Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre
at216 Seamus Cater ‘A History of Musical Pitch’
Three pieces by the Amsterdam-based composer Seamus Cater, lovingly devised as a ‘re-sounding’ of the explorations of Alexander J. Ellis - the Victorian polymath who invented the musical cent, as well as being a philologist, mathematician, inventor and sometime presenter of instruments adapted to just intonation tunings.
1 - Checking (2021) 13:47
Koen Nutters (double bass) Seamus Cater (concertina)
Peter Adriaansz, Hugo Bell, Yannis Kyriakides & Danya Pilchen (tuning forks)
2 - Tree Space (2019) 13:00
Germaine Sijstermans (clarinet) Dante Boon (piano) Koen Nutters (double bass)
Rishin Singh (trombone) Seamus Cater (concertina)
3 - A History of Musical Pitch (2020) 36:59
Anne La Berge (flute) Fredrik Rasten (e-bow guitar)
Peter Adriaansz, Hugo Bell, Yannis Kyriakides & Danya Pilchen (tuning forks)
Sleevenotes to ‘A History of Musical Pitch’ by Seamus Cater
In 1880, Alexander J. Ellis presented a paper, The History of Musical Pitch, to the Royal Society in London. Alongside the extensive footnotes in his English translation, the pitch history was also included in the translator’s appendix of On the Sensations of Tone by Hermann L.F. Helmholtz. The 74 tuning forks used in these pieces were tuned to represent the research of Ellis, where he succeeded in gathering 223 instances of the note ‘A’ from intact historical organs and assorted instruments and makers. These ‘A’s’ ranged between what we now call F# and C#.
Ellis was a measurer. As mathematician and inventor of the musical cent, philologist, collector and translator, he is commonly thought of as the initiator of comparative musicology, but what I looked for around all this data were traces of his private musicality. I knew he had been an amateur performer, who had demonstrated airs at the Royal Society with his experimentally tuned concertinas. While he didn’t leave us any music, I wondered if he might have considered how these pitches would sound, united in a single room or building. Vaguely resembling the Scheibler Tonometer, which he used to measure Victorian instruments, these 74 forks were tuned in just ratios of 480Hz. They make up a system comprising only one note name. A History of Musical Pitch tries to focus the most consonant tones of the system, moving slowly through an historical timeline of 1495 to 1880.
Checking is more concerned with the act of checking each fork with an instrument, an inversion of checking the instrument with a tuning fork. Musicians who brought their instruments to Ellis for measuring had to maintain a pitch for 20 seconds, which was unreasonably lengthy for the period, so that he could check their tone against a suitable fork from his tonometer. When the closest tuned fork produced the least beatings, a chronograph was needed to calculate the frequency. I like to think Ellis might also have used a concertina or a double bass to check the ‘A’s he encountered, to compare them to his own ‘A’ string or reed, and to see whether holding pitches for such periods could in fact be musical.
The cover artwork is a painting of Epping Forest by Ellis’s son, the painter Tristram James Ellis.
Seamus Cater (July 2022)
Alexander J. Ellis
Interview with Seamus Cater
Firstly, a bit about yourself. What is your background in music, and how come you are living in Amsterdam?
I only really committed to music when I was about 23 and was fortunate to do an Access course for mature students at Dartington College of Arts, playing improvised music and jazz. The relationships with the musicians and teachers around that college had a wider focus than traditional music study and I moved to Holland with 2 musicians I had met there, without any concrete plans to stay, after a jazz degree at Salford University in the late 90s. Apart from that, my parents were both very active as folk revivalists in the 60s in London, so folk music and singing permeated my early music experiences.
What instruments did you play at the time when you were playing jazz and improvisation?
I have always been a free-reed player. I learned to play the harmonica when I was 19. Because the blues harp is diatonic, I eventually moved to the chromatic harmonica, so I could play ‘all’ the notes I could hear in jazz music. That word ‘all’ is a little bit ridiculous though, when we start considering non-standard tuning. In Manchester I was surrounded by fabulous players and started a group where I wrote the repertoire for musicians who were much better players than me but responded well to the music I came with.
Have you moved away from jazz – and, if so, why? How would you describe the music you currently play?
I suppose I stopped playing jazz in the early 2000s moving towards electronic music as a performer and composer. There was only so much I could get from practicing scales and performing jazz repertoire with harmonica. Somehow, my practice became more about sound than melody and functional harmony, but the electronic period also came to an end around 2010. Eventually I came back to the blues harmonica, which has a better sound spectrum than the chromatic harmonica, retuning it in JI chords, with less notes and making durational breathing pieces. My album with the NYC banjoist Woody Sullender really illustrates that period.
Probably the most important development for me was beginning to write and perform songs in 2009. I know you yourself are not a great fan of voice and song, but for me there are things that just cannot be communicated with instruments alone, and I found the voice to be a remarkable medium. I play Rhodes and concertina (a small free-reed English type of accordion). I have made 3 albums of songs, either solo or in collaboration in the last 10 or so years, and there is quite a lot to come in the near future. I try to look for non-standard song forms, but somehow these loop back into a kind of folk music, although one that the folk music community doesn’t really buy into. As for describing the music I play I would say it is a kind of poetic conceptualism which is hopefully open enough to be considered both popular and experimental.
Has the nature of the experimental music ‘scene’ in Amsterdam changed your music – and which musicians there do you play with most often?
I can’t talk about Amsterdam without talking about DNK-Amsterdam, a concert series I have co-organised for nearly 20 years. Together with Koen Nutters, Martijn Tellinga and André Avelas, we have programmed hundreds of concerts of experimental music, from fluxus, reductionist, new chamber music, to noise, performance works and sound art. Many musicians from the Berlin Echtzeit scene have played at DNK and I count them as strong influences in developing my song and composition practice. I’ve also been a peripheral part of the Wandelweiser scene for many years.
Although living in Amsterdam, a lot of the collaborations I have made in recent years have been with musicians based in Berlin, a city I usually travel to several times a year. I worked a little with Konzert Minimal but put most work into a duo with clarinettist Kai Fagaschinski, and I‘m currently working with Fredrik Rasten on some folk repertoire.
Recent Amsterdam projects have included being a member of Leo Svirsky’s ‘River Without Banks’, playing concertina in a big band of 2 pianos, 2 pedal/lap steel guitars, and other musicians, interpreting his album of the same name. Also playing concertina in the music of Germaine Sijstermans in different line-ups. During the Covid void, I reluctantly came back to playing chromatic harmonica as a member of the Amsterdam band ‘The Names’. That band plays what I think of as slow jazz music, by Koen Nutters, and my experience of playing chromatic harmonica again after 15 years was very enjoyable. With almost no practice in the meantime I hadn’t forgotten how to play. But still, I don’t see it coming back in my music.
So tell us a bit more about your ‘A History of Musical Pitch’ project. How did that start?
Having learnt to play the kind of concertinas that were made in London in Victorian times, and having the skills to tune free reed instruments, I thought it’d be interesting to re-tune a concertina in Just Intonation. A Google facsimile of 'On the Sensations of Tone' revealed a footnote to a 'Just English Concertina', from about 1885. It took me a few years to realise that that footnote was written by Alexander J. Ellis, who was the book’s translator. The appendix to the 2nd edition of his translation of Helmholtz, where he detailed his own studies, included the retuning of several concertinas. He proposed a system which he called Skhismic, 24 Pythagorean 5ths which although only '3 limit' give very good 5- and quite good 7-limit approximations. I have to thank Marc Sabat for suggesting this system to me. It was not included in the first English translation, so I had missed it.
This gave me a connection to Ellis where I felt I was somehow continuing his work. I looked for his texts in journals of the Royal Society and many other publications and he became a kind of muse. Ellis’ paper ‘The History of Music Pitch’ was originally published in the journal of the RS, that’s the version I used to develop the tuning fork music. I had to tune 74 tuning forks to make the piece possible, composing the piece was quite simple in comparison. I needed an instrumentalist to interact with the forks and knowing the playing of Anne La Berge, this was a simple choice, her sustaining tone being so clear, combined with her microtonal flute playing. The drones in the piece began as sine tones, but were replaced by Fredrik Rasten playing E-bowed acoustic guitar.
Aside from this Another Timbre CD, the other half of the (re)sounding of Ellis is a cycle of songs, singing his words, accompanied by the retuned concertina, in his ‘Skhismic’ tuning system. I found the translation and paratexts added by Ellis quite revealing of his sensibilities, and being a kindred concertina player, I could implement the tuning with an instrument which hadn't existed in Ellis' times, mine being bigger than what he played, from 1926, with more reeds. I went as far as measuring the tunings of his instruments in the depot of the Horniman Museum, reading his letters in the British Library, visiting his grave, and taking walks around London to places I knew he had frequented, walks he must have taken, etc. I pretty much stalked him.
Two of the pieces on the CD present (re)soundings of Ellis’s work, but the third piece – ‘Tree Space: the trees they do grow high’ – is different. Could you describe how that piece came about?
Tree space is a graphic and text score. It’s a line drawing of a tree, with the melody and chords of Peter Bellamy’s interpretation, fragmented and hanging in the branches. It can be interpreted in almost any way, but in most performances it sounds somewhat similar; quite static but waking up on itself now and again, a little bit like a tree, a little bit like folk music. I wrote it when invited for the Klangraum festival in 2019, to be as inclusive as possible, where anybody could join. Each day was a different ensemble, and Antoine Beuger kindly said it was a binding ritual where we all went and sat in the tree at different times of each day. The version on the CD is more like a chamber version recorded by the DNK Ensemble.
Seamus Cater (photo by Emily Bates)
The 74 tuning forks for ‘A History of Musical Pitch’
The score of ‘Tree Space: the trees they do grow high’