Neil Haverstick — Hopelessly Microtonal
((Not on label) no#, 2018, Book)
by Jon Davis, Published 2019-03-12One of the first things you learn when you start studying many musical instruments (aside from drums or keyboards) is how to tune the things. What they don’t teach you is why it’s tuned the way it is. Alternate tunings are well-established in the guitar world, with DADGAD, New Standard Tuning, and others out there. But all of them are based on the idea of having 12 equally spaced notes in each octave — that’s how the frets on a guitar neck are placed. But once you dig a little deeper, you discover that neither the choice of 12 nor the equal spacing is a universal truth. Indonesian gamelan, Indian classical music, and Arabic music are just a few examples of alternatives out there today, and if you look to history, you’ll find that even in Europe, there was a time when other systems held sway. Briefly, the 12-tone equal temperament system developed as a way to allow composers to write in any key, since previous systems all had notes that would work in some keys and not others. This solution basically makes all keys slightly out of tune from the “natural” harmonic pitches that derive from the laws of physics, so all keys are off in the same way. Over the centuries of listening to this music, our ears have become accustomed to it, and other ways of tuning can sound decidedly weird. When it comes to the hows and whys of various systems, both ancient and recently invented, Neil Haverstick is a well-known authority, and his specialty is the guitar. Guitar-like instruments are well-suited to this kind of variety, since the frets can be placed on the neck in any kind of spacing desired, and it’s just a matter of doing the math to figure out where. In Hopelessly Microtonal, Haverstick gives us some historical, technical, and practical background to the concepts of microtonality, and then launches into profiles of some of the many instruments he’s accumulated over the years to play this music — acoustic and electric guitars and basses, banjos, ouds, and a saz. He writes about how and why he acquired them, who built or modified them, what they’re like to play, and in what situations he uses them. Some have interesting stories behind them. Far from being a gearhead’s bragging session, this is practical information, since 19-tone, 31-tone, and 32-tone instruments are not at all interchangeable. A recurring theme is how the quality and playability of a guitar is not related to the price, and many of his axes were not expensive, even with the modifications. For anyone who is at all interested in the application of alternative tunings in modern music, this is both primer and reference manual. Haverstick’s explanations are clear and understandable for anyone with a basic knowledge of music. On the negative side, I must mention that the proofreading is atrocious, in particular the improper use of apostrophes. Many readers are no doubt immune (or unaware) of such things, but it does bug me. That’s only a small dent in my enjoyment of the book, however. It’s a fascinating subject, and there are plenty of references for further exploration.
Related artist(s): Neil Haverstick (Stick Man)
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