After writing about Jon Hassell’s “coffee coloured” global music of the future, I was intrigued to find out that Timothy Morton, author of “Ecology Without Nature,” has been writing about the ecological implications (or something like it) of Just Intonation versus Equal Temperament.
For those unaware of the fine details of musical tuning, Just Intonation is what’s considered to be a more “natural” tuning system (based on natural harmonics) than the one we’ve gotten used to after a few hundred years of piano-dominated equal temperament. The latter mathematically divides the scale into twelve equal parts (semi-tones) and then strings them into melodies and weaves them into harmonies. But those notes are found nowhere in nature; in fact, JI aficionados argue, it takes seriously detuned ears (like ours) to hear equal-tempered music – which describes most of what passes for music on radios and iPods today – as if it were normal.
In “Ecru and beige versus magenta and blue sound”, Morton argues that Equal Temperament, typified by the piano, “hard-wires” a certain way of listening which itself “reifies inner space” into a kind of permanent “brown” – the “metastasized cancer of the bourgeois ego.” When minimalists like La Monte Young and Terry Riley started messing with this tuning in the early 1960s, they literally “opened up the non-reified spaces within.”
My favorite quote:
“With just intonation you can’t do narrative, because the keys are radically different—there’s no brown world anymore, no general background against which the sounds make sense. So you’re stuck with pure beginning—which I call aperture—the feeling of ‘is this the beginning?’ or ‘have we started yet?’ Aperture, openness.”
(I’ve been dabbling with Just Intonation and related alternate-tuning systems in some of my own recent music. See Pluto Descends for a few samples.)
It’s all a bit more complex than that, of course, as I suspect Morton would admit. Tuning systems, as all music, work on us at a certain neurophysiological level, but also through levels of cultural entrainment of our bodies, bodyminds (which are rhythmic and melodic instruments), and the spaces between them. Simply listening to Just Intonation, even for hours on end, doesn’t retrain or “renaturalize” them any more than reading Thoreau brings us back to nature, or even to mid-nineteenth century New England with its factories, towns, fields, and forests. But it adds a certain counter-oscillation to the rhythms and sonorities that already fill the space around us.