A Girl Named Wolf

Bare Bones Chamber Pop. Pump Organ Art Punk. Forever in motion. Still. Her name is Vuk.

I just stumbled on this demo of a software program that generates automatic gamelan. There are a few of them out there. I’ve seen entire sample libraries made from complete gamelan orchestras, that cost a fraction of what my single pemade did. I guess I would have gotten away with a lot less hassle (and more money left in my pocket) had I resorted to using one of these. Granted, software like this does have a certain magic to it. There’s something god-like in being able to manipulate something that sounds like a complete orchestra with a few clicks of a button. But the real thing is so much more magical!

I read that Björk recently gutted her celesta and filled it with MIDI-controlled, gamelan-like bronze keys for her newest album. (I’ve been working on acquiring my gamelan instruments for years, so it seems we hit on a same twinge of the Zeitgeist.) It forms the core of her song “Crystalline.” However, in my humble opinion, the bronze keys she uses lack the bright microtonality of original thing.*

One of the secrets to what makes gamelan sound so shimmery lies in the microtonal tuning of the instruments. In addition to the microtonal scales of the instruments themselves, metallophones like the pemade are generally built and played in pairs, and tuned in such a way that one will sound very slightly higher or lower than the other. When these two are then played together in unison, the adjacent frequencies will beat against each other, causing a kind of vibrato or chorus-like effect. It’s a precise business, because if the frequencies are even a little too far apart, the music will just sound out of tune. Gamelan microtonality is actually a pretty tricky thing to work with when you’re using the instruments outside the context of the orchestra they were built for, because for the aforementioned reason, it doesn’t mix with just anything. Luckily, pump organs are usually tuned a bit low, and the one I use the most works pretty well with my pemade. 

In fact, I had some fun with pump organ microtonality yesterday as I was rehearsing with Loupine (who will be re-joining our ranks this month after a year-long hiatus!) I was teaching her a new song, and we were playing her part together on two different pump organs. I played my large “school room” organ, and she played my little Pipetone field organ, which is tuned slightly higher than most larger pump organs. Presto! We got our vibrato effect. Some multi-stop organs have this effect built into them. The only multi-stop organ I own is stuck in London until my next European tour, so it looks like I’ll be experimenting with using several single-stop organs together when I go into the studio to record my new album. I do love a good musical experiment.

*(Microtones are notes that sound slightly off-key by Western standards - “in-between” notes. If the smallest difference between two notes in classical Western music is generally a chromatic half-tone, in another tradition it might be a quarter-tone. Many of my favorite musical traditions use microtonality, including many Balkan and Arabic ones. In fact, the “blue note” in the blues is a microtonal note.)

  1. agirlnamedwolf posted this