The use of microtones in jazz is nothing new. In the '60s, artists such as Don Ellis and Emil Richards, inspired by Indian music, explored intervals smaller than a half-note using instruments such as the quarter-tone trumpet and quarter-tone vibraphone, respectively.
For Berlin-based composer/saxophonist Philipp Gerschlauer, microtonality is the key to unlocking greater expressivity from his instrument and within the music he composes. For example, he can play 128 notes per octave on the alto saxophone using special fingerings he has developed.
Although this level of research is impressive on its own, Gerschlauer puts it into practice in a jazz setting. On the CD Mikrojazz (RareNoise Records), he teamed up with guitarist David Fiuczynski to record a set of microtonally-based music that not only bends the ear but swings its butt off. Within a quintet filled out by keyboardist Giorgi Mikadze, bassist Matthew Garrison, and legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette, the two musicians expertly navigate the unusual tunings as well as the tricky charts, turning in some tasty solos to boot.
But before the band sees the charts, there is a lot of planning that goes into this music. With the aid of virtual instruments and a MIDI controller, Gerschalauer not only figures out the unusual pitch relationships, but looks for ways to make them easier for the other musicians to play.
I spoke with Gerschlauer over Skype about how he develops his melodies and chord changes, which regularly step outside the bounds of 12-tone equal-temperament.
I’m curious about the software you used for this project and the keyboard setups. Giorgi Mikadze plays the keyboard parts, but you program everything yourself, right?
Right. I program it and Giorgi plays it. In order to lay out all these pitches on the keyboard, I started using different software. First it was [Native Instruments] Reaktor and Kontakt, and now I’m using Pianoteq.
It was kind of hard for me to do that and figure out how to get good sounds when you play it in a band context. Now that I have Pianoteq, what I’m basically doing is programming scale files and keyboard maps. That's what I used on this record.
I have used Max/MSP, as well. But I find that the new version of Pianoteq provides so many great features that I can use it without Max. What I do is label every key on the keyboard a certain pitch and then I have different sounds triggered from that.
So, you notate the piano part to fit that tuning each time? That means the keyboardist isn’t necessarily hearing the actual pitch of the key he is pressing, right?
Yes. So, you could play C major, but something completely different comes out. Then I try to find a balance between how it feels for pianists to play that and try to put it in my writing to make it accessible, quickly.
What are the difficulties for Giorgi to solo in that way? Does he have to memorize a visual pattern on the keyboard over what he’s playing?
Yeah, right. He can build his solo just as a regular solo in terms of direction of melody movement. I communicate to him all the pitches he’s playing, visually, so that he can play, say, a pattern that works with thirds, so that these thirds will also sound good when I program them, when I’m composing for it.
I work out the bass guideline and the changes like in a regular jazz context. But I try to make these changes sound kind of familiar to the ear but also in a new way because I arranged the notes differently. Giorgi can just follow his intuition. He did a great job on the record soloing and playing inside the changes. He has a bass line and he could play the changes with his left hand and solo over it in his right hand.
Do any of your tunings have 12 notes per octave?
Yes, I use a lot scales with 12 notes per octave.
So, sometimes he’s playing inside traditional chord and scale shapes, but the equal temperament third, for example, is now going to be different—a just-intonation (JI) third or something.
Yeah, but not JI: I use many, many [tuning] systems. But it’s helpful that the octave, visually, remains as an octave. Sometimes a fifth shifts around: You don’t know where your perfect fifth is, or if it’s still the same. You can do all kinds of tunings.
Sometimes you just don’t want the pianist to know what’s going on and then you write a scale that maybe doesn’t fit into it but which has a conglomerate sound. Let’s say, for instance, the Harry Partch scale. I tried to find conglomerate sounds in Partch's scale for my first composition, “Mr. P,” and try to put chords over it and find out what notes would fit. You have harmonic possibilities to work with that. It’s just like exploring. Sometimes I throw a scale away because it doesn’t work.
Does the keyboardist have to change the scale he's playing within a piece?
Yes. You can program it and use foot pedals. But for this record, I tried to use different scales and just put them on the keyboard controller next to each other. So, let’s say you have different areas on the keyboard and each area is labeled a different scale so that he doesn’t have to push a button or use a foot pedal to change it.
Sometimes I have the bass playing a different scale. You can also do that, as well as with the saxophone and guitar. It’s not just limited to the microtonal keyboard only. But the good thing is if you have to write pitches on the microtonal keyboard then the other players can just pick it up. It’s such a nice way to communicate because it’s much better than saying “You are too sharp” or “You are too flat."
So, they’re listening for cues to the tuning from the keyboard whenever there’s an interval that might be difficult to hear?
Yes. The keyboard controller is setup in some kind of conglomerate scale and the other musicians can tune to the scale. And sometimes they need to double a certain note, and they can hear it in the virtual piano. But they’re also allowed to use different pitches. There is so much more besides what you can put on 12 notes of the microtone keyboard.
The pitches outside of the scales, are they part of the melody or do they happen during the solos?
For me, melody is a real strong thing to work with because you have guitar and saxophone and they can just change and they can play and tune into what the piano’s playing. So, when we play the melodies, sometimes we go a little off. We approach it like a blues player does: You tune with your heart, in the end. You may have all these pitches defined in the language and the theory behind it, but in the moment, I really don’t care if it’s like the exact pitch. It’s just a part of our expression.
How much work is it to keep your fingers in shape to play some of these pieces, considering that each piece is around a different gamut of pitches.
Each piece has different key combinations and that’s how I approach it. I practice a scale, practice it in thirds, play triads, build melodies, and then I get to hear it better and better and can just jump into it... like really into it. It gets better and better as you play all the different key combinations, and you get more used to it.
I was listening to Ornette Coleman the other day. He’s just playing melodies. It’s all compositions, like little tiny pieces. Because you get this deep emotion, you can just play it and it will fit.
When you go into the studio for a record like this and you’ve got David playing the melody parts, how long does it take for the two of you to get really deep into the music?
Not too long. David brought his guitar in quarter-tone tuning and I’m very used to that because I played quarter-tones for a long time and you can really play fast on quarter-tones; the fingerings are great and it’s also easy to mesh because we’re both tone purists. So he brought some tunes and we ran through them and it worked out, like "MiCrOY Tyner," which was the most evolved, like playing double lines and melodies that go through microtones jumping in and out. But it’s fun. It’s also part of the process how you get to learn tuning. But just working on the music from the first moment, we knew the lines and would really get there just by playing it.
So for this album he brought a quarter-tone fretted guitar for those pieces, otherwise he’s playing fretless with the other tunings?
He had his double-neck guitar—one is fretless, the other has a quarter-tone fretboard.
Which Pianoteq virtual keyboards are you using?
I’m using the Fender Rhodes a lot. That’s my basic sound, though I might change it later but it’s where I start because I think the Rhodes from Pianoteq sounds really great. You hear all the overtones and they match with the right sounds. And the Wurlitzer is more or less close to it.
We also used a regular [acoustic] piano sound, a toy piano, and a celesta on one track. So you have lot of possibilities to change and to adjust the sounds. You can basically set every part of the virtual instrument—the hammers and dampers, velocity and all parameters.
Are you saving these as Scala files?
Yes. There is a file to program the keyboard map and program everything. You have to set a keyboard map when you label the keys accordingly. I’m really not much of a computer guy, but I’m always able of figure out what I want to do. And when I think of something, there’s always a way that you can bring it out on the piano.
What was it that inspired your work in microtonal tunings?
Two things. It must have been in the late ‘90s or early 2000’s, I heard a radio broadcast on national public radio in Germany that was about microtonality and was about the connection of the infinite Escher stairs with music, like James Tenney "For Ann Rising." It was totally eye opening and revealing to me because I didn’t know that things like this could exist.
Some years later I listened to a band from Germany called Root 70, featuringNils Wogram, a microtonal trombone player, Hayden Chisholm, microtonal saxophone player, and Matt Penmanand Jochen Rueckert. They were using quarter-tone melodies and quarter-tone improvisation. They didn’t have a harmony instrument, but had three voices with which they were playing jazz—bebop, as well—with really great tunes. The first time I heard their music, I immediately knew I wanted to check [quarter-tones] out. I went home and found out quarter-tone fingerings and composed music with it and evolved to the microtonal keyboard around five years later.
What was it like working with Jack DeJohnette?
He walked into the studio and was just looking at me. And he asked me, “Are you ready…” Whoa. I was like, man, what’s that? What do I say? Jack DeJohnette,in the morning, and he just asks you, “Are you ready?”
Are there plans for a tour?
We recorded the CD and that’s the sound of the record, but I want to bring it onstage. It's really important to me.
There’s so much we all want to work on and can improve within the music. Four days in the studio is great and it clicked immediately. And I really think the record sounds as if we had been on tour with the music, already. There’s so much to work on and I cannot imagine how it’s going to sound if we have the chance to play the music every night.