About a year and a half ago, the first prototype of my microtonal musical instrument, the neod, reached playability. Since then, I have been exploring it and the 53edo system of pitch it is based on through new compositions, recorded music and live concerts. After a summer of recording and gigging, I will once again turn my focus towards realising the next neod, neod.2, so a sort of evaluation is in order.
Photo: Elias Gustafsson
The neod was never meant to be an easy to play instrument, unlike many new musical instrument designs, and it has lived up to this goal quite well.
Since I decided that step 0 corresponds to the note C, I started by getting comfortable in C major and minor. From that, the learning process followed what I'm used to for practicing the other instruments I play: learn a piece, find difficult passages, repeat the difficult passages in a low tempo until I can play them and raise the tempo little by little.
Of course, doing this I get a feel for what is easy and what is hard. There is no question that changing between ceratin notes is more difficult than others. F to A for example requires moving all five fingers: adding two, removing two and moving the thumb. C to E, on the other hand, only requires adding two fingers.
At the point of writing, I am reasonably comfortable playing in most keys, at least if the music is slow. I will return to the issue of fast runs below.
During the periods when I have practiced the most, I have gotten very used to hearing 53edo; so much so that it has started to sound like the natural tuning system. Hearing 12tet, the system I have taken for granted for most of my life, it now has a special character to it. I hear 12tet as slightly icy and on the edge, sometimes leaning towards a grey blandness. Of course, I still love music in 12tet, but sometimes I really miss the warmth of 53edo.
There's a string orchestra performance I remember from a concert in Berlin many years ago, maybe 10, where the orchestra played a beautiful rendition of some parts of The Art of the Fugue. Their intonation was so pure and so warm that I remember it to this day. Something similar happens to me when I get to swim around in 53edo harmony.
Experimenting with microtonal variations in intonation has also vastly improved my listening. It is almost as if I have discovered a new dimension of colour in pitch, and having done so, I am convinced that there are many more colours and dimensions still to discover.
neod.1.anortosit, the EP I released on Bandcamp, was an effort to musically document the process of exploring the instrument and tuning from a compositional as well as performative point of view. As a sonic journal, I feel it speaks best for itself. You can find it together with notes about each piece on Bandcamp.
Photo: Esther Dorado
One of the things I was most curious about was how well the neod would work in combination with existing instruments, conforming more or less closely to 12tet. Fortunately, I was able to test this at a few concerts during 2022, playing with the following instruments in different constellations:
From some initial testing, as well as just doing the maths, it was apparent that some pitches were more sensitive than others. Some 12tet pitches have very close counterparts in 53edo, whereas some are further away. When the pitches that are further away are used in something other than a tonic-fifth relationship, e.g. a third, this can actually be a benefit. In general though, a good starting point when playing with 12tet instruments is the closest 12tet approximation scale. In addition to this, certain pitches can sometimes be adjusted. The major thirds can often, though far from always, be adjusted down to 5-limit JI. Minor thirds are far more sensitive in my experience and often sound out of place when raised to 5-limit JI, especially together with the marimba.
Another approach is to make sure the neod and the other instrument don't clash in what pitches they use. I tried this when writing Över ängen står tiden still, a piece incorporating old Swedish traditional microtonal variations. The organ, and later the marimba, got to play a lot Pythagorean intervals while the neod took care of all the pitches firmly outside of 12tet. The approach worked well, but can be a bit limiting for the 12tet instrument. (This particular organ was tuned to 12tet; a 1/4 comma meantoned tuned organ would offer other challenges and possibilities)
It varies how sensitive the ear is to differences in pitch between the instruments. Generally, the quicker the music is, the more you get away with, but other factors such as timbre of course play a big role as well.
The summer of 2022, my brother Elias Gustafsson and I performed a series of concerts with "futuristic traditional music" on the neod and marimba, a supremely rewarding and instructive experience. When rehearsing, it was quickly apparent that 5-limit thirds often clashed horribly with the marimba so many of the tunes we played are in a compromise tuning adhearing to the pitches of the actual bars of my brother's marimba.
Playing together with recordings, it is apparent that different genres and instrument combinations conform to different tuning systems. This may sound obvious to some. A guitar in an ensemble often means that one or two pitches deviate from what is "logical" e.g. 3- or 5-limit JI. Classical music is rarely in 5-limit JI, but Pythagorean tuning is not uncommon in certain passages. Thirds do, however, often share some similarity to the 12tet compromise. Scandinavian traditional music, in addition to sometimes having microtonal variation, is much closer than classical music to 5-limit JI, especially if no guitar is involved. Modern pop and metal music is often quantised to 12tet, but you can sometimes get away with 5-limit parts as long as you don't play in unison with something else.
Getting over the initial challenge of just internalising the grips and movements between them took a long while. With that job accomplished, it was clear that the system does work, but not well enough to my satisfaction. With a lot of practice, I am able to play many runs of 16th notes in an moderate tempo, but I am missing the ease with which you can perform runs, ornamentations and arpeggios on piano or even violin.
The idea of having the left hand part with multiple strings was to be able to play chords as drones. This is partly because of the practical consideration that there aren't very many 53edo instruments so if I want 53edo harmony I have to be able to play it myself. The shape of the left hand part as well as having too few strings made using it for its intended purpose difficult, however, and playing both chords and arpeggios is currently very challenging with few exceptions.
While I really do enjoy the current sound synthesis of the neod, there is a richness, a wealth of imperfections, in acoustic instruments that I still feel like I'm missing in the neod.
Luckily, these are all aspects of the instrument that I already plan to adress with the next version of the neod.
The feedback I have gotten so far has been amazing. Thank you so much to everyone who has reached out to me about this project, wither in person or online. It has helped me to keep motivated through the more tedious parts of the process.
Here are some examples of the kind of feedback I have gotten:
Feedback about the music at the in person concerts we've been able to enjoy this year has also been overwhelmingly positive. Some of this positive engagement is of course due to the novelty of the instrument, but audiences have also reacted favourably to the way I have used microtonal variations on the neod. It seems like there is nothing holding 53edo back on the audience's side.
I am so happy about all the wonderful comments and encouragements this little instrument has elicited. Technically, musically and theoretically, this musical instrument has opened so many new paths for me. There is much yet to explore and many improvements to be made; now I'm gathering energy to release into the next chapter of the neod.
Big thanks to Elias Gustafsson, Jakob Norin, Jani Fleivik, Dolores Catherino, Rami Olsen and Freddi Sturm for sharing your musicianship with the neod and me this year. I look forward to many more concerts and collaborations to come.