Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Single Tones as Musical Entities: An Approach to Structured Deviations in Tonal Characteristics”


In the Indonesian gamelan (an orchestra mainly consisting of pitched percussion instruments) the microtonal flattening or sharpening of certain tones of the scale by means of altered fingering or half-holing on the suling, an end-blown flute, so as to momentarily deviate from those played on instruments with fixed pitches is an interesting example of how pitch deviations are used structurally.

Graph: correlations between pitch and amplitude during skilled play.

The fundamental concepts cited and the examples given, pertaining to diverse performance practices from singing to drumming, should clearly bear out my contention that in the East the so-called “deviations” are as much an integral part of music as the tonal characteristics, and are assigned as much a structural function as an expressive one.

In desiring to structure and to relate the deviations to one’s compositional ideas, one recognizes sound as “a living, evolving substance” — to quote Varèse — not rigid but pliable, during its brief or not so brief life-span, from the beginning of the attack to the end of the decay. But I hope the Asian examples and the experience of some composers and performers will convince all of us that many types of these deviations can be cultivated and structured.

In attempting to structure deviations, I think one should

  1. define certain deviations as truly independent compositional ideas;
  2. assign certain others as modifiers, serving to better define the standard physical characteristics.

Once the function of a deviation or a modifier is defined, one can then relate it to the norm if there is one, to its immediate environment contextually, and to the structure of the work as a whole. For instance, in the case of pitch deviation, one may have to decide first whether its function is purely within the tone as an independent compositional idea, or is used as a modifier in altering the intervallic relationship to other pitches. After this, one may then have to decide under which specific circumstance a certain pitch at a certain register with a certain set of interval relationships should be modified in a certain manner.

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