The Drums and Drones project initially came about from inspiration by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House installation in TriBeCa, NYC. I had spent a good amount of time, almost a year and a half maybe, volunteering there as a “monitor,” someone who minded the installation and greeted visitors during its open hours. The duration of my shift, about 4-5 hours, was mostly spent sitting outside of the gallery space, with the immense sound pulsing through the door and walls, while reading up on the principles of Just Intonation and the historical background of La Monte, Marian, and their cohorts of the NYC experimental art scene. I accumulated many hours, too, sitting in the space itself, embracing the impact of the finely tuned sound and light vibrations. One can hear the installation, which is set three flights up from the entrance, as soon as the door is opened to the building. The sound grows in intensity as the stairs are climbed, leading to the climactic moment when one reaches the landing on the third floor, opens the door there, and takes the first step to enter into the space.
I was exposed to this ‘tone sculpture’ for hours on end. After a while, I would finally get it, only to have new doors opened in the pathway of experience. Prolonged exposure only deepened its impact, and revealed it as the unending infinity it was designed to be with the only limit being myself. The tones would dance in my head, hypnotic and entrancing, and I would hear tones that previously seemed veiled which were now resonating loudly and clearly somewhere between the air, my ear, and my brain. I was mesmerized by the power of this emphasis on the physiological experience, and its psychoacoustic impact had me hooked.
Ultimately, this psychoacoustic impact is the result of the careful physics of the installations’s design, which is based on the Just Intonation tuning system. This tuning system is one that is built on the organization of frequencies as found in nature. All tuning systems are structured on relationships- tones are relative, some are higher and some are lower. These tones are vibrations (as it is important to remember that sound is physical), and they are sound waves that reach our body, and our body/brain process these waves which vibrate at specific frequencies. There exists in nature a very specific system that determines an order for the measurement and vibration of frequencies, known as the overtone series. There is a specific structure to the overtone series, which can be thought of as a form of musical DNA. This DNA determines a very specific relationship and placement of frequencies. The tuning system that represents this structure of the overtone series is called Just Intonation. The structure of this musical DNA is universal, yet what individualizes specific sounds is that the framework of frequencies as represented within the structure may be stronger or weaker in different areas, more dominant or more subtle, from tone to tone.
Just Intonation is distinguished from what is known as Equal Temperament, which has comprised the majority of the world’s music for the past few centuries. Equal Temperment is exactly what the me implies, a tempered tuning system, which modifies the natural order and relationship of frequencies as represented by Just Intonation. Equal Temperament has very specific advantages but it is not derived from natural acoustic properties, it is based on mechanical symmetry.
Just Intonation uses as its founding principle the premise that from one fundamental frequency an endless infinity of frequencies exists and with that all tones emerge and can be derived. This process occurs from whole number divisions of this single fundamental, the One. From one, we get two, then three, then four, then five.. etc. For example, the fundamental frequency of One can be divided in half, with each half vibrating at twice the speed as the fundamental (think of a string that is then cut in half- each length of half will then vibrate at twice the rate of the length of the whole.) The next step up is to divide the fundamental into thirds with each third vibrating at three times the rate of the fundamental. This process can continue infinitely with each division representing a different overtone, or harmonic. In this way the relationship of pitches can be expressed as ratios 1:2, 1:3, 1:5, etc.. because they are all derived from the same source, a fundamental. When pitches are combined according to this system they release many subsidiary tones, referring to numbers above and numbers below, as they all stem from the same source. For example, when two tones are played in a relationship of 3:5, what results is the addition tone of the 8th harmonic as well as the difference tone of the 2nd. These subsidiary tones are purely byproducts of the vibrations of tones that are played with that specific relationship. This phenomenon was also part of my fascination of the acoustic properties of the Dream House installation.
Drums and percussion has seen some but not much exploration of JI, yet they are designed to represent it as such. Think about it: a drum head is tuned to a single pitch, one frequency. It has strong vibrations and is rich with harmonic material. How do we go about isolating and controlling these frequencies, as overtones, in accordance with the principles of JI? Well, that became the task at hand of the Drums and Drones project. It is inspired by the experience of the beauty of the vibrations of sustained tones organized according to the overtone series, a naturally occurring system which implies that from a single source an endless infinity presents itself, simultaneously simple and complex.. all we have to do is listen..