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Microtonal, just intonation, electronic music software Microtonal, just intonation, electronic music software
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2005-09-20 at 12:00

Alternative Music News

Today I interviewed John Chalmers at his laboratory at (UCSD) Scripps Institute of Oceanography at La Jolla Shores. He is merely looking for life on Mars, looking for anything that might point to carbon. "How ironic, I am at the same laboratory that I was in as a Graduate Student 40 years ago" That was about the time I met John Chalmers, probably at Harry Partch's home, or at some concert. John's microtonal history though goes way back to a music class in John's youth where he was exposed to Julian Carrillo's Preludio a Colon, which was played in a number of Carrillo's fractional tunings ( whole tone, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, ... 1/16). By the way, 1/16th of a whole step equals 96 tones per octave. He then found Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Erv Wilson and therein the West Coast core of microtonalists. I on the other hand floated in by my family being part of Partch's extended family. When Partch moved to Southern California in 1964 or 65, I knew I wanted to be a microtonalist, so I was Partch's assistant and errand boy. I dug it. My mistake was thinking that UCSD would take up the microtonal cause. I heeded Partch's advice, and went in my own direction. I learned the field by starting Interval / a microtonal newsletter a few years after Partch's death.

John related many stories about the living history of our field. I never knew that John was instrumental in bring Partch to UCSD. We talked about John Grayson who set up a microtonal music lecture for John in Seattle in the late 60's. Grayson, also an assistant to Partch, was an instrument maker, and last we heard, still was living in B.C. Canada.

But basically, I wanted to know about Chalmers' work in Tetrachords. His book, Divisions of the Tetrachord, is currently out of print, but offered through Frog Peak Music, a microtonal clearing house, when available. Chalmers is a bio-chemist and used his scientific approach to create the most thorough look into the tetrachord. The tetrachord is the melodic tool to look at scale from the seat of Western music, Ancient Greece, to music around the world, right up to the present day. Chalmers also identified moments of symmetry (MOS), as a tool to use in tetrachord studies.

Recently, John has been introduced to Tonalsoft and Tonescape. He agreed with me that the electronic music software Tonescape, finally gives any composer or theorist a handle to approach microtonality. Not just a handle, but a steering wheel to drive you across the terrain. Even the non-microtonalist can use Tonescape to compose with, and use the vector-lattice approach to understand scale generation. Work is progressing, with release date planned for late 2005, and we are always looking for people to demonstrate to.

I thoroughly enjoyed the interview with John Chalmers and the walk down memory lane. The edited interview will be available in two weeks.