Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy



Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Microtonality and the Blues




My interest in micro-tonality first began about 10 years ago after reading in a jazz history book how the blue notes originally sung by the West African slaves were actually in-between notes, or what we now think of as microtones.  They sang in-between the major and minor third, the fifth and flatted fifth,  the major and minor 7th.  The notes that have now been accepted as the standardized blue note are approximations made by musicologists who attempted to note these foreign tones that they were hearing for the first time. 

Microtones used in the context of the blues, in many ways, is contrary to how we are conditioned to think of them—which is usually as something that’s very cold or academic.  It’s rare that we think of using microtones as a way of making the music more expressive, more humanistic. I’ve found that they allow us to play more organically, drawing notes from what microtonal composer Ken Gann refers to as “a vast continuum of glissando pitches”--which, by the way, is how we naturally sing and speak--rather than being confined to the 12 tones of equal temperament,

Saxophonist Eric Dolphy, once asked, “If birds can sing quartertones, why shouldn’t we play them?” And I think this question posed by Dolphy goes back to what to the Gann reference which states that microtones are part of a vast continuum of glissando pitches. Birds don’t sing quartertones for the same reasons that we play them: to sound hip, academic, or cutting-edge. They sing them because they're what they naturally hear.

One classic example of microtones being used as devices for augmented expressiveness can be heard on the Robert Johnson recording of “Drunken Hearted Man,” on which he takes many tempered liberties with the melodies, singing what some theorists have referred to as neutral tones—notes that are neither major nor minor, but neutral. And it’s not uncommon for vocalists, whether singing Delta blues or Indian ragas, to make tonal inflections an integral part of their singing. But what Robert Johnson does is little different. You get a sense that he is hearing these neutral tones as separate entities and not just as inflections. It’s sort of like a painter seeing the color gray as gray, and not the color black mixed with white, or white mixed with black.

Microtonal composer and bassoonist Johnny Reinhard once wrote that microtones “are passports to experiencing different cultures.” This is so true. With these "microtonal passports," so to speak, one would be able to experience the Delta blues of the Deep South of the United States; Indonesian gamelan music from Asia, Bulgarian music from Eastern Europe, and exotics scales from the Middle East.

And whereas “microtones are passports to experiencing different cultures,” the blues, however, is a conglomeration of many different cultures. Within the blues, you have the pentatonic scale common in the Far East and African music, the “in-between” tonal inflections practiced in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cultures, and the I-IV-V harmonic progression ubiquitous in European classical.


One of the idiosyncratic beauties of Thelonious Monk’s playing was how he always sounded like he was trying to play in-between the cracks of the notes on the piano. Many have alluded that Monk could make an in-tune piano sound out of tune. Which to me is just another way of saying he made a Western instrument sound non-Western. And to some this can mean micro-tonal. This thought was the impetus behind my arrangement of “Blue Monk,” where I elongated Monk’s use of semi-tone chromatics with quartertone chromatics. And because I was working with twice as many notes, in certain spots I slightly had to rhythmically alter the melody, doing my best to  keep the essence of the original intact.
 You can listen to i right here:





To enable you to play the quarter tones, I’ve included a quarter tone fingering chart from the Ronald L. Caravan book, Preliminary Techniques, and Exercises for Contemporary Saxophone. His original intent was that these fingerings were to be used for the alto member of the saxophone family, but I found that they also work on the soprano and tenor.  Please note that on my arrangement of “Blue Monk” that I use the inverted flat to represent the quarter flat and two inverted flats to symbolize three-quarters flat; whereas, Caravan uses the darkened flat to symbolize the quarter flat and two darkened flats for three-quarters flat.

It takes practice to get used to fingerings and hearing the quartertones. So take it nice and slow in the beginning. And I’ve also included the recorded version from my CD, Blue Soliloquy: Solo Works for Soprano Saxophone.

 Enjoy!














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