Generations/Conversations: Gayle Young Part 4

March 4, 2019

This is the fourth 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 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 the numbers 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 61 steel tubes, covering almost three octaves with 23 pitches per octave.

Notation, Installations, and Found Objects

Camille Belair: Something that we haven’t talked about yet is your use of notation. The notation systems you created for your music changed from being comparatively detailed to more free. Did this depend on whether the performer was interested in developing a more free interpretation?

Gayle Young: Yes, I wrote with a lot of detail at first - it wasn’t new complexity by any means - but it also wasn’t standard notation. With the Columbine I used coloured and shaped note heads. That was fairly complex - but I played those pieces myself. For the ensemble I used to have I wrote in such a way that the voices had a cue from my instrument about what note to sing. We could use my instrument as kind of a reference through playing it. But when I played my pieces solo, if I had an idea about something else I could do when performing, I just did it. I gave myself a lot of freedom when I played my own music, and I began to realize that other musicians might enjoy that same kind of latitude. So I began writing pieces with more graphic notation, and eventually I wrote pieces that were built on texts that I wrote.

CB: I’ve seen the score for one of those pieces, where there is text written under the staff just for the performer to see. It created the rhythmic flow of the piece based on how you would read it out loud. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

GY: I would use the pitch curve of the spoken text - the intonation - when writing the notes, and that curve would show the phrasing. The scores are not specific about the rhythm, and the overall phrasing is shown in the shape - the melodic contour. The rhythm develops from the way the musician hears the words in the text.


An excerpt from the score for As Trees Grow written by Gayle Young, depicting the use of text to suggest phrasing, melodic contour, and rhythm.

Click to watch a performance of Gayle Young's As Trees Grow by Xenia Pestova, solo piano with electronics, premiered at Café Oto, London, February 2017.

CB: I was wondering… You’re looking mainly at frequency in a very detailed manner, but you’re also interested in how that relates to time?

GY: Frequency unfolds over time, so if I start with one group of frequencies, they would shift to the next group over a period of time. All the vibrations themselves take place in time - 440 vibrations a second vs 880 per second - it all happens in time. A lot of the time we’re not aware of that. We have ways of describing music like high notes and low notes which are actually fast and slow. The music works whether we think about it accurately or not. Our language use distracts us from what’s really happening on that level, but in the actual perception I don’t think it matters. Something else takes over.

CB: How does managing frequency relate to how you use samples of recorded sounds from the natural world? Do you have a similar process?

GY: In the mid-90s I did installation pieces with measured resonators that I placed over noise sources. I discovered that if you take a fifteen-foot hollow object and hold it over a road as a car passes, or near a railroad or a river or a waterfall, it brings up - actually creates - lots of interesting overtones related to the fundamental pitch of the resonator: in this case, a fifteen-foot wave length. Each length has its own fundamental pitch, and it will pick up the sound of a car and change it by filtering out the elements of noise that don’t fit its length - it’s not that different from a flute, really.

First this was an installation where people would go up to an assembly of resonators, and actually put their ears against the open ends. There were different lengths of tubing, all in lengths related to just intonation pitch ratios, so you could make your own melody by moving from one opening to another. A few years after that I started to record the tubes in different locations. My piece Fissure in 2002 used lots of resonators to record in three different sound environments. I still do pieces based on this - it’s a bit like having an instrument that you can only use as a source for recorded sound that is then amplified. It’s too quiet on its own.

CB: Is Castorimba also one of your recent works?

GY: That’s a found objects piece. Yes I enjoy playing with found sound sources. This piece is also related to visual art, the Castorimba is located in an outdoor visual art venue called Fieldwork, about an hour’s drive west of Ottawa. When I canoe past a beaver lodge that’s abandoned (and I’ve got time to explore it) I test the dried sticks for resonance, which sounds like a pitch. Lots of them do resonate! I save the ones that sound good and suspend them like marimba bars. A hole is drilled through the stick at about a quarter of its length. I always test by ear to find where the hole in the stick should be. That’s a node, a place where the bar doesn’t vibrate and you can attach it to a frame at that point without dampening the sound (exactly like I did on the Columbine.) You have to know about the basic acoustics of marimba bars to even test the sticks on a beaver lodge.


Gayle Young pictured gathering and testing dried sticks that would be featured in the Castorimba.


The Castorimba.

Click for a video of the Castorimba, suspended resonant sticks chewed by beavers, installed outdoors at Fieldwork, near Perth Ontario.

I made installations with these “beaver chews” at Fieldwork and also at the Haliburton Forest. Almost concurrently I started picking up and testing stones, also holding them at a quarter of their length to see if they have any resonance, but I haven’t figured out a way to make them into a playable instrument because I haven’t found a way to suspend them. I play them individually as found objects. Jim Harley and I have done some recording where he does live electronics based on the sounds as I play the stones, often with other instruments.

CB: It seems like a lot of your work is about making people aware of sound itself. Even in naming your instruments - the Amaranth and Columbine - there’s still this element of the natural world. Was this always present in your work - your interest in foregrounding sound itself and making people aware of sound in their everyday lives?

GY: I would say so, but I also learned pretty early on that each listener creates their own unique response. The same piece can have many different responses from many different listeners. As composers we have no control over that.

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