By Camille Kiku Belair
This is the second 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 our first installment we learned about Gayle’s burgeoning interest in the practical and speculative qualities of music. 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 multiples of 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 63 steel tubes, covering almost three octaves with 23 pitches per octave.
Foundational Artistic Ideas
Camille Belair: One of the aspects of your work that I find very interesting is the exploration of grey areas such as those in between pitches. It seems that your music focuses primarily on frequency over time rather than other musical elements such as rhythm. I was wondering why that was.
Gayle Young: Well, both frequency and rhythm take place in time, it’s just a different scale of time. After my earlier research on cultural changes in Europe during the “scientific revolution,” I speculated that music written then may have reflected those changes. And what were they? There was a huge increase in knowledge after the development of measurement devices – you could measure everything! Even the numerical frequency of a sounding tone. Factual knowledge increased dramatically, and the general overview of things may have become simplified in some ways, maybe because it was much easier to label and categorize. Not just in music. Categorization expanded our ability to perceive difference, for instance many new species were identified in biology, all based on contrast and difference.
One of the ways I described it in my academic work was an emphasis on quantity rather than quality, but in reality today, I don’t know what quality is. I know that we can measure tone quality: we can measure frequency bands and determine why one voice sounds different from another by identifying different format frequency bands. We can measure quality in music, in that sense, but there is another level of quality that lies beyond measurement. It’s mysterious. I don’t know what it is, or how to describe it in words.
At the time I was researching this I was mostly thinking about the European reliance on contrast in music. I thought the simplified harmonic system of the V-I cadence artificially encouraged a perception of music in terms of opposing pairs: dissonance/consonance, combined with high/low, fast/show, loud/quiet, etc. This makes music a less complex, less nuanced, experience because you could label the contrasts as they went by.
I’m radically oversimplifying this, but if you look harmonically at a piece that moves from V to I and I to V, when it gets back to the I, the tonic, everything is okay, everyone can go home feeling comfortable because the world has been resolved. The word “resolved” is also used in harmony, resolving the dichotomy between the V and the I, but there’s a lot in between. That was why I am interested in alternative pitch organizations: to explore what lies in between. My habits of perception aren’t that different from anyone else’s. I still hear all the major/minor, V/I that everyone else does. But I like to also elucidate the possibilities of a continuum between extremes rather than go back and forth from one to the other. To hear the less-defined in-between sounds, that might form a connection between the easily-labelled extremes.
CB: What place has research had in your life and creative process?
GY: Well I enjoy it! An easy answer would be that research allows me to find patterns in things that seem random. I’ve been playing a lithophone with found stones for example: their pitches are definitely random, not just from stone to stone but within each stone, so I listen and see if there are any patterns. If there are, maybe I can find another stone that matches one of the frequencies. In future I may do some spectral analysis to identify more patterns.
One way I identify pattern in the apparently random is to draw charts. I’ve done some pieces with the 97-tone piano that Bruce Mather makes available at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal and it has a lot of notes in every octave. There are eight note