Drums and Drones is a project dedicated to the application of Just Intonation to drums and percussion.
The Drums and Drones project initially came about from inspiration by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House installation in TriBeCa, NYC. I had spent a good amount of time, almost a year and a half maybe, volunteering there as a “monitor,” someone who minded the installation and greeted visitors during its open hours. The duration of my shift, about 4-5 hours, was mostly spent sitting outside of the gallery space, with the immense sound pulsing through the door and walls, while reading up on the principles of Just Intonation and the historical background of La Monte, Marian, and their cohorts of the NYC experimental art scene. I accumulated many hours, too, sitting in the space itself, embracing the impact of the finely tuned sound and light vibrations. One can hear the installation, which is set three flights up from the entrance, as soon as the door is opened to the building. The sound grows in intensity as the stairs are climbed, leading to the climactic moment when one reaches the landing on the third floor, opens the door there, and takes the first step to enter into the space.
I was exposed to this ‘tone sculpture’ for hours on end. After a while, I would finally get it, only to have new doors opened in the pathway of experience. Prolonged exposure only deepened its impact, and revealed it as the unending infinity it was designed to be with the only limit being myself. The tones would dance in my head, hypnotic and entrancing, and I would hear tones that previously seemed veiled which were now resonating loudly and clearly somewhere between the air, my ear, and my brain. I was mesmerized by the power of this emphasis on the physiological experience, and its psychoacoustic impact had me hooked.
Ultimately, this psychoacoustic impact is the result of the careful physics of the installations’s design, which is based on the Just Intonation tuning system. All tuning systems are structured on relationships- tones are relative, some are higher and some are lower. These tones are vibrations (as it is important to remember that sound is physical), sound waves that reach our body; the body/brain receives the impulse of these sound waves and absorbs them in its physiological process. It is important to consider the vibrational relationship between sound waves and their connection to the quality of being ‘in tune’ or ‘out of tune.’ Some vibrations exist in a harmonious way and others exist in a more dissonant way. In the tuning system of Just Intonation, the relationship between pitches is set in a such a way that each sound wave is an extension of a single fundamental reference tone, in that each sound wave is derived from it and also refers back to it. Whether seemingly consonant or dissonant, each tone configured in this way is related to one another in that it is a physical extension of this original root pitch.
Just Intonation uses as its basis, its blue print so to speak, the naturally occurring phenomenon known as the overtone series. There is a clearly defined organizational pattern to the overtone series, which can be thought of as a form of musical DNA- it is an organic structure with each singular overtone acting like a gene in a larger chain. Taken as a whole each overtone functions to determine the overall character of a given sound. The structure of this musical DNA is universal and the pitch relationship between the overtones are always the same, yet what individualizes specific sounds is that within the larger framework of the overtone series there may be emphasized or de-emphasized areas along the length of the overtone chain. Different sounds have different combinations of predominant overtones.
Just Intonation uses as its founding principle the premise that from one fundamental frequency an endless infinity of frequencies exists and with that all tones emerge and can be derived. This process occurs from whole number divisions of this single fundamental, the One. From one, we get two, then three, then four, then five, etc… For example, the fundamental frequency of One can be divided in half, with each half vibrating at twice the speed as the fundamental (think of a string that is then cut in half- each length of the half will then vibrate at twice the rate of the length of the whole.) The next step up is to divide the fundamental into thirds with each third vibrating at three times the rate of the fundamental. This process can continue infinitely with each division representing a different overtone, or harmonic. In this way the relationship of pitches can be expressed as ratios 1:2, 1:3, 1:5, etc.. because they are all derived from the same source, a fundamental. When pitches are combined according to this system they release many subsidiary tones, referring to numbers above and numbers below, as they all stem from the same source. For example, when two tones are played in a relationship of 3:5, what results is the addition tone of the 8th harmonic as well as the difference tone of the 2nd. This phenomenon was also part of my fascination of the acoustic properties of the Dream House installation.
A compelling part of hearing tones organized according to Just Intonation is the feeling of ‘infinite depth’ that it brings. Each tone is directly related to one another in whole number relationships and exist as derivations from the same fundamental, the same source. With each tone referring to one another as being a part of the same continuum high and low a sense of unending expansion pervades. Also, in this way, the tones, even ones that seem dissonant, fit neatly together like pieces in a puzzle. When tones sound together in a specific whole number relationship, like 7:4 let’s say, then that cyclic response rate is triggering that same neurological pattern repeatedly throughout its duration. This wouldn’t be the case for tones that exist in non-whole number relationships like they are in the standard Western tuning, 12 tone equal temperament. With the brain receiving signals that cycle at 7 times for every 4 then after a while this relationship, because of the regularity of its periodicity, starts to deepen its impact. This makes Just Intonation very suitable to sitting and listening for extended durations. Indian classical music uses this premise for much of what gives it its distinctive sound.
Drums and percussion have seen some but not much exploration of JI, yet they are designed to represent it as such. Think about it: a drum head is tuned to a single pitch, one frequency. It has strong vibrations and is rich with harmonic material. How do we go about isolating and controlling these frequencies, as overtones, in accordance with the principles of JI? Well, that became the task at hand of the Drums and Drones project. It is inspired by the experience of the beauty of the vibrations of sustained tones organized according to the overtone series, a naturally occurring system which implies that from a single source an endless infinity presents itself, simultaneously simple and complex.. all we have to do is listen..