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 Microtuning by R.C. Clarke


   13th December 2020
Reading a 2017 Aphex Twin (RDJ) interview alongside Tatsuya Takahashi, an ex-engineer for KORG, laid bare many thoughts, previously scattered, now placed into one mental bucket. I would be remiss to not bring up RDJ's recent statements of the implications of Covid-19 and civil liberties in some capacity but, in short, I'll take this time to say wear a mask, wash your hands, and take care of your loved ones.


In the interview, RDJ goes into his history with microtuning, particularly in 1994 with his seminal release and evergreen record, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II. Microtonality is the using of shifting conventional notes higher or lower an interval. In other words, regular notes are pitched around to be in-between the keys of a piano. During his initial come-up he spoke to feeling at odds with the standard scaling of 440 Hz for the notes of music. Before 1936, most of western world followed the French standard of the middle A note measuring to 435Hz, but the International Organization for Standardization in 1955 solidified the slow move to A being tuned to 440 Hz. In the digital age, many people have gotten lost in the sauce with a conspiracy that 440 Hz promotes frustration and disruption with Nazi's being the thought leaders behind the changes from 435 to 440 and that it's actually 432 Hz that should be the new standard as it follows the golden ratio, allowing it to promote harmony and togetherness. In RDJ's journey through find his own sound, he picked around altering standard frequencies of the notes themselves and crafted his own (now well-known) custom scales, all microtuned, rooted in the subjectiveof what feels right. Past that, he also spoke on the superphysical Hz that humans can feel but not hear and how those tones carry just as much worth than the audible ones.


Music as a concept in basic terms is already so transcendent. The mere idea of a flurry of ever-changing frequencies begs a refusal to truly know what's happening in the transfer of acoustics to emotion. I found myself walking through that interview pondering on what it could mean to tug on the strings of form in other mediums to find our own tunings. Previously, my piece ‘Black Care, Blue Notes’ on Dweller, I went in-depth the ways Black people have approached mediums and notes with worry. In music, we call that the Blues. Artists working with film, such as Bradford Young and Barry Jenkins, also strive to reach worried notes in image and sound through time. This is really an expansion of this but through another lens added on top of the previous viewpoint.

Where are the hidden strings in prose? in film? More than worry, where are the shadowboxing arenas for these other practices? As of late, I find myself approaching interest in form apart from function, as it often implies the parameters of function. As we careen our way into a collective dystopia, a byproduct of this endgame is the dissolution of  previous  technological restrictions. A possible result of this ceiling removal is the near evaporation  of  grassroots  culture. Regionality of mixtapes, sounds, and culture have evaporated to the cloud. This is not all bad though, some examples such as the rise of the Brooklyn Drill could not have been without the global dialog between UK and NYC. But at a microscale, there is now few pathways to reach anywhere near a macro-space without some conglomerate backing you. Even more-so without the income of live shows, we have defenestrated locality and are stuck in the suffocating company of the all-seeing algorithm.

In this moment of forced razing and reconstruction, how are we reaching past not only decolonizing ourselves of ideas we've been fed, but also beginning the arduous task of reimagining what it means to have a standard in a way that serves our particular perspective — looking nothing like what decaying industry is in front of us? Are we microtuning our tools that sounds nothing like our oppressors? Our language?

The first idea that comes to mind for me is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), but unlike an Aphexian microtune, this is a bandwidth that has been "easily" tapped into. (With that said, with the new AFX Station, you too can play your own Aphex scales with ease!). In the 1940's after the 440 Hz became the standard in classic instruments, many countries had radio frequencies that strewn out a clean 440 Hz A-note for anyone, at any time, to tune their instruments to it. Social media, in many ways, has become the new radio dial for other allochthonous cultures to deposit into the channel of Black aesthetic. In many ways it’s a scrambled message, thankfully encoded through inflected histories of lived experiences, but at an expanded view, much of Blackness as we understand it has been thoroughly commodified; reified by label suits, industries and Depop channels alike.


One way western culture used the shadows of the future falling to them was with the invention of the vocoder. Like with most colonial inventions, it was originally used as another nail in the military industrial complex to leverage power through confusion. Created by Homer Dudley at Bell Labs, the vocoder is a prototypical bit crusher, allowing a signal to be played back at a lesser resolution, therefore extending its signal reach farther than it could otherwise. In the Second World War, the vocoder was encoded by a signal before transmission and anyone with said code could use that knowledge to untangle the encrypted signal into a perceptible message.

 
But how do we once again encode Black Secrecy in  ways that grant power and leverage to our forerunners in both function and form? The American South and its working class has a plethora of examples we can look to as astronomical guideposts. Robert Johnson. With only 29 songs known to have been made by him, the man reached mythological status by means of songs and story; selling his soul to the devil at "the crossroads" to be a virtuoso at the Blues. Even a century into his earthly passing, his encoded tale is buried in fog, decay and mystery, quite literally so. Robert Johnson at the time of this writing has three known burial sites, in Quinto, MS, Mooringsport, LA, and Greenwood; in MS  many speculate that none of the site actually contains his remains. For this Unsolved Mysteries generation, how can we find comfort in the lack of closure with blackness and its work? How can we let the power of the fog blackness produces to just be and settle around us?

Such a feeling reminds me of a quote by Simone Veil in ‘Gravity and Grace’:

"To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love."




Another quote that speaks to this is on one of Johnson's tombstones:

"Resting in the Blues"



I read that as finding comfort in the spectrum — the ambiguity. For those both within and outside Blackness, I believe this notion should be internalized in a very material way. To love Blackness and the work that ruptures from it, and to let it be. To decipher and decode it’s power is to do your love a disservice. The ultimate paradox, it seems, is in the very creation of a product that is in connection to the Black Fog, to allow secrets to continuously encircle you through its own construction. In a perversion of reverse engineering, can we reverse modulate convention? Not to bend the notes, but to create a new standard of them.

One personal standardization was unearthed by Alex Ayuli and Rudy Tambala, the duo comprising A.R. Kane, whom many document as the progenitors of Shoegaze. Tambala spoke to approaching their own custom scales, coined under their own name:

“We were aware of the necessity of flaws in music…these flaws are discontinuities that act as tiny fissures, allowing the dim and distant, diffused gem light of pre-creation to slip thru — it is this that music existed for — a signpost, a reminder, a note. BTW that’s a theory. We called it “Kaning” the music the music. So-called perfect music, whatever genre — aims to remove these flaws, to have a true and complete, finished thing. The flaws leave a space 




                    where the listener can still add something of her own, where she can sit and be. AR Kane is one person, comprised of two people. We never had enough individual Kane to make flawed music individually; it needed the two of us, working closely as lovers, in complete trust and proximity. It is telepathy, the children’s marbles dropping from our mouths, laughing, then more marbles, and coloured sticks and rubber bands.”



This welcomed approach of the finished being decidedly unfinished or even going so far as to dismantle something understood as perfect seems to find a through line in a plethora of diasporic music around the world. For the bones left to be the meat, to find your own artifacts in what isn’t explicitly granted to you. Reminds me of oxtails or crawfish initially thought of as trash but now considered a delicacy. In so much Black tonality across the world, these in-betweens are seemingly where to power is. In ad-libs, in reloads, in worried notes; within the restraint is where we personally build our own worlds, if only for the moment. A.R. Kane found their world within their twoism, realizing the necessity of communion, as we rarely find our own depths in isolation. From Blue Notes to Kaning, the hidden tonalities of Blackness continue to find its center in the fringes. 

These ideas are focused tangents that excite me; as we accelerate towards the end of the  world, faster than previously thought, it may behoove us to reach back for those that custom tuned their own world perspective/s.. Using their own frequencies, it allows for specific reverberation to occur. Even while buried and unheard, these vibrations have always been felt.

Another one of those buried transmissions comes from Mother Catherine Seals of New Orleans. Then Nanny Cowin, Seals moved to New Orleans from Hustonville, Kentucky in 1913 after multiple domestic abuses inflicted onto her by her husbands, one going so far as to induce a stroke and momentary paralysis. After going to a doctor who refused to help her on account of her race, she began a church in the Lower Ninth Ward near Bayou Bienvenu, the Temple of the Innocent Souls, providing healing to anyone who ventured in to the wetland regards of race or background. She became  part of a growing subculture in early 20th century New Orleans, Spiritual Churches. These churches often perform in secrecy, with many services taking place in the homes of the congregations. Stories like people with holes in their feet from stepping on a nail where heals in days from Sisters like Catherine Seals placing dirt or tying a chicken around the leg on the wound. These stories made these women untouchable as those in power never dared to inflict pain or change in this space, lest they be paranormally reprimanded.

Her space solidifies this power, with the temple known to have over 500 candles lit at any time. Being on the outskirts of the city also prompted little pushback to her radical disregard of race and gender. Much of the congregation were exiles of the city proper, populated by women who have been abused or those who had children out of wedlock including the children themselves. Hence, the temple of the Innocent Blood, these people had done no wrong and so she never turned any soul away who need healing, flattening multiple social hierarchies in one fell swoop. A white observer at the time in 1924 notes a moment of this still radical ideology in action:


“A small African-American girl that they said was about nine years old ushered them inside. They wanted to sit up front and the little girl said ‘oh no that's only for saints, I am a saint. I must say you have to sit in the back.’

What a peculiar reversal of the social order, when if you are white, or if you’re anyone, if you’re the governor, you sit in the back! Because you are not a saint.”




Mother Seals felt the end of the world rise from the marshlands of the Delta all the way back in 1923 and did what she could to help combat this rising tide as it reared its head for the final time in 2005 with the landfall and subsequent black genocide, both cultural and material, by Hurricane Katrina and FEMA. As Jazz rang through the Temple of the Innocent Souls (Seals was a deft trumpet player) and ramped into something completely different at her wake during the largest jazz funeral at the time (as noted in Time magazine in 1934), New Orleans music reverberated and refracted within and past 2005 as well; the once calm laidback bounce placed into a geographically induced psychedelia afterbirth what we now perceive New Orleans Bounce to be, a vicious semi-junglist freefall of percussion and seemingly infinite bombardments of tongue rolls.

Another end of the world also came with Detroit and the lagged death of mid-western modernity breathing its last gasp into the Belleview three, the Underground Resistance, and most notably, Drexciya. It was Drexciya who explicitly gave language to this end of their world where instead of lamenting the slow cancellation of a future ahead of them, they created their own history, and by extension enshrined a future that inverted the periphery as a core object. This idea even goes further back with Sun Ra and his thoughts towards an "Alter-destiny". Many of these ancestors moved with feelings, never investigating their choices too far as to shed light on the dark power behind the feeling. In its present day, many would call this a "vibe" and there's a beautiful ambiguity to that. Vibrations are felt, perceived, and even those that produce these frequencies feel their way through the space, rarely arriving at a sterile examination of said vibrations.






These are but a few ends of the world we can look to as potential methods of surviving our post-environments. The microtonality that RDJ sought  in the early 90’s granted him his idiosyncratic world to flourish in isolation. Johnson’s buried omnipresence, Mother Catherine Seals and Drexciya’s radical restructure of unseen realities  are all canaries in the transcendent coalmine that we should tune our own ears and futures to. Through various capitalistic pathways, we’ve found ourselves surrounded by vice grips, all plotting to decimate artists by creating a structure where boards of directors benefit from the labor and love nourished by musicians, filmmakers, poets, and the like. What structures can we create that look nothing like the structures that have historically failed us? What are the tones that only we can hear collectively? In my own opinion, it probably isn’t services that give artists a fraction of penny. As we fast approach the end of both the global and personal world, how can we tune to the power of our pasts into organized leverage, broadcasting towards the future? What stations can we build to transmit signals to collectively find our own perfect pitches? To Black folk, once we find them, let’s use it as a guiding light...keeping its power a secret, even from ourselves.

Andrew Duke:
What are the ideas, thoughts, and concepts behind Drexciya?”

James Stinson:
“Basically they just come from the inside — the way we feel with the vibes of the music. And whichever way it takes us, that’s the direction we go in, so far as the titles and the songs themselves when they’re being created. Wherever the current takes us, that’s where we’re going. Any given time a title could pop up or a song could pop up, there’s nothing that’s really preplanned. We flow with the current.”










If you enjoyed this article, consider buying this exclusive tee designed with R.C. Clarke. We share the profit equally. Support music writing. 








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