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The appeal of unusual pitches and sounds has been evident from the effect of Balinese music on Debussy when he first heard it in 1888, and the history of early 20th century popular music is rich in examples. Consider Paul Whiteman’s “Japanese Sandman” or the immense popularity of the British light classical composer Albert Ketèlbey, who could construct engaging melodies from divergent scales to evoke exotic settings. His “In a Persian Market” was eventually performed by Wilbur DeParis, The Ventures and Sammy Davis Jr. and there’s a YouTube video of “In a Chinese Temple Garden” being played by an orchestra of Asians.
Ultimately, though, this touches on the ways we organize our worlds. The intersections of tonal systems and their frictions are at the roots of jazz, making it, in a sense, an early “world” music. You hear it in the scalar biases of some early blues performers (Blind Willie Johnson comes to mind) and in the discrepancies between pitch-inflected “blue notes” and the tempered scale of the piano. It’s been especially significant in the past half-century since the expanding harmonic complexities of bebop ran into Miles Davis’s modal approach, and then in the proliferation of noise elements and microtones in free jazz and its minglings with chance, musique concrète, and various musical cultures. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, saxophonists largely avoided the soprano because it was so hard to play “in tune”; it was likely adopted by John Coltrane, La Monte Young and Terry Riley because it was so easy to bend notes, as well as for its timbral resemblance to a shenai.
British pianist Veryan Weston’s Tessellations is one of the more riveting examinations of pitch systems in an improvisational context, in some ways harkening back to the period when John Coltrane started exploring Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns and then exploring modes and triadic harmony in the context of each other. In some ways, Tessellations has a significance akin to Terry Riley’s In C, a work that changes the way we feel tonal relationships.
“Tessellation” is a term in geometry referring to a pattern of figures that fills a plane with no overlaps or gaps. It comes from the Latin “tessella” for one of the small cubes used to make mosaics. This patterned tiling appears in the drawing of M.C. Escher as well as in a honeycomb. It appears three-dimensionally in the Alhambra Palace and in Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome.
In Weston’s transformation of the geometric idea, Tessellations is a series of 52 pentatonic scales, with each successive scale altering one note from the preceding scale. It’s a kind of musical tiling that results in a sense of continuous structural transformation of tonal materials within an improvising structure, stretching to an hour in length. Part of what is remarkable about the structure of Tessellations is that it mediates two almost diametrically opposed musical languages. Pentatonic scales are at the roots of music. Often based on the “perfect” intervals of the fourth and fifth, they tend to divide the octave into two fourths, sometimes symmetrical. Pentatonics are at the pre-harmonic core of tonal organization, giving the distinctive character to certain world musics, making music like the Balinese gamelan instantly recognizable. Intervals in pentatonic scales are rarely justified. Microtones abound and they are at fundamental odds with the harmonic system of modulation from key to key at the 12-tone core of European art music (the system constructed on justified pitch—the thing that makes an A# and a Bb on a piano the same thing).
The materials for Tessellations developed over a long period of time in Weston’s music, but he first began recording it around 2000. In 2003 he recorded Tessellations for Luthéal Piano at the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels. Released on Emanem, the CD documents the remarkable character of the instrument as well as the piece, Weston exploring the Luthéal piano’s organ-like stops for harpsichord and harp-like sounds.
Weston has continued to explore the materials and this year Emanem has released a remarkable continuation of the process, Different Tessellations. It contains part of a performance of the piece—now Tessellations I— by the young pianist Leo Svirsky, offering a different perspective on the piano piece; it also includes a new transformation of the piece—Tessellations II—performed by a group of nine singers, including Weston, called the Vociferous Choir. The new incarnation resonates not just with the previous piece but also with Weston’s long interest in vocal music (notably with Phil Minton whether in duo, quartet or the band Four Walls) and his interest in non-standard pitches (previously explored in depth in his recordings with Jon Rose on Temperament [Emanem]). On the one hand, Tessellations II expands the scat vocal group to a staggering nine voices, but it also expands the tonal range of Tessellations, taking in the microtonal practices of Africa, South Indian and Siberian singing as well as beat-boxing. The vocal piece is consistently wordless, emphasizing the expansive, pan-cultural nature of its content. Whether it’s Svirsky’s reinterpretation of the piano piece or the choir version, Tessellations is a piece and an improvisatory practice that can reach across generations and across cultures.
SB: When did you first begin to explore the relationships between pentatonic scales that have gone into the construction of Tessellations?
VW: This happened I suppose in my early twenties, when I was living in Brixton Hill in London [in the early 1970s]. I decided to develop a methodology for practicing. This practicing might have a slightly hand-in-glove relationship with improvisation which was my main interest … and still is. After all, how can you practice improvising? What I thought was to write down daily interests and discoveries in a practice book. This would then perhaps create a kind of clearer focus in time. Any actual musical content practiced, though, would be absorbed but not necessarily regurgitated note-for-note in an improvising situation….so the work done practicing might then only have a sub-conscious effect in intuitive… improvisational…playing situations.
At the time most of the emphasis was to find ways of applying linear ideas for the left hand, (that is, moving away from the “vamping role” of the left hand) and so I was interested in finding 12-note sequences in order to maximize melodic and tonal possibilities when improvising. But it was on one of the practice pages that I wrote “If only I could find some symmetry with pentatonic scales and twelve tone scales” during the winter of 1972.
SB: What whetted your interest and kept you working at the systematization so you could create the modulation patterns?
VW: So the first main discovery was with the common anhemitonic pentatonic scale (sorry about that mouthful … the pentatonic scale without semitones) in that there was a way of modulating from one scale to another in I suppose exactly the same way as you do with the classic diatonic cycle-of-fifths key system (that is, by either sharpening or flattening one note when moving a similar scale type up or down a fifth). So at this point I take it that your readers will mainly be musicians … as this might seem pretty boring and be seen to be “talking shop” to a non-musical music enthusiast! … so, end of theory.
Going back to your question here about “what whetted” my interest, it was not only the theoretical possibilities of exploration as just mentioned, but also the time of my youth happened to be when one of your fellow-countrymen described our society as fast becoming a “global village.” With the explosion of the mass-media in this global village came opportunities to listen and re-listen to the same music from all round the world, and vinyl records provided me, as well as many others from our generation, with this opportunity. For example, I remember hearing the Laotian Khène on a UNESCO vinyl record and feeling inspired to try and find a way of almost emulating this sound on the piano…and of course the scales used were often pentatonic.
SB: You’ve mentioned the influence of your time in Trevor Watts’ Moiré Music contributing to Tessellations. What was it you heard there?
VW: Well, Trevor drew my attention to rhythm, and how poor mine was, but what potential it might have as a dimension in creative music making. I think it’s fair to say that most of the post-Webern trends in European contemporary music (and this includes the aesthetic found by and which inspired contemporary improvisers in the ‘70s) was a development of texture and color and the actual fragmentation of rhythmic pulse. I realize this is a gross over-simplification, but being a pianist with an instrument with limited color opportunities (unless delving into the world of preparation and the instrument’s insides), I felt that Trevor’s Moiré Music provided me with opportunities to improve right and left hand independence as well as explore and expand a feel for rhythm.
SB: I think it’s remarkable how Tessellations actually combines the most divergent musical systems: 12 tone-rows, the end of the western system, and modes, the ancient organization of exact pitches. It creates a kind of abstraction of world musical tonality – empathies with Africa, Asia, earlier European music, etcetera.
VW: Yes, it does reflect many of these cultures … and often quite literally. I have the deepest admiration for musicians like Phil Minton, Roger Turner and John Butcher who have ploughed their own very personal furrows. They almost seem to consciously turn their backs on the kinds of musical activity I am still involved with which could be seen to be dangerously eclectic.
SB: Can you tell me how there are two ways to use each pentatonic scale in the series? I can understand your written explanation but I’m not sure I can convey it.
VW: This is difficult, Stuart … mmmmm … ok, let’s go from the start of Tessellations I and just look at the first two ideas.
The first idea is playing at the top of the piano two different kinds of interval which are inversions of each other – perfect 7th and perfect 9th. I just explore sequences of each of these options that can be found in the five pitches of the first pentatonic scale. I also explore the actual sound of each with the damper pedal either off or on.
The second idea is to depress silently the same first chord in any inversion in the middle-to-lower region of the piano. I then strike one or two pitches from the same chord with the other hand which create ringing harmonics that always seems to give infinite possibilities of sound … and let me contradict myself by saying “and color!”
SB: Would you comment on Leo Svirsky’s approach to playing Tessellations? How did he come to play this?
VW: Leo is very young – only 22 – but is already a rapacious reader of radical and outlaw culture. After leaving Maryland Academy of Music in USA, he decided to enroll at Den Haag Conservatoire, which has a comfortable proximity to Amsterdam. My Brazilian friend Yedo Gibson who also studies at this Academy recommended him to me. Leo is an amazingly gifted pianist technically, but also, in spite of his classical chops, naturally so. For example when he learnt the Tessellations I piece with me over a few days, he applied very different solutions to some of the technical demands of the piece, and in doing this, was able to open very different possibilities for improvising within the piece….so he is now a co-composer when he plays this piece….that’s for sure.
SB: How did the Vociferous Choir come about?
VW: The choir came about through an invitation from one of the singers in the choir, Annette Giesriegl, who had been a friend who I had played some gigs with in London. She asked me to come to Graz to be part of the gamsbART– JAZZ 2010 festival which had the theme “Singers & Voices.” She invited me to compose/construct a piece for 9 singers (including her and myself). She teaches voice and performance at the main Jazz Academy in Graz and knew these singers well, some as students and some as friends. Her choice reflected some of the broad cultural origins of some of these singers, for example Anush Apoyan from Armenia, the yodeling and pretty eclectic urban Styrians from around Graz itself, Sofija Knezevic from Serbia and Siruan Küng whose father is Kurdish. It is possible to hear traces of their origins when they improvise in duets or as soloists.
SB: How does the piece change from a piano piece to a choir piece?
VW: The piano piece, Tessellations I, was constructed in a similar way to a piece I called Open Score constructed in 1980, and the name helps to describe the form. It consists of notated ideas for improvising. So the notation just gives a base to work from. With the Tessellations I piece though, each idea uses as the foundation one of the pentatonic scales. There are 52 scales and roughly two ideas for each scale so it can last a long time.
The second Tessellations piece for the choir uses the same sequence of pentatonic scales but each scale provides materials that are mostly loops and cycles, but there are melodies and some interludes that are used to explore the possibilities of pentatonic harmonic progression.
SB: Are there specific points where you can indicate the divergence?
VW: Yes, in this case, each piece is constructed very differently although using the same sequence of scales. As the first is for a solo performer, it is much more “open-ended,” whereas Tessellations II has structures that are specific and directly related to other structures happening at the same time. So a loop has a particular synchronicity with another loop. This was the way I worked in and was inspired by Trevor’s Moiré Music group. Similarly, with the choir, we play unison lines to give the sound more weight, but as a result, the music requires both a lot of learning and a lot of learning to trust the other singers. Working with them in both rehearsal as well as performance was wonderfully inspiring and a lot of fun … I just hope we can do this more … please.
SB: I think it’s a piece that can just keep transforming.