Keys are for Doors, Scales are for Fish, Modes are for Me!

A wonderful new resource came my way recently: Michael Hewitt’s book Scales of the World. At first I searched the Duke Music Library to see if they might have it to lend, but no. Of course, Amazon Kindle had it for a very reasonable fee, so- Boom! I am reading it now! (For better or worse, I mostly love technology.) In spite of my lack of concern for scales and keys, the book is a jumping off point for studying modes. Right out of the gate, Mr. Hewitt enlightened me as to the difference between scales and modes.

Where scale is concerned therefore, the main point of interest is the pattern of scale steps of different sizes that define that scale. Where mode is concerned however, the main focus of interest is the relationship of each note to the tonic, a mode being the sum of these relationships.

While scales and modes are both based on patterns and relationships, modes emphasize the tone or feelings evoked by intervalic relationship to the tonic note of the scale. Since the character of the mode is established through these relationship, modes carry a powerful sense of feeling and emotion. Modes with augmented, major intervals sound light and happy, while modes with diminished, minor intervals are heard as sad and dark. Scales, on the other hand, emphasize the structure of patterning, which allows communication with other musicians and transposition.

In the section on Diatonic Modes, Mr. Hewitt explains that practically the entire body of Western Classical music written between the 17th and 19th Centuries was created from just the major and minor scales. He goes on to say that the impression we have of greater modal diversity in this music is created by the varieties of minor scales employed by composers. So Western Classical music of this period was “based on a dualistic system, the contrasting terms of which are major and minor.” Since I did not study music, I had never realized this before, however, it makes sense to my ear. I enjoy classical music, but have always thought that many works of that period sounded rather similar to each other. This may be why.

As a matter of a fact, Ferrucio Busoni, in his 1907 essay, Sketch of a New Esthetic of Music, exposes the tonal range limitations of music of this period by calling attention to the fact that many familiar motives were basically riffs on each other. One could fit inside another. Mr. Hewitt states:

Speaking about how jaded the resources of the tonal system had become, Busoni also turned his attention to the limitations imposed by equal temperament. He observed that because of equal temperament we are no longer capable of hearing some of the finer distinctions of tone which belong to what he called infinite gradation.

There is a lot packed into these ideas. While Busoni begins his critique from the larger frame of the major/minor duality, he finds equal temperament tuning equally as culpable in dulling the ear of Western Classical music listeners. I find it so interesting that we revere a music that, in retrospect, has really codified and limited our ears. The classical music of this time does have great beauty and vitality, and, at the same time, it is limited and controlling. The evolution of music and sound during the 20th Century has been a determined wriggling free from these limitations. And we ain’t done yet.

This book is very exciting to me as a jumping off point. I first played through various scales to find ones that spoke to me. I have always loved the simplicity and twang of a good pentatonic scale. Blues and Pan-Asian musics favor these scales and I do too. They are sooo versatile – really, you can pick any five notes and use them as a pentatonic scale. The scales with many notes are not as favored by me as they tend to sound like pekid chromatic scales. One scale that leapt out was the “Shostikovich” Scale. According to the author, this scale was used by Shostikovich to compose his most famous Sixth Symphony. I am working on a soundscape using this scale.

And still I am drawn back to the modes. My favorite, D Dorian, evokes a line between pleasure and pain for me. While D Dorian’s character is one of longing and suffering, there is a kind of joy in it as well. E Phrygian is also a favorite as it has a mystical, dark feeling. But here I am still dawdling in the familiar when Mr. Hewitt has laid out a smorgasbord of “scales” all the while emphasizing their modal relationships. I am interested in exploring Greek Folk scales and Indian Carnatic scales in particular. The Carnatic scales are presented in relation to the chakra to which they are attuned, which is exciting for future movement and meditation classes that Jody and I are planning. Actually, the next one will be on Sunday, June 7 at th ADF studios. Thanks to this marvelous book, I will be able to explore the solar plexus chakra with Carnatic scales attuned to that chakra. Please do join us. Here is the link to sign up:

Open Eye Cafe May 16, 2015

Thanks to the generosity of TJ Goode, the idiosyncratic beats of dejacusse had another outing to the Open Eye Cafe. Susanne Romey joined me again on flutes, recorders, toy piano and percussion. The rest of the cohorts were unavailable, however, the WoW delivered Josh Zaslow on ACCORDION and guitar. So happy to have a reed instrument in the mix, as Eleanor has been providing that voice with her harmonicas, and I very much like that sound with my scapes. (Check Artist’s Statement page for more on the function of reed instruments in dejacusse’ soundscapes.)

We played three soundscapes, Big Stride, VollySunds, and Gone Won: life is a dream. Susanne has been working with this material for a while and she was really listening deeply into the soundscape and into the space. She came soaring in at moments, and was like a babbling brook at other moments. Josh was not at all familiar with the material, but he listened deeply into the space and was very skilled in “bending” the tone of the entire soundscape with the atonal harmonics of the accordion. There were wonderful moments throughout all three pieces. The three of us had interaction and solo time, and there was a beautiful flow to the whole thing. I particularly enjoyed when friend, Linda Carmichael, came up and scatted “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with me during Gone Won: life is a dream.

The first time we played here I recorded one of the soundscapes and was struck by the ways the environment impacted the soundscape. This became the idea for “nested soundscapes”. (Again, check Artist Statement page for more on “nested soundscapes”). This time, I came prepared to record with two Zoom H2n recorders on mic stands placed in different parts of the room. The mic placed furthest away was set to surround sound, so picked up more of the ambient sounds in the room along with the soundscape. I placed the second mic within a 6 foot radius of the players and set the recording to stereo. Both mics had low cut filters taking out extra low energy rumbling. The Zoom H2n digital recorders contain 4 small mics with adjustable ranges, so when surround sound is set, the Zoom is recording two stereo tracks, one a bit forward and one a bit back. Put these with the stereo track from the other mic, and I have three stereo files to set in relation to each other, thus creating the nested soundscape.

I plugged all three files into Audacity and listened to each one individually. The surround sound files were bigger and louder with more ambient noise, and some clipping. (Note for next time: I need to carefully adjust all the settings on the recorders ahead of time.) I tried panning the surround files to opposite sides of the mix, but that was too muddy even for me. Then I panned them both to the right, lowered the signals signifigantly, and added some room reverb. My thinking was to make the ambient sounds more far away and dreamlike. The effect is somewhat present here, but not as much as I want. So as you listen you will hear conversation, clinking glasses and thumps and bumps. Relax your ear and accept the entire entangled soundscape. These are excerpts from Big Stride and VollySunds. The last part of VollySunds is called Rowing Away. Caverna Magica fills with water, so we climb aboard our skiff and row away.


A new development on the soundscape horizon happened recently when three former Triangle Soundpainting cohorts came over to improvise with some soundscapes. Susanne Romey, who played with me at the Open Eye Cafe in early February, was joined by Jim Kellough on digital horn and Eleanor Mills on harmonicas and melodica. Susanne plays toy piano and flutes. They joined in on several soundscapes and even some snippets of things I am interested in developing. We played in the Sun (Ra) Room with the Zoom recorder capturing the sound.

This was an ecstatic first outing for me as I felt the players were really listening and playing into the soundscape. Sometimes they overpowered the scape and made a scape of their own, sometimes they laid low. I think everyone had a solo moment or two. The reedy, resonant timbre of the harmonicas and melodica are a really wonderful sonic match to the clear and piercing digital horn. These voices off set by the jangly, off-kilter harmonics of the toy piano and the warmth of the flute. For me all these voices are the perfect complement to the buzzy, density of many of my soundscapes.

One of the pieces we played with is Gone Won:Life is a Dream. This piece was composed for the Won Buddhist Temple Bazaar last October. In this piece, different instrumental voices take turns improvising and then becoming part of the underscape over which the next voice improvises. Row, Row, Row Your Boat is the theme, but this is not obvious until later in the soundscape. I am excited that I will be able to play this piece at the bazaar this year as well. I wanted to play it again because my keyboard stopped working last year, so I was not able to develop the soundscape as I had planned. I hope my cohorts will be available in October to add another dimension to this soundscape.

After we played with several pieces, we discussed the idea of nested soundscapes and possible places where we could play and record the space. Jim suggested the stairwell where his studio is located and The Power Plant at American Tobacco Campus as possible spaces to sound in. We will check these out and keep you posted!

All you need is vision and cohorts, the rest is!

Addendum: This clip is from the second outing with The Cohorts, and we took turns soloing and listening, which I thought was cool. We will do that again. This is from the soundscape Vollysunds and has been called the butterfly effect and waters. This exemplifies a long, repetitive loop that is almost drone like, but with more movement and tonal complexity than a drone. As you will hear it is alot of fun to play over and through.

So this is my first stab at a “nested soundscape” where I am using files from multiple recorders placed in the room where the soundscape was diffused into the space and we played figures and tones over top of it. I think that the mic placed back in a cutout corner of the room, just slightly inside the frame of the cutout, caught the best mix of the sounds and scape. So this is one section of the session with a file from each microphone. I threw this together quickly, so have not worked with creating space and dynamics with the various mics. I love the richness and the feeling of immersion in an ocean of sound. Listen through headphones if you can.