Name: Hayden Chisholm
Nationality: New Zealand
Occupation: Saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, improviser
Current release: Hayden Chisholm has just released The Off World LP with Wolff Parkinson White, aka Jochen Rueckert. It is available through their bandcamp store.
If these thoughts by Hayden Chisholm piqued your interest, visit his website for more information and music.
You can also read our Jochen Rueckert interview to find out more about Hayden's creative partner on The Off World.
Was there a particular event or experience that made you realise that there might be more outside of the realm of music we take for granted? When did you first start getting interested in the world of alternative tuning systems?
Two moments come to mind.
As a 10 year old in New Zealand, a percussionist from the national orchestra who was touring the schools came to our intermediate school with a large tam tam. I simply remember a massive wall of sound that had us all holding our ears. I had no idea what hit me but in retrospect he showed us that within a massive spectrum of sound the harmonics within tell a powerful story.
The second experience was in 1995. My teacher showed me that there was another note in between my B and my B flat on my saxophone. Right away when I heard that in-between note I disappeared down a rabbit hole and have been digging ever since.
Both of these pivotal moments were maybe more about the stuff inside the realm of music rather than outside of it.
What artists working with alternative tuning systems are you personally interested in? What approaches do you find inspiring?
I’m always deeply inspired to discover other artists who are in their own way exploring sound and tuning but it would be hard to me to pick out a particular name.
Having said that I have rarely gone much deeper than listening to some tracks and taking that inspiration with me to inspire my own personal investigations and sound work.I like to think of the sounds themselves as the teacher and that once we start on our own to explore the harmonic ladder or various human tuning systems, we have enough on our plate to inspire and occupy ourselves for a lifetime or more.
In my travels it has oftentimes been the musicians off the radar with no public profiles which have particularly left a lasting impression on me.
Terms like consonant and dissonant are used in school, but mostly with very limited understanding of what they mean. How has your own idea of these terms changed over time and how do you see them today?
An answer to this question could easily explode into a massive exposition. My relation and understanding of those two terms has of course changed greatly over my life as a musician. The late great James Tenney wrote a beautiful piece on the history and perception of these two concepts.
I believe a good understanding of the harmonics reveals a lot to us but I have also come to the conclusion that a purely objective perspective is not only impossible, it is also not useful. Depending on our cultural upbringing and the ways we use sound as a medium to express what we need to, we will naturally slide in and out of consonance and dissonance just as a story teller will move us through various states during the voyage.
What were some of the most interesting tuning systems you tried out and what are their respective qualities?
When I was first exploring this world I became fascinated with quarter tones. The latest release of Wolff Parkinson White with myself on vocals is an example of this system. Over a period of several years, when we were touring (back in the good days), Jochen Rückert programmed several songs in this 24 tone per octave tuning and I found some words which fitted the microtonal melodies.
In time I have even found more possibilities of expression in the world of just intonation and harmonics. I have studied on my own various musical traditions such as Japanese traditional music or the traditional music of Serbia which is where I now live, a place where the history of clashing empires can be easily heard and experienced in the music.
Through my travels I have noticed that what connects us all is the feeling for the tonic, the fourth and the fifth, or the 1/1, 4/3, and 3/2 relationship. This we all seem to have in common. But in between that there are vastly differing ways of intonating the notes or leaving them out completely. This tells a fascinating story of differing cultures and how they express their respective stories.
Do different tuning systems suggest different kinds of music? Would you say that different tuning systems are capable of expressing different, and potentially unique emotional states?
Absolutely. And I would go a step further that no other form can tell us so much about the particular emotional states certain cultures embody in their musics. I believe that if one wanted to go deep into a certain culture or geographical place, learning the music would be the most effective way. Oftentimes we understand elements of the culture that can hardly be put into words, but have a tangible feeling and profound meaning.
Naturally, learning the words to the songs as well as learning the harmonic and melodic language would constitute the full immersion. Where we then take it and what we do with this knowledge is then up to us.
What challenges does playing in different tuning systems present to you as a performer? If you're performing a piece in a different and new-to-you tuning, how will you approach this?
First and foremost I still consider myself a listener above all else. I always like to take the time to simply listen and observe how the music is put together. Going deeper into the world of tuning is a rewarding experience as it sets you up to be able to quickly pick up vastly different musical harmonic and melodic approaches, all this through a kind of fine tuning of the ear. Also I come from a jazz background so improvisation is something I love to do and this is a helpful thing when you are encountering new structures or new musical cultures.
The challenges are always there with different tuning systems but the rewards are immense and I find for example that every time I go back to playing in our well-known equal temperament I have a deeper feeling for the tones, the distance between them, the centuries of toil and strife that led us to such a system and is right now leading us somewhere else with the rigid even divisions of the tones being slowly but surely eroded.
How, if at all, has performing in a different tuning system changed your creative practise?
It’s hard to separate the tuning system work from the rest of my experiences as a musician. My creative practice is in a constant state of change but over the years I have focused more on song learning and direct application of musics I have picked up. In other words, it has become more practical and less abstract.
I am someone who likes to immediately find a musical use or context for something I have just experienced or learned. It is in the moment you perform it for listeners that you truly internalise a form element. At the moment I am for example going as deep as I can into the song canon of Serbia as it helps me to understand better the place I am living in.
So far, the focus with regards to alternative tuning systems has mainly been on harmony. But melody is affected, too. How do you personally understand melody and what changes when it becomes part of a new pitch environment?
I play a melodic instrument and melody has thus been the focus in my musical life. A change in the harmonic system will of course have a strong influence on the leading voice. However some of the musics I have been deeply inspired by such as the traditional taonga pouro music of my homeland New Zealand of the shakuhachi flute music of Japan lives from the melody alone. A simple albatross bone flute may have a small range of a minor 3rd only, but as we know, there is an infinite amount of tones in that space.
On the latest release of Off World by Wolff Parkinson White, the quarter tone melodies I sing are kind of smudged by the vocal line which is often by nature microtonal in the way we move between notes. This is something as natural as baby crying.
With electronic tools, playing and composing in just intonation has become a whole lot easier. Do you find this interesting?
Absolutely. Although I am instrumentalist first and foremost and have mainly focused on instrumental exploration, any tool that can fine tune our ears is welcome for me. As an example I can cite the Hayward Tuning Vine of my friend and wonderful tuba player Robyn Hayward - an exciting way to hear and explore the natural intervals in a fun way.
Books, websites, articles or other sources of information on alternative tuning systems recommended by Hayden Chisholm:
For an introduction to just intonation: The Just Intonation Primer by David B. Doty.
For the tonal story of a wonderful explorer: The Genesis of a music by Harry Partch
And if I may recommend my own work, I uploaded a lecture to Youtube titled “Love in Numbers - Harmonics and the sound of the Fibonacci sequence”
As a website: www.roelhollander.eu has a beautiful collection of texts relating to tuning.
The Hayward Tuning Vine.
This is just a fraction as once one goes dome the rabbit hole, many more little holes will surely open up.