Doty is a leading light in the rather arcane world of just intonation, and it's often enlightening to hear how a theoretician puts his theories into practice. But that's not enough reason for me to write up a CD. I like two things about Uncommon Practice. First, the intervallic relationships are often refreshing, even startling. If you've never experienced the subtle colors of just intervals and don't have a synthesizer handy that can produce them (or wouldn't know where to start), this is a good chance to hear what you've been missing. Second, the music isn't trying to impress me; it just is what it is. The vibe is vaguely Renaissance, vaguely ethnic, and definitely cerebral rather than emotional. The recording was done with obsolete synthesizers (mostly FM) and a discontinued sequencer. The production values are minimal—no big reverb, no compression, no aural exciters—just music. There are no sampled loops or sound effects—not a single one. Every note was composed. That shouldn't be remarkable, but it's a lot less common than it used to be.
David Doty is well known in the world of alternative tuning as the editor of "1/1—The Journal of the Just Intonation Network." What may not be known is that he is a deeply serious composer of considerable talent, with unusual harmonic and melodic gifts. This is a CD of melodic and tonal music made with various computer music systems over an 11 year period. Computer systems were used for their ability to change tuning instantly, and to make available ensembles that would otherwise be impossible to get together. As he says, "This is music that, in the best of all possible worlds, might be performed on acoustic instruments by highly skilled performers." Now that we've scared off the "granular synthesis (pick your own technique here) or nothing" purists, let me say that this is an extremely engaging album that draws on many sources - world music, folk music, garage bands, etc., but that its main interest is tuning. That is, it investigates the harmonic and melodic resources available with extended just intonation. In some cases, such as "Fake Irish Music", the result can hardly be heard, on a casual listening - the music is just purer sounding than it would be on 12 tone instruments. In other cases, such as "Fake Greek Music" the result is immediately hearable, even to the casual ear—the extended harmonies of that piece having a piquancy that's simply not possible with normal tuning. And the polyrhythms of the neo-prog rock (I love inventing descriptive terms, don't you?) "Paradigms Lost" set my toes tapping more than once. In most of the pieces, just intonation is used to make very pure "normal" harmonies which then twist, turn, and modulate in the most unexpected ways. This is music to be listened to carefully, savouring the quality of a sudden harmonic twist, the feeling of being subtly and gently launched into an unsuspected harmonic territory. In "Bodhisattvas in Berkeley?—Mu!", Doty reverses his normal hierarchy—here the intervals of modulation are foregrounded, making a quite dissonant and striking texture, at times reminiscent of Japanese Gagaku. This piece, a memorial to Jim Horton (one of the unsung heroes of small systems computer music) is my favourite piece on the CD, but all of them are well worth hearing, and savouring, especially for those with a taste for gourmet intonation.
An email correspondent recently referred to something called the "California School" of just intonation composers like Harry Partch and David Doty in a mock-academic way. To me, the reference seemed to suggest that using harmonic progressions in a fixed JI style is another form of impractical utopianism of the type for which California is well known (perhaps an attitude born of beaches, sunshine, and Jerry Brown), while it is up to level-headed East Coasters to bring harmonies within the realm of practical reason through adaptive schemes and temperament. David Doty's Uncommon Practice provides a musical retort (the best kind) to theorists who shake their heads at the folly of comma shifts and the purported awkwardness of unequal melodic steps.
Doty's CD is an eclectic tour of musical styles brought into the realm of extended JI, taking us on a harmonic progression toboggan ride over the supposed bumps of comma shifts and "anamolous" pairs of tones. As described in his article for 1/1 , Doty's term "anamolous pairs" refers to pitches separated by some kind of comma, that is, pairs that would collapse to the same nominal pitch in a 12-tone system. Far from subverting a tonal sense or confusing modal perception, these context-dependent tweakings provide for succession of clear harmonies that convincingly support the melody and structure in these musical contexts.
Doty's 1/1 article used for his example a version of the fourth track on this CD, Paradigms Lost. As suggested by the title, this cut, like others on the CD, considers what might have happened had an earlier musical style been enriched through extended JI (as well as other possibilities, such as complex meters and progressions). The style under consideration in this case is that of psychedelic 1960s garage bands, which, in Doty's utopia, have evolved an art never coopted by pablum-pushing megacapitalists. As in all the pieces on the CD, this speculation is made possible by sequencing Yamaha FM synths, an Ensoniq sampler, and an Alesis drum machine.
One of the most immediately engaging parts of Paradigms Lost, though, is the complex meter and rhythm. The rollicking melody slides gracefully through Balkan-like combinations of 5, 6, 7, and 8 while coloring the 5-limit rock progressions with occasional 7-limit blue notes. The same sorts of meters are used in the track named Fake Greek Music, a piece based on an otonal tuning of harmonics 8-16, with an occasional 17. The additive Greek meters (progressing from 6 to 8 to 12 for example) nicely mirror that walk up the harmonic series.
As Doty says in his insert notes, the garage band of Paradigms Lost seems to have joined a "group of rebettika musicians from the opium dens of 1930s Piraeus" in this piece, so if you like the sound of a saucy, 11-limit bouzouki jamming with rock drummer (who is somehow more metrically sophisticated than any I have ever met), this is the work for you. A companion track to this faux world music is Fake Irish Music, complete with FM uilleann pipes and Celtic harp and a much more restful 5-limit tuning, though with harmonic sevenths at the cadences and comma shifts. The rock drummer seems to have sneaked into the last section of this track (subtitled "Rant") as well.
Given the right musical context, the "anomalous pair" reinterpretation of scale degrees can have a musically satisfying effect in itself, as Doty demonstrates in Bodhisattvas in Berkeley?—Mu!. This is the most "microtonal" piece on the CD and leaves no doubt that Doty is unapologetic about the presence of tiny intervals. In this piece he presents them in the foreground and invites us to contemplate their musicality like the Zen koan of the title. Taking us into that state are the synthesized hichiriki double reeds and ryuteki flutes that lead the Japanese gagaku orchestra, but here slip-sliding their way through a playful microtonal labyrinth. Meditation on this piece's success brings one answer to mind: Mu!
One of Doty's most interesting utopias is the application of 7-limit JI to European counterpoint, which happens in the most extensive piece on the CD, Contrapunctus 1.01. The tour through the implications of extended JI to medieval, renaissance, and especially baroque counterpoint demonstrates much more thorough treatment than the modest introduction implied by the title. Now that harpsichords and winds are endowed with many more than 12 tones per octave and theorists have admitted the seventh harmonic as consonant, European counterpoint takes us into some very intriguing territory — one in which sevenths are not dissonant and may be used to "complete" a triad instead of the third; one in which startling modulations and contrasts between 5- and 7-limits flow with ease.
Indeed, another approach to the existence of commas is to simply sit back like dharma bums and have them escort you through the lattice as they will, and the second large section of this piece provides a journey of that Ben Johnstonian sort. However, the largely consistent textures, tempo, and rhythmic density do not sustain enough variety for me through this piece's nearly 15 minutes.
My main complaint with this CD concerns not its use of just intonation, which is well worth the price alone, but with the timbral element. Though Doty has in many instances coaxed surprisingly human sounds out of his humble collection of synthesizers, the CD is still often marred by harsh electronic timbres. Electronic winds and bowed strings with their characteristic unchanging waveforms and vibratos are especially problematic, as are the obvious drum machine snares and cymbals in the "fake music" tracks and Paradigms Lost.
However, in his defense, any composer who treads into new intonational territory as Doty does faces real musical challenges about realization. The relative low cost and easy control of electronic instruments means that those of us without carpentry skills or whose budgets are not as extended as our visions for JI now have a chance to hear their work. The fact that Lou Harrison had to wait over forty years for to hear a realization — Doty's — of his Simfony in Free Style demonstrates the importance of this practicality. Moreover, if we'd had to wait for Doty to find a psychedelic guitarist, bouzouki player, etc. capable of playing in JI and Greek meters, we would have had a long time to wait to have the pleasure of listening to these pieces.
Writing about the final, eclectic track on the album, Rituals and Ceremonies, Doty gives us a hint to where such musicians might be found: "Elements and techniques from medieval European polyphony, Chinese chamber music, and Javanese gamelan freely mix, suggesting, perhaps, the music of some lost civilization in the mountains of central Asia or some uncharted island in the western sea." Or perhaps in California, where schools of such civilizations are rumored to exist, and, hopefully, will continue to inspire Doty and other composers of such varied, expressive, and thoughtful music.
I received your CD and have been listening to it. Great job—I agree that you have suceeded in both your goals... exploring JI and making good music. I'm especially fond of Paradigms Lost, but maybe that's because I remember it well from the Rational Music cassette. Or maybe it's the driving rhythms and "catchy" sax melody.
——Bill Sethares (composer/theorist)
I listened to your CD over the weekend and I really like it! Usually I am completely allergic to MIDI stuff that uses "world" music as a model, but yours is so well done, and so much more than that.
——Carl Stone (composer/radio programmer)
Congratulations to David B. Doty and Syntonic records for the new CD release Uncommon Practice—a review will appear in due course from the British Harry Partch Society, but I can say in advance that I enjoy the CD tremendously and find the musical ideas very interesting.
——Roger Merrick (secretary, British Harry Partch Society)