currently very much into scales with seven notes to an octave, which repeat at the octave. I'm all for explorations into non-octave scales, and scales with other numbers of notes, but my supposition is that the human brain only recognizes seven types of interval, and every interval is heard as a variation of those seven-- e.g. an interval within a certain range will be heard as a "third", whether major, minor, neutral, whatever-- but still a third of some flavor or other. Chromatic jazz works because (for example) a third or a seventh (in relation to the tonic) still always functions as a third or a seventh, even though you may have both major and minor thirds and major and minor sevenths in the same melodic line. Atonal and serial music never caught on with the general public because it ignored or rebelled against the psychology of music and became something almost entirely intellectual. A number of current microtonalists have continued in this direction, using large numbers of intervals in a piece. Maybe they'll hit on something that transcends the psychological factors and redefines music, but so far, this approach is not for me.
A lot of microtonalists concern themselves with finding scales that approximate just intonation, or directly use just intonation. I have no problem with that, but it doesn't particularly interest me. The human brain becomes "hard-wired" at a certain point in development to hear the local tuning system as "in tune" and everything else as "out-of-tune". If you are brought up in an environment where 12 equal is the norm, then just intonation will sound out of tune, no matter how "pure" the intervals are. The hard wiring turns out to be more malleable than it was thought to be, in my experience-- it's possible to open one's mind to where you can hear any scale as proper, within the context of a piece. Hopefully someday that will be the norm-- "in tune" and "out-of-tune" will be defined entirely by context, because people will be exposed to many different tunings and their listening skills will be more sophisticated. I think this is already the case among people who are serious music listeners.
Some current microtonal composers I've enjoyed listening to lately are Dan Stearns, Jacky Ligon, Neil Haverstick (he played at my wedding), XJ Scott, Chris Vaisvil, Carlo Serafini, Igliashon Jones and I'm probably forgetting a few others.
BH: The pieces on Solo Trios each explore a different scale, yet the album seems generally unified in sound, style, and of course the trio format. There is often an improvisatory but hypnotic feel, as well as what seems like a purposeful rhythmic looseness, a kind of folk setting. It's relaxed but also very serious sounding to me, drawing us into your sound world. Would you describe (some of your) your compositional process(es) for these pieces?
PR: During the time I recorded this work, I was listening a lot to Morton Feldman, particularly his Triadic Memories. This had a strong influence on the sense of time on Solo Trios. His chords and notes seem almost floating in space, as objects-- there's a very different sense of time than in most music. Hearing this for the first time had a profound effect on me. It's very freeing. It's about being aware of the moment and the sound existing in the moment in all its particularness, and happening at the "right time" regardless of any pre-set divisions. On Solo Trios I go back and forth between this sense of time and conventional metric time. I don't think it's in me to be a minimalist, but I see the value in minimalism and welcome it as a tool in the toolbox. One effect of disregarding meter, at least in a section of a piece, is heightened anticipation and awareness, on the part of the listener. It can be fun not to know exactly when the next note is going to come. But it can also be fun, and reassuring, to know sometimes, too. And if you never know, then the sense of anticipation gets stale, and you cease to care. So it's about creating a balance.
BH: You've been a proponent of microtonal music among youth through your teaching in the New York area. Do your students tend to be open to different tunings? Has your experience working with young musicians affected the music you write?
PR: Kids are amazing. Younger kids (elementary school age) are the most open, generally. The more that kids have invested in the 12-equal system, the less open they tend to be. The same thing mainly holds true for adults. With 8, 9 and 10 year-olds, coming up with new microtonal scales and composing pieces is as natural as a fish in water. I think the main influence teaching has had on my music, is recognizing the value of simplicity, and sparseness. A piece can be complex along one dimension, but simple in all others, and have depth and beauty as a result. It's rare that something can really work musically and be complex along multiple dimensions. Bach could do that. Yes and Mahavishnu Orchestra could do that, too. Not too many others.