Neod

Musical instruments are, just like scientific ones, starting points for journeys into the unknown. The neod uses a small amount of electricity to set free a musical idea that has fascinated thinkers, musicians and music theorists for thousands of years. It amplifies the tiniest movement. It extends the reach of the hands to let them touch very large and very small distances. It is a magical object that provides a physicality to a virtual mathematical world. It lifts us from the well-charted waters of 12 into the deep forests of 53.

Related blog posts

neod.1.anortosit:
sound diary over the first 8 months of the neod's existance

"This reduction of the natural relations to manageable ones cannot permanently impede the evolution of music; and the ear will have to attack the problems, because it is so disposed. Then our scale will be transformed into a higher order, as the church modes were transformed into major and minor modes. Whether there will then be quarter tones, eighth, third, or (as Busoni thinks) sixthtones, or whether we will move directly to a 53-tone scale [...] we cannot foretell."

Arnold Schönberg: Theory of Harmony 3rd Edition

Microtonal Playing

Growing up playing string instruments, pure fifths hold a special place in my heart. The resonance when tuning my viola and the beatings stop just feels like home. Likewise, playing thirds anything but pure sounds awful on a string instrument, and so 12 tone equal temperament (aka 12tet or 12edo), which is the prevailing theoretical system in Western music since approximately a couple hundred years, never felt right to me.

I made a few digital musical instruments using string like pitch playing on softpots, but never liked playing on them much. The neod takes a different approach to increasing the resolution of pitch, and allowing me to play those sweet pure intervals (almost exactly): instead of dividing the octave into 12 equal parts, it divides them into 53 equal parts (with an option to subdivide into 1/3 steps, i.e. 159edo).

Why 53edo?

53edo is the division of the octave into 53 equal parts. Why 53? The fact that 53edo very closely approximates 5-limit just intonation is something that has been known for centuries. We are fairly certain that Chinese music theorist and mathematician Jing Fang (78–37 BCE) knew about its mathematical properties, as did Isaac Newton (1642-1726). At least two different keyboard layouts for playing in 53edo have been designed, in the 1800s by RHM Bosanquet and in the 1900s by Larry A. and Evelyn Hanson. Its 5ths are very close to 3:2, making it essentially a Pythagorean temperament, but combined with almost as pure 3rds (5:4 and 6:5) they form an excellent 5-limit tuning approximation, without the inconvenience of an infinite number of pitches when you modulate, which is the case in just intonation.

Personally, I was drawn to 53edo both because it is the lowest edo that is such a good 5-limit approximation, and because it offers new music theory experimentation. Not being an extension of 12 (which for example 72edo is), it has some "new" properties such as having a spiral of fifths instead of a circle. Not having the 12edo intervals to fall back on is also pushing me to fully embrace the microtonal possibilities of the system, instead of falling back to familiar 12edo intervals when things get complicated.

In an earlier blog post I give make comparisons, provide som background and discuss the problems with the current system.

The input method is very similar to what I wrote in another blog post, in essence using binary numbers to set the pitch with an extra button for the fifth and octaves set separately.

Musicking across musical traditions

Different musical traditions and cultures use different tunings, scale and overall pitch systems. The dominance of 12tet in Western music is, it appears, but a parenthesis in music history, stemming from a wealth of Pythagorean, meantone and well temperaments. Other musical cultures use other tunings, just look at Indian classical music, Arabic and Turkish maqaam music or Javanese gamelan music.

Khyam Allami, who is active in maqam music, writes in his article "Microtonality and the Struggle for Fretlessness in the Digital Age" about how the Western 12 note per octave division dominates the digital music tools that musicians have access to and what a destructive effect this has had for musicians within maqam music and other non-Western music cultures. 53edo, and its extension 159edo, are especially suitable for approximating the intervals used in different maqam tunings (which differ for the same scale between different regions). Ozan Yarman writes in his PhD dissertation "79-tone Tuning & Theory for Turkish Maqam Music" about how 53edo is the basis for how Turkish music theory is taught, but that the musical practice demands higher precision in pitch. Yarman therefore suggests a 79 tone subest of 159edo to both describe and play Turkish music.

Since I am no expert in any musical culture outside Western styles, it is yet to be seen how well the instrument actually fits in different musics. I look forward to playing the neod with fellow musicians and explore its possibilities in practice.

Control and Care, Difficulty and Empathy

My bond to the musical instrument is caring, care-ful, not because it is equal, but because it is fully other and at the same time intimately integrated with myself.

Playing a musical instrument, to me, is an intense back and forth listening and acting between all the parts of my body-mind and the instrument. Leaping for a sound and failing to reach it, but ending up somewhere else is integral to playing a musical instrument through care. It is what fosters me to relax and listen to its otherness. The act of playing is intimate and rooted in empathy.

The controller, useful as it is, dissolves the intimate physical-sonic bond, as the mapping between action and sonic result is malleable. For this reason, it is important that the neod sounds in a specific way. During the development process the sound synthesis and mapping will be in constant flux as I incorporate my ideas of fragility and care into the sound synthesis. The sonic characteristics can be rich and multidimensional, and they will be inseparable from the networked flow from conciousness through flesh, physical object, electrical signals, to sound and back.

When we are no longer bound by the acoustic response of the material, as we are in an acoustic instrument, crafting the right sonic material is all the more important. For the neod, I will listen to the way this particular object and its sensors silently sing, I will listen to how the instrument interacts with other sounds in the world and I will listen for a fragile, careful, complex and intimate sonic identity.

Sound synthesis

The sound of the instrument is in constant flux, and I don't expect it to ever be completely stable. I think it was Brian Eno who said to "think like a gardener, not an architecht". By gardening the sound synthesis code piece by piece, I hope to eventually incorporate my aesthetic ideas of precise fragility in a way that is in harmony with the physical shape of the instrument.

The current version is based on a combination of wave guide and wavetable synthesis written in Rust. For more information on how to combine C++ and Rust on the Bela, see my blog post on the matter.

Inspired by bowed and plucked string instruments, I hope to be able to give the neod a richness in timbre combined with a precision in pitch that is necessary to warrant the high resolution and precision of pitch selection, while also enabling a wide timbral expression. This doesn't mean I aim for it to sound like a viola or a theorbo, but that I strive for a fully electronic sound that can rival the acoustic ones in complexity.

To hear snapshots of the sound synthesis at different moments in time, listen to the neod.1.anortosit sound diary.

Electronics

The current iteration of the neod is played using 29 capacitive sensors (using Trill Craft) and an IMU. Inside the shell is a Bela mini that aggregates the sensor data and synthesises the sound. With the Bela mini, the instrument is completely stand-alone. The battery, however, didn't fit in this shell so I use an external power bank.