Generations/Conversations: Gayle Young Part 2

January 10, 2019

By Camille Kiku Belair

This is the second excerpt in a six-part series that explores Gayle Young’s musical practice, drawn from the interview that took place with Camille Kiku Belair on December 14th, 2017 at the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto.

In our first installment we learned about Gayle’s burgeoning interest in the practical and speculative qualities of music. In the mid-1970s as a music student at York University Gayle Young began constructing a microtonal percussion instrument she later named Columbine (after a wildflower). She chose pitches based on just intonation ratios (fractions) using only multiples of 2, 3 and 5, and designed a notation system using coloured shapes. In January 1978 at the Music Gallery she presented the first of many concerts featuring this instrument in combination with voice, violin, and a psaltery played by composer Larry Polansky. The Columbine has 63 steel tubes, covering almost three octaves with 23 pitches per octave.

Foundational Artistic Ideas

Camille Belair: One of the aspects of your work that I find very interesting is the exploration of grey areas such as those in between pitches. It seems that your music focuses primarily on frequency over time rather than other musical elements such as rhythm. I was wondering why that was.

Gayle Young: Well, both frequency and rhythm take place in time, it’s just a different scale of time. After my earlier research on cultural changes in Europe during the “scientific revolution,” I speculated that music written then may have reflected those changes. And what were they? There was a huge increase in knowledge after the development of measurement devices - you could measure everything! Even the numerical frequency of a sounding tone. Factual knowledge increased dramatically, and the general overview of things may have become simplified in some ways, maybe because it was much easier to label and categorize. Not just in music. Categorization expanded our ability to perceive difference, for instance many new species were identified in biology, all based on contrast and difference.

One of the ways I described it in my academic work was an emphasis on quantity rather than quality, but in reality today, I don’t know what quality is. I know that we can measure tone quality: we can measure frequency bands and determine why one voice sounds different from another by identifying different format frequency bands. We can measure quality in music, in that sense, but there is another level of quality that lies beyond measurement. It’s mysterious. I don’t know what it is, or how to describe it in words.

At the time I was researching this I was mostly thinking about the European reliance on contrast in music. I thought the simplified harmonic system of the V-I cadence artificially encouraged a perception of music in terms of opposing pairs: dissonance/consonance, combined with high/low, fast/show, loud/quiet, etc. This makes music a less complex, less nuanced, experience because you could label the contrasts as they went by.

I’m radically oversimplifying this, but if you look harmonically at a piece that moves from V to I and I to V, when it gets back to the I, the tonic, everything is okay, everyone can go home feeling comfortable because the world has been resolved. The word “resolved” is also used in harmony, resolving the dichotomy between the V and the I, but there’s a lot in between. That was why I am interested in alternative pitch organizations: to explore what lies in between. My habits of perception aren’t that different from anyone else’s. I still hear all the major/minor, V/I that everyone else does. But I like to also elucidate the possibilities of a continuum between extremes rather than go back and forth from one to the other. To hear the less-defined in-between sounds, that might form a connection between the easily-labelled extremes.

CB: What place has research had in your life and creative process?

GY: Well I enjoy it! An easy answer would be that research allows me to find patterns in things that seem random. I’ve been playing a lithophone with found stones for example: their pitches are definitely random, not just from stone to stone but within each stone, so I listen and see if there are any patterns. If there are, maybe I can find another stone that matches one of the frequencies. In future I may do some spectral analysis to identify more patterns.

One way I identify pattern in the apparently random is to draw charts. I’ve done some pieces with the 97-tone piano that Bruce Mather makes available at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal and it has a lot of notes in every octave. There are eight notes for every standard piano note, each separated by 12.5 cents. As a listener who doesn’t have a strong relationship with the 12.5 cent interval, I looked for patterns in that pitch set. The instrument looks like a eight-octave apartment-size piano, but it has only one octave. I get ‘pitch vertigo’ when I first play it, because my expectations as a pianist don’t match what I hear. I found patterns of intervals close to some just intonation ratios, and composed with those.

One octave of the Columbine (a metal percussion instrument created by Gayle) showing the frequency ratios at the top and the noteheads at the bottom. Each colour is a transposition of the same just scale. The circles, drawn with one line, are the tonics; the semicircles, drawn with two lines, are seconds; the triangles are major and minor thirds; the squares are fourth and fifths.

The coloured shapes are the noteheads shown in the notation. The note at the left is shown as a middle C on a five-line staff, as either a blue circle or a red triangle. The nearest notes in 12-tone equal temperament are shown at the top, then the noteheads, with many notes in all three transpositions, then the frequency ratios and the frequencies.

CB: It seems like your pieces are often presentations of what you’ve been working on.

GY: Yes!

CB: When did you first find out about microtonal music? How did the possibility of building your own instruments come about?

GY: It was in my first year in a musicianship class, fall 1974, Our prof, Bob Whitmer, pointed out that the natural overtone series does not match the tuning of the piano. I thought that was very interesting - I think he was talking about trumpets at the time. So I started to explore it. It was around that time that a film came out about Harry Partch, and I saw that film.

In my last year, in David Rosenboom’s composition class, we studied Harry Partch and Iannis Xenakis. I studied their work in quite a bit of detail, and the problem I had with the Partch in particular, but also with Xenakis, was that it is so complex that you can’t really hear what’s going on. That was my initial impetus to build the metal percussion instrument, Columbine: so I could hear what was going on. At that point I didn’t even know if it mattered, or if I could hear the difference. What if you switch from a C major chord where the fifth is perfectly tuned to a D major chord where it’s not perfectly tuned? Could you tell the difference? I’ve concluded that you can’t tell the difference if the sound is not sustained long enough.

CB: Is that why a lot of your music tends to be slow?

GY: Yes, because if it’s played quickly it becomes textural and you can’t hear the harmony.

This photo shows the Columbine as seen from above.

CB: You are very invested in having the clarity of pitch, so is that why the first pieces you wrote for your instruments - the Amaranth and Columbine - are solo pieces?

GY: Yes! The sound that Harry Partch produces cannot be reproduced with another tuning system - or different instruments - it’s a very distinct sound, but I couldn’t figure out why. That’s why I’m interested in starting from scratch. I used to develop a new tuning for each piece, building a new world of possibility each time. Then I reminded myself, most traditional tunings can support a few thousand compositions, and now I am re-visiting some of this material.

Check the community page on the CMC site regularly to catch the remaining instalments of this interview.