10 Best
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07.04.2020, Words by Felicity Martin

The 10 Best Detuned Musical Works, according to Max de Wardener

"Like another universe..."

A detuned piano offers a unique, off-kilter kind of sound, and it’s exactly this that British composer Max de Wardener is interested in exploring. Borrowing from avant garde philosophies of modernist composers like Harry Partch and La Monte Young, new album ‘Music For Detuned Pianos‘ sees jazz pianist Kit Downes performing de Wardener’s compositions on the acoustic piano, an instrument known for being disinclined to unorthodox tuning.

Our now via Village Green, the meditative, exploratory LP is an exercise in microtones on piano and electronics, making for radical listening, at times sounding akin to the piano studies of Aphex Twin. Below, de Wardener picks his ten favourite detuned musical works across different instruments.

1. James Tenney – ‘Harmonium#3’

“A beautiful spindle-like piece for three detuned harps by the American composer James Tenney. Like in much of Tenney’s work, the instruments have been tuned to overtones of the harmonic series, the naturally occurring phenomenon from which all music is based.”

2. Aphex Twin – ‘Grass’

“Almost all of Aphex Twin’s music is ‘detuned’ in some way, often to create something beautiful and disturbing.”

3. Kevin Volans – ‘Mbira’

“A strange mix of traditions collide here as Kevin Volans arranges Zimbabwean mbira music for two harpsichords. The harpsichords have been re-tuned to match the mbira’s non-Western tuning system.”

4. Gerard Grisey – ‘Vortex Temporum’

“Grisey spins spectral cascades of ever-changing sound in one of his late works and features a detuned piano.”

5. Sun 0))) – ‘Frost’

“Here guitars and basses are tuned down way out of their usual tension firing off overtones through a sea of sublime distortion.”

6. Harry Partch – ‘Windsong’

“Partch devised a 43-note scale to oppose the normal twelve black and white key system we are all used to. He then invented his own instruments as well as adapt marimbas, pump organs and guitars to play his own music. Like another universe.”

7. Ellen Arkbro – ‘For Organ and Brass’

“Wonderful meditative music with the organ in meantime intonation, a tuning system used over 500 years ago. In this piece the brass entwine themselves with the organ, mirroring the same tuning system.”

8. Kit Downes – ‘Rings of Saturn’

“In this homage to the writing of  W.G. Sebald, Kit pushes and pulls the organ stops while playing to produce a multitude of new sounds.”

9. Sonic Youth – ‘Cross the Breeze’

“Kim Gordon’s intense vocal rages over this typically detuned number. Sonic Youth’s guitar tunings often had multiples of the same string which makes their music really powerful and direct.”

10. James Tenney – ‘Special Canon for Conlon Nancarrow’

“Another James Tenney piece,  written for pianola and again tuned to different notes from the harmonic series and was the initial inspiration for the pieces that make up my new album ‘Music for Detuned Pianos’. Towards the end of the piece the notes are so squashed together that the music becomes almost a single drone, at which point  the piece seems to lift off out of its own skin. When I heard that moment I thought this is what I want my music to do too!”

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