One of the most notable developments in the composed music of the last decades of the twentieth century is the increasing attention paid by composers to tunings other than conventional twelve-note equal temperament. Now, in our new century, we have reached a situation where intonation, in the words of the late James Tenney, is one “compositional variable” among many others – pitch vocabulary is now a decision to be made from piece to piece rather than a given, and is subject to as much variability as a composer’s approach to rhythm, matters of timbre, texture and density, the approach to form, the use of space, and all other aspects of music.

Scordatura [Ensemble] was formed in 2006 to perform music that explores these expanded pitch resources. We had noticed for some time that several kinds of new music seemed largely to ignore matters of harmony (or, more accurately, seemed uninterested in the new kinds of harmonic relationships made possible by subtleties of tuning) and concentrated instead on other aspects of music-making – rhythm, gesture, sonority, the exploration of technology – sometimes, of course, with very exciting results. Nonetheless it seemed to us there was room for an ensemble that offered an alternative focus.

scordatura is an Italian word that means ‘mistuning’. (We keep hoping someone will suggest a more positive-sounding alternative.) In music it has come to refer to the practice of tuning the open strings of a string instrument to pitches other than the conventional ones. This is occasionally done in classical repertory, and is a practice frequently encountered in folk traditions around the world. In our case we use the word both literally and metaphorically – literally, because several pieces in our repertoire call for viola and keyboard to be tuned differently than normal, and metaphorically, because almost all the music we play uses intervals other than those found in twelve-note equal temperament. Needless to say, we don’t think of this as ‘mistuning’ – rather, the music we play comes from a long-standing interest on the part of composers and performers in alternative tunings.

Much of the music we play involves the use of just intonation as its tuning basis, rather than equal temperament. Several pieces call for the use of natural harmonics on strings, or simulations of them on voice or keyboard, arising from a spectral approach to harmony. Other pieces approach the pitch domain in a deliberately less systematic way, using flexible or approximate pitch materials. The pieces in our repertory that use only the conventional twelve-note chromatic scale are always highly unconventional in terms of their harmonic thinking – sometimes the tempered pitches are used as approximations of just intervals, as for example in much spectral music. Some pieces are audibly microtonal, others less so or not at all. In fact, the term “microtonal music” is not a totally satisfactory description of the music we play, and we only use it as a sort of shorthand and because there isn’t any other simple, readily understood term. The kind of music we are attracted to is music that manifests a more open, experimental attitude to pitch and doesn’t simply assume the piano scale as the norm.

Text by Bob Gilmore

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Amsterdam-based ensemble performing music using new tuning systems and microtonality

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