This is the third 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 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 the numbers 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. Click here to listen to a recording of a solo performance on the Amaranth.
The Amaranth and The Columbine
Camille Belair: What made you choose your two instrument designs instead of something similar to the Harry Partch viola with a cello neck or something else like that?
Gayle Young: I was influenced by Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig. Bill did a lot of the instrument building and Lou did the composing. They built a group of percussion instruments called the American Gamelan, made out of metal tubing, similar to the material I used for the Columbine. Harrison devised quite a few tunings in just intonation, and built instruments so his pieces using these tunings could be played. That was one indication to me that it was possible to build instruments. The Colvig/Harrison instruments are much simpler than the instruments Partch built – smaller, more portable, and not that expensive or fragile. Metal tubing tends to last!
CB: So that is the Columbine, the metal instrument, and it came before the Amaranth?
GY: Yes. I tuned the first prototype using another Lou Harrison instrument called the monochord. Jim Tenney had one, and loaned to me. It had one string that was exactly 1000 mm long. Let’s say you tune it to an E at 330 Hz. That will be your fundamental pitch, described in just intonation as a fraction: 1/1. You could then move a bridge to set a second pitch on the same string. It’s simple arithmetic, really. If your string is 1000 mm long, that’s your first pitch. If you want to hear an interval of 5/4, a just major third, you can calculate both the frequency and the string length. Your new note will vibrate 5 times while the older one vibrates 4 times. The second pitch will vibrate faster, and the string will be shorter. You know your base frequency is 330, so you multiply it by 5 and divide it by 4, it’s going to be 412.5 Hz. To calculate the length you divide by 5 and multiply by 4, it will be 800 mm., ⅘ of the longer one. It’s same same as guitar frets really, except that you can change their position.
There was a little device you could slide along and click down and say “okay, that’s 800 mm., so this is going to be my pitch.” I tuned the whole Columbine using that one string. When I first built it I didn’t know if the tuning would be musically useful or not, so it was really an experiment to find out if I could hear the differences between the microtones, and if I could make any music out of it. I didn’t know the answer to either of those questions. After I decided it was interesting, by writing some pieces and playing them in concerts, I expanded the tuning by adding a few pitches and extending the range into a higher register. To do that I borrowed a sine tone generator and a frequency counter from the University of Toronto electronic music studio. I set them up and made sure everything was pretty exact with the frequency counter. I found that over half of the tubes that I had tuned using the monocord were perfectly in tune. This surprised me because when you pluck a string the pitch doesn’t remain constant – it oscillates a bit as the string stretches and comes back to normal.
This monochord was the basic idea for my 24-stringed instrument, the Amaranth. It’s really 24 monochords. The central sections of all the strings are exactly 1000mm long, and I built little bridges with hinges on them, so you could clamp down the string. You could stop a string without stretching it. Then I would match the pitch by putting a bigger bridge under a nearby string (the larger bridges are held in place by string tension) and making it a unison with the one I was holding down. For the 5/4 example we talked about I would set the bridge at 800 mm.
CB: So you used one string as a monochord to tune the rest of the strings?
GY: That’s right. I made the a curved top for the instrument so I could bow one string at a time. I play it with percussion mallets too. But I found that plucking didn’t work so well. I play standing up, so plucking the strings pulls them up. That sometimes makes a bridge snap out from under a string, and it makes a really nasty noise. The only way to pluck it without making that noise is to push down, and that doesn’t work with most people’s hands – it’s unergonomic. When you’re on a horizontal plane, your fingers really don’t work that way. Sometimes I can pluck with something in my hand like a guitar pick, but I have to make sure I push down. I tend do that for sections of strings, not individual notes. It becomes kind of a glissando.
CB: Did working with the Amaranth and Columbine change your process? Instead of having to rely on a computer to hear microtones you could experiment with physical instruments.
GY: Well, at the time there were no personal computers that I had the skill to operate, and digital gear that was available was very expensive. It was still the era of the analogue synth. Even the computers in larger institutional settings had a low accuracy level, especially with higher frequencies, because they used low sampling rates. So you couldn’t be sure that they were playing in tune. I probably would have used computers if I’d done this fifteen or twenty years later, and I sometimes comment that both instruments are accidents of technological history.
To respond to the first part of your questions, yes, having this pair of instruments around the house all the time did change my music practice. I tend to ‘work’ when I use a computer, with a goal in mind, maybe a sequence of steps to accomplish. I often just play the acoustic instruments, with no specific intention. I can stand there and play the same two notes over and over again, kind of absent-mindedly. Then sometimes I notice an unexpected combination tone that’s quietly sounding in the background. It’s not something I’d try to replicate in a composition, it’s ‘just’ a sound experience.
CB: How has having those two instruments allowed you to incorporate elements of play into your musical process? Have they influenced other compositions that were not for the instruments themselves?
GY: I think the element of play, and playfulness, is central, because often when you play music it can be more like work – like a work of art! I’ve written pieces for myself, and for an ensemble that I used to have, that use standard notation in every sense except the coloured, shaped noteheads. Increasingly I write solo pieces for myself, and set the pieces up so I can work within pre-set guidelines that are not very strict. I memorize the elements, so there’s not much worry about making an error. This makes me more free to respond to the actual listening experience, as I play, rather than to the visual elements of notation. In the pieces I write for other musicians I like to pass on elements of that playfulness, that emphasis on aurality.