Neod

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 releases us from the hegemony of 12.

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Variations on Vem kan segla förutan vind? 2021-01-24

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). I discuss 53edo and the problems with the current system more in a blog post, but long story short you can play almost completely pure 5-limit (that is relating to fifths and thirds) intervals with the convenience of having set steps that don't drift freely, like just intonation does.

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. 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. When corona restrictions are lifted 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. The neod does not follow the trend of "smart", AI powered, universal or easy-to-play instruments. Although those all have their place and I admire the artists/designers/creators that make compelling and accessible art using those ideas and methods, it is integral to my conceptual idea of the instrument that this one is not.

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.

For this reason, and others, it is important that the instrument sounds a specific way. During the development process the way it sounds will be in constant flux as I incorporate my ideas of fragility and care into the sound synthesis. It will, however, always be a musical instrument and not a controller since the controller, useful as it is, dissolves the intimate physical-sonic bond. 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 physical 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 do my best to find this sonic identity by listening to the way this particular object and its sensors silently sing.

Technical details

The current iteration of the neod is played using 29 capacitive sensors and an IMU. Inside the shell is a Bela mini that aggregates the sensor data and synthesises the sound. Sound synthesis is all in C++, although I plan on incorporating my own sound synthesis library written in Rust eventually. With the Bela mini, the instrument is completely stand-alone. The battery didn't fit in this shell so I use an external power bank.