November 19, 2009
Percussion ensemble to perform new music for an old movie
For their next concert, Temporal Mechanics Union will push the
limits of their repertoire of experimental music by performing a microtonal
score to accompany the 1925 silent movie The Lost World. And they will
be playing on instruments they designed and built themselves.
The concert will take place Thursday, Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m. inside the Robert Brown Theatre. There is no cost to attend the concert.
The term microtonal refers to music that makes use of pitches that are some measure less than the equally spaced semitones of contemporary Western music. On a piano keyboard, the black and white keys represent the 12 equally spaced semitones (“steps”) of the octave that we are most accustomed to hearing. Microtones could be thought of as “keys of other colors” in between the black and whites piano keys.
The current members of TMU have built a gamelan, or ensemble of xylophone-like instruments, using a 31-edo microtonal tuning system. Instead of the usual 12 equally spaced steps of the scale, these instruments each have 31 equal divisions of the octave. So from middle C to the next highest C on their keyboards, there are 31 separate, equally-spaced pitches.
The 31-edo system was chosen by TMU because it preserves the intervals of the standard 12-tone scale, while adding a certain range of microtones. As a result, the ensemble has more named notes to choose from when composing and improvising music, making it possible to play both standard 12-tone Western music, and scales and chords of other cultures.
“We can even invent new hybrid key signatures and modes as we experiment,” said Chris Mayer, the ensemble’s music director. “This sonic signature represents a new and exciting direction for the ensemble, and we look forward to presenting these unique sounds in many concerts to come.”
According to Mayer’s research, this new venture makes Temporal Mechanics Union the only ensemble west of New England to include microtonal music in their repertoire.
“There are individual experimenters and composers on the west coast, but no full-time ensembles out there,” Mayer said. “Back east, there’s Newband (in Montpelier, New Jersey) and NotaRiotous, the ensemble of the Boston Microtonal Society. And there are no percussion ensembles anywhere in the US doing 31-edo. We are definitely moving into unexplored territory.”
TMU’s new percussion instruments are made of metal bars and tubes, and in once case wooden bars rescued from a resurfaced gym floor. The bass instrument is made of 200 feet of 4-inch flexible drain pipe. Each material was first tested to find a basic reference pitch, and then using a special calculator, the members of the ensemble cut the bars and tubes to length to build up the 31-tone scale for each instrument.
TMU will use their new instruments to accompany the 1925 original silent movie version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Remade many times as movies and a TV series, The Lost World tells the story of English adventurer Professor Challenger, who claims to have evidence of dinosaurs living on a remote plateau in South America. Leading a small group including a big game hunter and an eager young reporter, Challenger travels to the lost world in search of a colleague who has gone missing on a similar expedition.
The stop-motion animation of the movie dinosaurs was revolutionary for its time, and paved the way for special effects for years to come. The model maker and animator Willis O’Brien went on to develop the original King Kong models for that 1933 movie. According to Hans Wollstein of www.allmovie.com, “Seven years in the making, this silent adventure based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic 1912 novel was a watershed in special effects filmmaking…O’Brien’s monsters may not frighten contemporary kids, with today's high special effects standards, but they certainly hold up well in comparison to some of the tacky creatures let lose in the 1950s and early 1960s.”
Mayer describes the new score he composed for the concert as “a kind of minimalist structured improvisation.” Using the microtonal instruments, each character and some generalized scenes have each been given a theme. The Mechanics will use the visual cues of the movie and the auditory cues of what the others are playing to choose which theme to play at any given time. These themes are very short, repeating patterns or chords, characteristic of the musical style called minimalism. As a result, the final ‘soundtrack’ is purely experimental, in that it will never be played the same way twice.
Temporal Mechanics Union is an all-ability, community based ensemble. Anyone may join, no matter what his or her previous musical experience. More information on this concert, and on the ensemble, can be found at www.tmu.cdmayer.net, or by calling 620-441-5229. TMU also have a YouTube channel and a Facbook page.
The members of Temporal Mechanics Union are Amy Arnold, Brandi Berntsen, Wayne Farley, Mike Fell, Justin Lavoie, and Bryan McChesney.