If you start in middle C on a piano and hit each key on your way up to the next C on the keyboard, you will play each of the 12 notes that make up an octave. These 12 semitones are the foundation of most Western music.
But what if they weren’t? What if the same octave were equally divided into 14 tones, or 16? What if Beethoven had written the Eroica Symphony with a 19-note scale, or Schoenberg had written tone lines with 23? What would their music sound like?
These were the questions that composer Easley Blackwood Jr., a pillar of Chicago’s new music community who died last year, asked in Twelve Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media (1979-80). Composed for a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, each of Blackwood’s “Etudes” showcases the qualities of different, often foreign, microtonal octaves.
It was an effort that took Blackwood, a composer of mostly atonal music, in a strange new direction, said James Ginsburg, founder and president of Cedille Records, which has released recordings of many of Blackwood’s works, including “Etudes “.
“He became so fascinated with tonal writing by writing for other tunings,” Ginsburg recalled, “that after he did that, he suddenly switched gears as a composer and started writing everything tonal.”
Blackwood recorded “Etudes” on a synthesizer, and performing them live on acoustic instruments was practically impossible. But technology has evolved, and a new Cedille recording, “Acoustic Microtonal,” illustrates to stunning effect what this music might sound like if played by a chamber orchestra.
Behind the project is Matthew Sheeran, a 34-year-old British songwriter and frequent collaborator with his brother, pop star Ed Sheeran.
During the pandemic, Matthew arranged Blackwood’s scores into versions for traditional tuning so they could be recorded by 11 members of the Budapest Score Orchestra, each playing in isolation booths to create unique songs that could to log into a computer. Sheeran and Brian Bolger, the mixing engineer, then painstakingly re-scored some 27,000 recorded notes to match Blackwood’s microtonal octaves with Melodyne, one of the pitch correction programs used in pop and other recorded music.
The results are confusing but convincing.
“I think Blackwood was demonstrating that it’s possible to write tonal music using not 12 notes,” Sheeran said in an interview. “When people hear the word ‘microtonal’ they think of the word ‘atonal’. I personally don’t mention any of that when I’m playing it for people. I just say this is catchy music, we can talk about it after you’ve heard it.”
Sheeran discussed the origins of the new record and the detailed work that went into it. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When did you first become aware of Blackwood’s music?
When I was 17 years old. That was when I encountered all music, really: 20th century music, medieval music, basically music that you don’t normally hear on the radio. It was a great period of discovery and Blackwood was just one of many things I discovered.
And when did you decide to turn that interest into a project like this?
I wanted to start writing microtonal music myself, at the end of 2019. I wish I had done it when I was younger, in university, but technology made it too difficult. I felt that maybe I had missed the boat, but I realized how technology had improved since then. Now you can play these microtonal scales on a keyboard.
I thought I might orchestrate one of Blackwood’s Etudes for a digital audio workstation, with sample libraries like Kontakt, just to try and learn about microtonal music. And it gradually escalated.
Walk me through the process. You have the recording and the old Blackwood scores, which look like familiar scores, but have a lot of weird accidents in them. What did you do next?
Basically, this point should be translated. The first thing you need to do is translate the score into what I call scordatura notation, where what you hear is not what you see. I had to translate it into keyboard music, where the octave is not an octave. So if there are 13 notes in the octave, a minor ninth or 13th semitone sounds like an octave when played on the keyboard. This is for the computer to play it, to get the guide tracks.
This version had to then be translated into conventional music using normal accidentals. In the various tuning systems, some were easier to translate than others, and there were some contradictions due to the new geometries of music theory that could not be translated. Often, you had to choose between harmony or melody. I then orchestrated that translation for the instrumentalists.
So what you gave the instrumentalists sounded like pretty typical music?
Yeah, they didn’t need to know any of that.
They just had to play what was in front of them, and it might sound weird, but —
No, it doesn’t sound weird. The whole point is to try to make it not sound weird so they just play it like it’s conventional music. I was trying to make a real fake record. This was the hardest thing about this project. It wasn’t about microtonality at all – it was about making this material alive and spontaneous when it’s not like that at all.
And it was all dictated by the need to record that instrumental line by line so you could feed it into Melodyne and autotune it?
So you had all the tracks, and then they went back to the computer, to recreate them.
I did it visually, but you check aurally at the end, and if you hear something other than a unison, then you know there’s a mistake and you correct it.
Which of the “Etudes” do you find particularly interesting?
Blackwood liked some tunings better than others, and some he really didn’t like at all. The ones he didn’t like are the ones I like the most because he really had to think outside the box for them. So 14 notes – he really didn’t like it, and it’s a very exciting, rhythmic piece. It had nothing in common with 12-tone tonal music in 23 notes, so he looked at the gamelan scale, the slendro and the pelog scale.
That seems to be what turns you on, music that goes in a different direction, music that people don’t usually listen to.
Yes, when I was studying, my feeling about the way contemporary music was taught in British universities and conservatories was that it seemed very difficult to learn composition, but you could learn orchestration. If you learn orchestration, then many parts of people show what they can do with orchestration. I wanted to react against that. I look at a Bach piece, and it seems to me that it’s written for violin, but it’s written for keyboard. Why does his music work on any instrument?
I think that’s what drew me to the Blackwood Etudes, because so many arrangements work with them, whether electronic or acoustic. I had no idea what it was going to sound like, and I remember hearing one of them, and I was just blown away by it. But my ears are now used to them and they don’t even sound microtonal.