If It Sounds Good, It Is Good: an interview with Micropangea composer Brendan Byrnes

Composer, guitarist, and recent CalArts alum Brendan Byrnes stopped by to talk about his debut album, synesthesia, boutique netlabels, and Katy Perry.
 


So, first things first. It’s called Micropangea.

It is called Micropangea.

You are Brendan Byrnes.

Yes.

It’s got 8 tracks. Is Fever Swimmer the only live track?

Yes.

But there are live elements on most of the other tracks.

Yeah, live drums and guitars.

Michael Day did most of the drums and percussion, right?

And one guy named Mike Horrick, who’s a drummer in LA I lived with in Chicago. He listened to that song on the drive up and just nailed it in a couple takes. He wants to be a session drummer. He’s that kind of guy. He’s in a lot of bands, and we’ve done things in the past.

A lot of people at CalArts are doing just intonation and alternate tunings because of Wolfgang. You took his class I’m guessing?

I did. I took the intonation course both semesters, and I studied with him privately.

How much influence would you say he had? Did he give you, like, scales to use?

No, honestly, Wolfgang and I treat microtonality a bit differently. And he’s kind of come from the line of great German composers. He maybe sees himself in that lineage. So he’s writing for instruments that don’t have fixed pitch. And when you’re dealing with instruments where the player can actually tune on the fly really easily, JI is pretty much the only way you can go. You can tune just intervals because there’s a moment of quietness that you get with just intervals. They stop beating, stop sounding out of tune in a sense. My approach is more based on scales, having a fixed set of notes that I use that are weird, and they might be just or they might be tempered, it depends. But I have it laid out on a guitar or a keyboard or at least conceptually. He’s more about the infinite pitch spectrum, but dealing with that with a limited range of prime limits. Have you heard of prime limits?

No, what’s that?

Prime limit is basically… you’ll often hear a 7-limit, or a 13-limit or 11-limit, and the number corresponds to the partial in the harmonic series. So if you’re dealing with 7-limit, that means you’ll have the natural 7th in play, and that against other intervals will be a 7-limit interval. If you have 11-limit, you’re using that quarter tone that’s between the 4th and augmented 4th, so that expands your harmonic space.

So, when you talk about that with his way of composition, that’s a lot more, “Okay, we’re gonna have an orchestra, and you guys all play like 32 cents down here, and 17 cents up here.” Is that what you’re talking about?

Yes.

Whereas you tune the instruments to a scale, and have everybody play the scales you’ve put together beforehand.

Yeah, in a sense. And on the album I’m mostly dealing with synthesizers, so I have a fixed pitch then. But I do intend to bring this into the live realm, and retune pianos and re-fret guitars, that kind of thing. So the pitches are given, and that allows you to use different scales, like different divisions of the octave. Which all have their own character, sort of a color palette, which I find really interesting.

For example, is it Zibra Island that has the non-repeating octave thing?

Non-octave scale, yeah.

To me, that was the scale that sounded the most crazy. Plus you have these rising motions on that one, so no matter what, at some point, it’s just going to sound crazy out of tune.

Yeah, it just never shows up again, and as a composer you’re like, “What the fuck? Where’s my octave?”

When you’re composing with that, is there a tonic that you’re using? Are there base frequencies that you go back to?

With this particular piece, that scale, no. Sometimes there’s close octaves, they might be out of tune, and sometimes you can fake it, but sometimes you have nothing available to you. So it does shape the way your composition is going to go. But there is a pretty popular scale called the Bohlen-Pierce scale which is 13 equal divisions of a perfect 12th, which is an octave plus a fifth. So instead of, in JI terms an octave is 2:1, a perfect 12th is 3:1. It’s the next most consonant interval, so if you give that equivalence and divide that up, you’re making a fifth plus octave. So in that kind of a scale there is a base to stand on. But in this scale it was just wacky.

Are you a Logic guy?

Yes.

And are there a lot of soft synths that you had a keyboard attached to?

Yeah, I used a MIDI controller pretty extensively, and I used this program called Lil’ Miss Scale Oven.

Everybody I know who took Wolfgang’s class, all they ever wrote in was intonation and crazy scales. It’s like hacking your brain. Someone told me Wolfgang can’t listen to pianos anymore, because they sound out of tune to him.

Yeah, they do. I mean I tune pianos semi-professionally, and… yeah. It’s weird. But at the same time I’m really glad that I do that, because there is something to tempered scales, and beating sounds really beautiful to me. I love 12-tone equal tempered, it’s given us hundreds of years of awesome music. It’s a great scale. And JI, it’s like new consonances, kind of like a beatless sound, and that’s cool, but JI music always sounds like JI music. Which isn’t a bad thing.

Does it feel like a movement to you? We can do it more easily now with computers, whereas before we really couldn’t, or it was really difficult to get performed. So do you think it’s going to catch on?

Well, I’ve done a lot of research online and joined various chat groups. There’s a big group on Facebook called Xenharmonic Alliance. It seems to be growing, and it seems that there’s more and more music coming out, and there’s more and more people getting interested in it, I think in large part because it’s so much easier to retune things now. There’s a program called Scala which is free and people are using it… In the year or two that I’ve been paying attention to it, it seems to have been growing, and people seem to be more enthusiastic. Maybe I’m biased because I’m at CalArts and there’s a bunch of people into it, and there’s classes on it and it seems very natural at this point.

But all around the world… There’s this guy Toby Twining, who’s a composer in New York, he just wrote a massive work for choir that’s all JI. It’s heavy, it’s amazing. It’s one of the more important works that I’ve heard for the 21st century. So it seems to be catching on. And I think when people hear it, even if they don’t know it’s microtonal, it has that thing where it’s like, “Oh, it sounds kinda different, what’s going on there?” So for that reason alone I think it could catch on.

You said you wanted to move in a direction of performing it live. Are you going to do a guitar choir, or a band?

I think it’s going to be an ensemble with at least a few guitars. I recently just got a junkie piano and retuned it to just intonation. So, I can’t carry a piano around, but I’m starting to move toward acoustic instruments and get out of synth land.

Which I think is good.

I think it’ll translate.

And you sang too, right?

Yeah, I sang a little bit on one song, Vacant City.

Talk about the process of writing lyrics and singing for a microtonal JI track.

You know it was a lot easier than you might imagine. I mean, you would understand, as a member of a choir, you just adjust. And I’m singing in what is considered 5-limit, which means I’m not singing quarter tones. I’m essentially singing in a mean tone, or 12-tone equal tempered system, it’s kind of the same range. So I’m using familiar intervals, major 3rds and minor 7ths and all that stuff, and adjusting depending on the harmony. It took me a while to really find where I wanted it to be, but I’m not singing crazy quarter tones.

It was more like the leaps I feel, and there were a couple times, like the line “there’s no sound in the air”.

Yeah, like that half step is small, that kind of thing.

Did you do that all in one take?

No, I had the demo in my car a bunch, and I just sort of worked on it.

And just did it intuitively.

It was intuitive, yes. I didn’t have a synthesizer where I was checking stuff. If it sounds good, it is good.

And you said that you use guitars that combine together and make the scale, because they hocket together or something?

Oh, on the last track. So that’s in 17-EDO, which is 17 equal divisions of the octave. I tuned six guitars to that scale. In 17-EDO the fifth is 705 cents, so that means 4ths are good, octaves, and 5ths are good. So on a guitar you just play 5th frets, and fret 12, 17, 19. So that was the only thing the players could play. But each guitar was in a different tuning system so I could cover the whole ground. I had a keyboard with stickers on it to make sure I could get all the notes, and then wrote essentially one guitar part, just played between a bunch of guitars.

This is a concept album too. There was one really cool description on the site talking about the colors that you see.

Yeah, I have synesthesia a little bit. It helps me compose and that’s how I experience music. Songs or albums to me have a definite color scheme and I can’t change that in my brain. I guess it’s useful in a minor degree, but it’s more or less just kinda fun.

Did you talk to the website designer about the colors?

Yeah, I gave her a color scheme and described the locations that I had in mind when composing for it, and she totally took it in her own direction. It was just, “Here’s the very basic bare bones information, do what you will.” She did an amazing job. It’s her own work of art.

You’re graduated with a Master’s now. I’m curious about the practical side of doing music like this. Obviously this isn’t trying to be the next Top 40. It’s a passion for you.

Exactly.

So, especially for people interested in doing this kind of music, what would your advice to them be?

Well, my advice would be to completely ignore your theory from the get go, and tune your keyboard, or your instrument or whatever you got to something fucked up and try to make some music with it. And then, once you do… I mean that’s what clicked for me. Honestly, I took Wolfgang’s class for a year and just sat there and took it. It was like, “Wow, that’s far out.” But it wasn’t until the summer that I had time to retune my keyboard, and as soon as I got an idea working a lightbulb went off. And that’s when I dove into real research.

When you would do a new tuning, how much did you know going into it? Or would you just fuck around?

Well, I had Harry Partch’s Genesis Of A Music, and in the back he has an appendix of all the JI intervals he has on his chromelodeon and the set values. So I made a copy of that and put it on my wall in front of my workspace. And I was like, “I wonder what that interval sounds like?” And I would tune it to that and listen and go, “Whoa, that’s weird, I’m gonna keep that in the scale,” or “I don’t like that interval,” and construct a scale just to try the intervals initially. Some of the scales worked as an entity, some of them didn’t, and then I just started writing pieces. Eventually I realized there were all these other temperaments, different divisions of the octave that weren’t possible on a 12-note repeating scale, and that’s when I realized I need to get Lil’ Miss Scale Oven and start hacking into the applications.

Once I did that it was off to the races. I think you need to understand music and theory to a certain extent, but you can really use your ears a lot. I think the important thing that I realized is that there are interval categories that you can’t erase out of your brain, like major 3rds, minor 2nds, stuff like that. But there are other interval categories that we don’t have access to in 12-tone equal temperament, like neutral intervals, that quarter tone that I mentioned, the 11th partial, some argue the natural 7th partial, we just don’t have access to those notes in our scale. But other scales you do, and in different divisions of the octave you get good approximations of those intervals. So, just getting your brain wrapped around those, and using those compositionally… it’s trial and error. There are theory books out there, but, I guess if you have the right type of brain you could go that route. That’s cool, but for me, I just made music with it and tried to understand it.

What are some intervals that you’re particularly fond of?

Well, I think when you’re first starting, the 11/8, that’s the clincher for most people. The 11/8 is that quarter tone between the 4th and the augmented 4th. Because when you hear that as a consonance, and it’s a note you haven’t heard before, and it’s an interval category you haven’t heard before… it’s not a fourth, it’s not a tritone, it’s like this weird thing, and that it sounds beautiful… that is pretty cool. And notes based off of that are neutral intervals. Because it’s a quarter tone, you get a neutral seventh, which is between a minor 7th and a major 7th, but it’s consonant. There’s neutral 2nds which I think are really beautiful. I guess I’m just really into neutral intervals.

All of these tracks are either in 4 or 3 time, aren’t they?

Yeah, there’s not very much odd meter at all.

Was that a conscious decision, or more because you had that intuitive approach?

I love 4/4, I love 3/4, I love 6/8… I mean I love odd meter stuff too, but to me there was enough craziness going on, I didn’t want to get any more confusing than I already was. And I wanted to make something very listenable, not pop music, but something very melodic, very simple structures, just to make it more listenable for myself and for listeners too.

Some people might say you’re crazy for making a listenable microtonal album.

I mean… Yes. I do consider my audience, but at the same time I think people’s ears are pretty open nowadays. So many people listen to hip hop, especially early hip hop, some of that stuff is so noisy and dissonant and weird, then you put a groove over it and it feels great. So there’s some of that approach in the album. And I mean honestly, I love really shitty pop.

Like what? What’s your kind of shitty pop?

There’s a Katy Perry song out there, I think it’s called Wide Awake? It’s fucking incredible. Maybe because I’m a production nerd.

I’m totally the same way. Every once in a while Kanye will come out with a track and I’m like, “Oh fuck it, I love this song.”

Oh yeah. Totally. You hate yourself for a minute, and then you’re like, “No, this is great!”

Have you been getting reactions to this from people? I’m sure it’s been pretty positive.

Yeah, it’s been really positive. People have said, and I’ve heard this a number of times, that it’s taken a little bit of time to sink in to the weirdness of the tunings. But it hasn’t taken that much time, and once they’ve sunk in it feels pretty natural.

Time into the album, you mean?

Yeah, and I think into each individual song. But I really focused on melody a lot, so even though it’s instrumental I think it really helps people connect.

Yeah, I think I’ll always be a melodist at heart.

I like melody. I don’t think you can get away from melody, it connects with people. And it helps me connect, and I thought it was really fun to have all these weird-sized intervals. I mean, there’s just so much about tuning, it’s the new thing. You have all these new chords and melodies.

I’m assuming you’re planning on releasing more albums.

Yeah… well, actually that’s not true, I might just release stuff now.

Just individual tracks?

Yeah, I’m on Bandcamp, I have a Soundcloud… Right now I just have works in progress on the Soundcloud.

In the future, do you think you’d have a period where you would narrow it down to one scale or intonation and focus on that for a while?

Um… no. There’s practical reasons, like if I have an ensemble that’s a couple guitars that’s we’ve re-fretted, I can’t just keep buying more guitars and re-fretting them.

Well, not with that attitude.

Touché. But I like the diversity of scales, especially when it comes to different divisions of the octave and non-octave scales. They each have their own personality that I think is really fun to exploit and explore. And yeah, you could stick to one tuning system and discover a whole bunch of stuff, but I like the ability to bounce around. There’s actually a guy who’s on the same label as me who released a record maybe three or four months ago, and it was all in 17-EDO, the whole thing. People have their favorites for different reasons that they approximate consonance really well… I don’t know, maybe at some point it’ll be fun to settle on one and really dive in, but at this point it’s so new to me I just want to see what’s out there.

And all these are different, right? There’s no repeating scale?

No.

Talk about Spectropol, too, what’s the deal with those guys?

It’s awesome. It’s basically one guy. It’s based in Washington, it’s a netlabel, and he releases pretty much whatever he likes. But he likes stuff that’s really hard to categorize, polystyle, really into a vast spectrum of music. Everything on the label… the only thing that it has in common is that it’s outside the mainstream.

How’d you find it?

He found me. I posted something on a microtonal forum and he listened to it, and he listened to my Bandcamp and he was like, “Hey I really like the new microtonal stuff you’re doing! Can you make more and I’ll put it out?”

So cool. And you put up Trillopod right?

Yeah, I think that’s what he heard.

So you’re a pioneer, basically.

Well, I mean, a lot of people have written microtonal music.

You’re so humble.

Well, this stuff actually has a tradition that started with Ives, he was kind of the first, and then there’s Partch, and for like fifty years there were only two or three dudes. Then Lou Harrison and Ben Jonhston. In the eighties there was this guy Ivor Darreg who really started the equal temperament movement.

Now, I don’t think there’s really a celebrity microtonal composer like those guys. You could argue Toby Twining, Wolfgang maybe in some way, there’s Kraig Grady, who’s actually an LA guy but he lives in Australia now, he’s doing a lot of JI scales. Probably the most important musical theorist, at least in terms of microtonality, is Erv Wilson. A documentary just came out about him called Sonic Sky, it’s pretty cool. A lot of people studied with him, I think he lived in Mexico and just taught out of his house. I mean it was all oral tradition. I think he wrote some papers for some people, but it’s basically information that was all just passed on.

He was really big with what are called MOS scales, which stands for “moments of symmetry”. It’s more like a formula that he came up with. You have a generator, the size of the interval that you stack on top of itself to create the scale. So in 12-tone equal temperament the generator is 700 cents, a 5th is 700 cents. A period, which is what you reduce it to, so an octave, and then it has to have two step sizes. So like we have semitones and whole tones and you get all of the intervals from that. Those are the only three requirements. And you can have different MOS scales within different divisions of the octave. He was a really important theorist in that sense.

So yeah, Kraig Grady, Toby Twining… There’s this guy Aron Kallay. He’s a microtonal pianist, and he’s associated with this organization in Chicago called UnTwelve. They’re really great, it’s run by this guy named Aaron Johnson. So there’s little things like that, these little pockets…

Which are expanding.

Which are expanding. Absolutely. And I believe CalArts is one of those places. Which is great.

CalArts is definitely one of those places. I mean, if anything, all this is like an easy way to be different.

Exactly! It helps a lot, really.

Are there scales out there that have never been written in?

Oh yeah. Totally. And you can make your own scale, and put your name on it and throw it up on the Xenharmonic wiki, and that is your scale. It’s like naming stars.

Is there anything else you want to say that we haven’t touched on about this beautiful work of art that you’ve put out into the world from your soul unto reality?

I hope people listen to it, and I hope people other than microtonalists enjoy it to a certain extent. And if you’re a musician or a composer, try retuning your instruments to something weird and see if you can make something out of it, and you’ll probably be inspired like I was.

 


Listen to the album in its entirety at the amazing Micropangea.com with full explanations of tunings used in each track, designed by Kerstin Larissa Hovland.

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