I have long daydreamed about building an instrument like the one described in this post. Now I’ve finally gotten around to building it. Schmeary Glissary can be described in just a few words, but following that it will take a few paragraphs to explain why I find the idea interesting. The very short description goes like this:
Schmeary Glissary is an 84-equal tubulon.
To unpack that description:
“Tubulon” is a term coined in the 1970s to refer to bar percussion instruments — that is, marimba-like instruments — in which the equivalent of the marimba’s bars are lengths of metal tubing. Most commonly in those days the tubes were of the steel conduit known as electrical metal tubing, or EMT, chosen because of its wide availability and affordability, and because it has a clear tone when mounted properly and struck. Many of the people making tubulons were interested in non-standard scales, and the fact that this conduit could be easily and accurately tuned (albeit with some caveats) made it well suited to their purposes. Aluminum tubes were sometimes used as well, and it is aluminum that I used for my Schmeary Glissary.
“84-equal” tells us that the instrument is tuned to 84-tone equal temperament, meaning that there are 84 equally spaced tones per octave. The standard western scale has 12 tones per octave, so 84 is a lot! Specifically, Schmeary Glissary has seven tones per 12-equal semitone, spaced 14.3 cents apart (14.3/100ths of a semitone). That interval — the interval between any two adjacent tubes on Schmeary Glissary — is small enough that most people will hear it not so much as two distinct notes, but rather as two very slightly detuned versions of the same note.
The instrument covers a range of an octave and a fifth, with a total of 140 tubes. They’re arrayed in two rows, one above the other, spanning about eight feet. It is outdoorable, and in fact it does live outdoors, since it’s too big to fit easily in the average living room.
Why 84 tones per octave? People who have explored higher-order equal temperaments (of which this is an extreme example) often are looking for equal temperaments which happen to do a good job of approximating important intervals in just intonation. Choosing a very high number of tones per octave could perhaps be seen as obsessive, as in “I know it’s inconvenient, but I had to have so many tones because that was the best way to get exactly the intervals I wanted!” And 84-equal does indeed do a good job of providing good approximations to important just intervals. Notably, it has very accurate just thirds and sixths (intervals which in 12-equal are particularly problematic for intonation purists). So, yes, I am happy that Schmeary’s thirds and sixths are good … however, my main reason for choosing such a crazy-high number of tones per octave is actually just the opposite.
I have always liked sloppiness in tuning. I wrote a whole essay on the topic here. I like a bit of wobbliness of tone; I like the chorusing effects you get when slightly out-of-tune instruments play together; I like the unpredictability, variability, and occasional strangeness, wonkiness or goofiness of sloppily tuned music. So while having 84 tones per octave gives perfectionists a better chance of to find just the pitch they want, more interesting for me is the fact that it also is a glorious playground for sloppy people. On Schmeary Glissary you can play approximate pitches; you can schmear around the intended pitch; you can glide up toward or down from an intended pitch; you can overshoot or undershoot a bit if you want; you can make your thirds and fifths and sevenths as blue as you want. In playing what functions musically as a single note, you can do a rapid roll or tremolo on it and around it, leaning this way or that, or, with two hands, play simultaneously both slightly above and slightly below the expected note. Or you can go random, making no effort to play particular notes, glissing up and down and all around looking for strange and interesting acoustic effects, of which there is no shortage in this instrument. Bring a friend: two people improvising is all the more strangely colorful, and since the instrument is eight feet wide and can be played from either side, crowding among players is not an issue.
So that’s Schmeary Glissary, and that’s why 84-equal. At the time of this writing I haven’t posted photos or audio of the instrument in this website’s Instrumentaium section yet. I hope to soon.