to Wendy Carlos
Tuning in to Wendy Carlos
by Connor Freff Cochran
you ever meet her, do not tell Wendy Carlos she changed your
life. Even if it's true. Her good honest Rhode Islander
reserve won't let her stand still to enjoy your equally good
and honest compliment: instead it'll be duck and run, and
miss the point, and let' s talk about anything else, shall
is one of the few people I've met whom I have no qualms
about calling a genius, with all the pluses and minuses
automatically attendant upon the term. Genius is a mixture
of qualities combined in such a way that the genius pulls
things out of the world that are: A) starkly obvious when
you know where to look, and: B) completely hidden until the
genius shows you how to look. Usually by example.
about it. SOB was a step, not an end in itself Wendy was
exploring possibilities. Her point was to conquer a
demanding, finicky, fragile collection of wire and knobs and
patch points called a modular Moog synthesizer,
demonstrating along the way that synthesis and electronic
music were good for real art as well as in-grown academic
exercises. This the record did, making much money for
CBS...a fact CBS executives seem to have misunderstood,
supposing the secret was in Bach and the synth, rather than
the computer. And the computer based instrument. Although
there are still massive hardware problems to solve, largely
in the areas of Controllers (taking one example, how do you
physically play a scale with 31 notes to the octave?), it is
finally possible to up anchor, sail off on the sea of
tuning, and navigate to safe harbor in new countries of
For a long time--since the early '70s--I felt I had to
get away from the compartmentalization of sounds; we had
rich acoustic sounds on one hand and impoverished
synthesizer sounds on the other. The analog synths of the
time, and even the newer digital machines, just didn't have
sophisticated enough control over sound, and the timbres
they produced quickly became very boring--to my ears, at
least. That's the reason for the orchestrational style I
developed from the first record on, in which I jump from
timbre to timbre to timbre so quickly that by slight of hand
it gives the impression of considerably greater timbral
resources than really existed within the instruments.
EM: Limited or no, you got a lot out of that repertoire of sound--
WC: My earlier pieces worked well in spite of the repertoire of available sounds, rather than because of them. So by the late '70s I was trying to find new and different generation techniques, and exploring digital synthesis, when I met Stoney Stockell and Tom Piggott and the folks behind the GDS and Synergy. They wanted me to get involved in their products, and Disney's Tron provided the opportunity. The Synergy looked like the only commercial instrument that would do the kinds of things that I wanted to do, so after Tron I began to learn how, by developing acoustic replicas on it. After doing 300 voices of the orchestra, I'd pretty much tamed the instrument, and decided to record Digital Moonscapes as a way station from the old analog world into what the future promised. It was a way of saying "Hey look, we can get very, very dose to the orchestra now. That's a big step from where we used to be! And with the ambience techniques now possible through digital time-processing and reverberation, you see we've joined the worlds of acoustic and electronic... that's what's possible now, and on the next record we'll see where it can lead."
EM: What about the way you've jettisoned standard scales?
About the time I began the current record Stoney finally
unbuttoned the frequency tables in the Synergy, so I wrote a
bunch of custom control software that made it possible to
retune the instrument. That's something I've wanted to do
for a long time. A digital instrument is a natural for
microtonal tuning because you can be precise to any degree
you need and also repeatable. It's idiotic that Western
music has remained such a slave to a tempering system which
evolved 300 years ago as a satisfactory compromise. We don't
need the compromise anymore. We can begin to work in areas
that up to now have been forbidden because we only had the
equal-tempered scale. Where these steps may lead is anyone's
EM: With all possible timbres, and all possible tunings, where do you begin?
When you're given all possibilities, you're in a worse
position than you were before. It's a perfect way to drown.
In fact, you've really chosen to drown in the middle of a
very large ocean. Several oceans. And there's not even a
floating log nearby; you've discarded all that. But there
just isn't any way art can work outside of a discipline...
Stravinsky's wonderful comment when people asked him how he
felt about working on a ballet with Balanchine, because the
form was rather restrictive, was "I love exact
specifications." That's how it is with all art. It works
best when there are limits. Quite probably my earlier
records were aided greatly by the fact that they were done
while working within very narrow regions of possibility.
EM: And tuning? There's even less to stand on, outside what we're all used to.
WC: I cast my sights: what happens if we move out only into the realm of tunings from other cultures? Cultures like those of Bali, Java, India, Africa, or the Middle East...let's explore what they've found rich for many years. And let's also explore things that are fascinating mathematically, like variations in the overtone series and scales built with different numbers of equal-sized steps in an octave. Let's find what those sound like, doing only a few of them, and use those few as a guide. Everything might be possible hardware wise, but I'm not capable of that, so while I have taken big steps in tuning and timbre they are not the biggest steps imaginable: just the biggest steps I could take while keeping control.
EM: In retrospect, how do you feel about taking these steps?
WC: As I stand here a little bit away from the coastline, the ocean seems far bigger and far more profound than I imagined it could be. It seems to me in hindsight that this was the right thing to do. A wise step. But I didn't know it was wise when I took it; I was just working from instinct. There is no one tuning to the album, no single timbre. Each selection is an essay that explores one or two ideas fairly deeply, rather than a lot of them superficially. I'm like a blind person in a room, poking a long stick in several places to make sure there's an elephant in here, instead of taking a sharp pencil, poking in lots of shallow places, and deciding there's nothing in the room after all.
EM: Did you find yourself having to fight not to think in old, familiar ways?
WC: Constantly. I also found that your conditioning and learning, the things you've developed--your strengths, in other words--can be crippling when you're trying to take new steps, because you keep falling back into habit patterns. Although it's self-conscious, you've got to deliberately break your habit patterns. For example, the last album was totally notated first, written out just like any orchestral composition, and then played. This is an approach I know very well, because of all the Bach records. It's a safe way to work; not much risk. So on this new album I chose to work in a scary way. I composed directly on tape, relying on sketches and improvisations which were edited many, many times and re-improvised and re-edited until they grew into compositions...working that way, things happened that I didn't know how to write down. And I had to hold it all in my memory, which is scary for me because I've always had the same crutch Stravinsky had: he used to say he didn't compose except when he was at the drawing board with the manuscript paper right in front of him.
EM: You mentioned you'd been interested in alternate tunings for a long time. When did you first start?
Oh, way back in my teens, probably from reading some
magazine articles. When I was 16, I bought a piano-tuning
hammer and wedges and began retuning my parent's spinet
piano in all manner of unorthodox tunings, trying to find
out what some of these things I'd read about sounded like
(you couldn't then find records with these things on them).
In college I got involved in musique concrete pieces with
retuned pianos and arbitrarily tuned sine waves and stuff
like that. Nothing very profound. But I got inspired to put
together a series of special reference tapes with a
physicist friend. We had access to several very expensive
audio oscillators in a Brown University laboratory, test
devices worth several thousand dollars, and we'd go in and
tune one to a 440 Hz reference signal broadcast by
short-wave radio station WWV, then tune another against it
until an oscilloscope pattern told us we'd reached the
particular ratio of our choice. Then we'd tape that.
EM: After that?
Well, I readjust about every book on the subject, but
after college it wasn't until 1984 that I started
experimenting with tunings again. I did have other things
going. But when I came back to tuning it was as a gleeful
child in a candy store. After Moonscapes I listened to a lot
of ethnic records, deciding what direction I wanted to take
the new album. I'd sit and try to play along with some of
the different scales, but the equal-tempered scale didn't
fit very well. It was driving me crazy. I tried minor
variations. I even explored quarter-tone scales, but these
were even less musically useful than equal-temperment and
I'm amazed that so many musicians have bothered to explore
EM: What about the other tracks? You've got an African-inspired piece, a gamelan-inspired piece...
WC: In 1983, chasing an eclipse, I spent some time in Bali and fell in love with the place. Had to write music "about" the experience. "Poem For Bali" is in authentic tunings taken from cassette recordings I made and bought when I was there, and also on a few records I've found since. (The tunings aren't based on any textbook descriptions--it turns out there are a lot of discrepancies between what's in print and what's really used.) The piece has ten sections written wholly in several varieties of Pelog (and one Slendro) tunings used by Balinese gamelans. Near the very end is a dance which I turn into a concerto for gamelan with symphony orchestra. That's a stunt that can't be done in real life because of tuning differences, but when you hear it here you'll wish it could be, because it's a really great stunt. The funny thing about gamelans is that their scales sound pretty horrible on our western instruments, but are really damned good scales on theirs. And it isn't because they are somehow quaint savages or primitives who only have five notes--you know, that condescending "hey, maybe someday they'll get to seven" attitude Western music takes-but because they found a way that empirically fits the overtone structure of their instruments. And their tunings work well there. Ours don't. In fact, our pure octave commandment number 1, "though shalt not use anything but 2:1 for an octave"-sounds pretty awful on their instruments. It sounds flat.
EM: If each step of exploration is built on the previous one, I expect the last track you finished must have been pretty unusual. Which one was it?
WC: "Beauty in the Beast." It's sort of a rondo-like form, with two main themes that come round and round again, always in motion. This track could only be written for the electronic medium. It's built on two scales I discovered. One uses 78 cents per step, which is what you get if you split a pure minor third into four equal parts; it happens that if you do that you have virtually perfect triads, but no octaves, creating beautiful harmonies and very exotic melodies, because the steps are so strange. Motion from chord to chord is unlike anything you've ever heard, and yet the arrival points are so perfectly in tune that you know it's something very natural to us, for all its wildness, something distant and strange and yet at home and peaceful. The other scale is derived very much the same way, but from a a perfect fourth broken into four equal steps of about 125 cents, and then splitting each of these in half. We have a hard time describing a split fourth melody because we've never heard that in Western music. But it works! And the track as a whole is kind of a whimsical blending of two different quasi-grotesque ideas in the very best "Ballet Ruse" style.
EM: You actually started dispensing with the octave entirely, then?
After the album was recorded I started exploring tunings
in a more analytical fashion, using the Hewlett-Packard 9825
and some programs I wrote to plot the "fit" of different
intervals as you change the number or size of equal steps in
an octave. Twelve steps in an octave happens to hit the
fifth well, as we know. It doesn't do as good a job on the
thirds; sixths are a little better. The next good fit occurs
as we move on to 15 steps. That one actually misses the
fifth, the third, and the minor third by being a little too
small, but it is also equally a little too large for the
fourths and the sixths .... not bad, but kind of equally out
all the way around.
EM: What about Gamma? Worked with that one yet?
WC: No, I'm waiting for Stoney to get me a way to play more than 12 notes meaningfully at one time. Gamma has something like 34.5 steps per octave, and arranged on a normal keyboard even someone with huge hands simply couldn't physically span more than a third. A fourth would be out of the question.
EM: Of course, these things can always be explored with multi-track recording.
For final performances, sure! But for composing and gaining
familiarity it isn't an easy way to work. I'm a composer who
very much believes in the Debussy dictum: "do whatever
please the ear, and the rules be damned." There have been a
lot of proposed tuning variations in the last 200 years,
different kinds of keyboards and controllers, but nothing
has actually changed. The number of people using any of
these alternative systems has always been appallingly small.
The feedback I'm getting now suggests that a sizable number
of people are getting interested in alternative tunings, but
will a real majority adopt it? Probably not.
EM: Sequencers would be ideal for just slinging experiments around, for editing later.
WC: Even so, I find I like the idea of not having anything stored rigidly, because as I move from tuning to tuning the way the melody wants to move is different for me. It's less interesting to take some existing tune and move it around from one temperament to another. That might be useful as an exercise, as an etude, as a quick way of getting some results out. But I think that if you're going to really explore the depth of these things, you've got to allow the implications of the particular tuning to steer you. You can't be dogmatic. You can't go in with preconceptions, or you'll just be overlooking the true beauty and power of the particular scale.
EM: What about the next generation of instrument technology? Could it knock down enough barriers to attract a lot of people to new tunings?
WC: It might. If the manufacturers get feedback from people who want to cut with their cutting edges, instead of sloughing. Me, I'm very impatient. I'm discovering how different timbres demand different tunings, such as the Balinese examples. You can put together any kind of sound and hear what sorts of tuning it cries out for (literally). In this arena, tuning and timbre are really kind of the same thing: overlapping and combining overtones in a pleasing way. It's a very exciting place to be, but also very frustrating, because the support hardware, new keyboards and the rest, are not at all in place and it will require the expenditure of much time and money to get there.
EM: You are on the way, though.
WC: If, as it often seems, everybody else wants to waste these new tools doing diatonic new age equal-tempered tunes and triads, fine. Let them. But before I die I want to find out what lies beyond all these new horizons. And I'm doing it for the best motive in the world: I'm curious.
(Freff lives in Brooklyn with three friends, three cats, seven computers, and a recording studio. Aside from drowning in article deadlines, he writes documentation for synths and software, is the American reporter for a BBC show about computers, and is working on various book and record projects.)
1999-2007 Connor Cochran, Electronic Musician and Serendip
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