Thursday, 9 June 2011

Enharmonics, are you out there?

Bosanquet's Enharmonic Harmonium

I'd love to hear from any musician (especially violins players) who could send me recordings - in context - of the difference enharmonically between Gb/F# (and of course other possible notes). In a dinner table discussion last night a friend mentioned that violinists differentiate between the sharps and flats. That surprised me, although of course I have to agree that technically this is the case, and that the reason why it's not standard thinking is due in part to the introduction of the well tempered scale.

I would also suggest that if this really is the case I'm surprised that more composers don't spend more time writing Gb(') or F#(') to define the difference. The same thing should be applied to ALL notes as there is in this case an enharmonic difference between all notes. I of course quickly checked this with a few professional violin players whom said there WAS a difference, although some seemed unsure of whether they used it or not, others seemed quite sure. A saxophonist friend of mine also suggested that we probably also played that way. However talk is one thing and I'd be interested to hear a piece played with and without those differences. If anybody out there has some real practical experience of this I'd be most interested to hear from them, especially if we could add in some musical examples!

Delegates at the 1932 Arabic Music Conference in Cairo. 

After having spent several years playing Arabic classical music my experience is that many players 'believe' in the difference yet cannot consistently play 'it/them'. The Arabic music system has smaller intervals of a quarter tone built into it, yet the conference of Cairo 1932 could not agree on these differences (intervals/pitches) which is interesting for a music which uses 1/4 tones (on a daily basis). Reading the notes taken from the conference it seems that many musicians were not able to agree on the exact difference, however most could agree on perfect intervals such as the 3rd, 4th and 5th. The Azerbaijany musicologist Jahangir Selimkhanov once told me, that due to the development of European systems, Azerbaijan had started to loose all notions of smaller divisions which normally applied to the Persian scale (Mugham) systems*. 

Meanwhile back at Enharmonics again ......

A normal enharmonic keyboard only has 17 keys as it adds two notes each time for C#/Db, D#/Eb etc. However, it seems that the difference doesn't count, as I understand it, between B and C, although I'm not sure why. Apparently the first example of a keyboard purpose built for this enharmonic system was Nicolas Vicentino (1511-?1575). He actually built a keyboard which had 36 keys per octave, the problem being that you need to double the C# key and have both C# and Db, etc. I notice that various other people built systems with 77 keys for 4 octaves, which by my calculation makes 19.25 keys per octave? Curiously, I wondered if people had actually gone further with this idea, and it seems that a certain Friedrich Suppig published in 1722, one of the definitive works for an instrument with an enharmonic keyboard. The Fantasia of the Labyrinthus Musicus, a multi-sectional composition that makes use of all 24 keys (like Bach), and is written especially for a keyboard with 31 notes per octave and uses pure major thirds - which probably starts to get into the difference between E# and F. I couldn't find a recording of what must be  a fascinating work, however, I did find an interesting article here written by John Charles Francis. If you're interested, the document is freely download-able and is certainly a fascinating read.

Enharmonics are not unique to classical music, folk music, and general popular song (meaning songs we sing to ourselves - children's songs as an example) all have this element, although intuitively used. In previous centuries, one major problem, whilst collecting examples of folk melodies, meant that 'trained' musicians assumed (wrongly) that slight inflections such as enharmonic differences, where in fact due to poor voices, often transcribing melodies into a 'well tempered' system. Gradually collectors and other musicians realised that these inflections were in fact an important part of the music. Composers, Bartok and Vaughan Williams, spent many hours collecting and transcribing such music, although whether they kept those exact pitches in the newly composed material that came from such work I'm not sure. Nowadays folk societies like the Cecil Sharp House, house large collections of field recordings of singers and instrumentalists from previous eras, where musicians spend hours copying exactly each different pitch change.

As a musician (and conservatory educated) I'm certainly interested in the idea of enharmonics and their implications, although I remain sceptical that classical musicians 'naturally' play that way, unless of course you actually ask it to be used - i.e. as in micro-tonal composition. My instrument, the saxophone, is not in tune (well tempered), and learning to play in tune is one of the first things one does. It is certainly difficult to forget your natural sense of pitch, which in my case seems to be a slightly sharper sound, and it is probably this natural enharmonic pitching which enables true musicians to have an individual voice. A good example of this could be Jackie McLean, known for his slightly 'out of tune' sound. But, when playing in an ensemble situation, he blended perfectly. It takes many years of embouchure training to keep the sax in pitch with other instruments, and I often find that the ear makes you play certain notes flatter or sharper in various situations. Whilst playing with other people you of course have to make adjustments to their sense of pitch, even if many of those musicians pride themselves on being 'in tune'. Interestingly, Ornette Coleman once remarked, quite correctly, that he wondered who had decided what was in tune and what was out of tune.

At this present time I'm working on solo saxophone improvisations which include different pitch bends and overtones, which are rarely exact pitches. In overtone chords certain notes are often 1 ' (comma) sharper/flatter, although it's difficult to determine exact pitches. However, after last nights discussion as mentioned above I'll be all the more intrigued to pay attention to the enharmonic possibilities and also be keeping my eyes open for recordings that use this in a traditional context.

Lastly, the image at the top of this article is a Harmonium developed by Bosanquet, an English scientist and musicologist who was interested in this idea. He developed (see the link above) a harmonium that actually played the enharmonic system. Yet, if I understand correctly, he had to make a few compromises to fit the idea into his keyboard. He also wrote a treatise (1875?) on musical intervals and temperament which I believe is still available, if you're interested.

*= I'll try to get some sort of verification of that from him in the next few weeks, maybe a guest post.

Postscript : I found this book which would certainly be a good read : 

Enharmonic instruments and music, 1470-1900. 
Revised and translated studies. CD included. 
Latina, Il Levante Libreria Editrice, 2008. 
ISBN 978-88-95203-14-0 

The link for the site is here

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