Most of the music in the world today uses a particular type of musical scale known as twelve-tone equal temperament. At the same time, for the last several decades in contemporary music circles there’s been a resurging interest in other intonation systems, both historical and new. A high level of precision and accuracy in tuning is called for in this field, because the work of alternative scale-making is only meaningful if pitches are accurately prescribed and played. Many theorists and composers approach the topic mathematically, making carefully calculated delineations between pitches that might, to most ears, seem almost indistinguishably close. At its best, for those who seek it out and cultivate the sensibility for it, the resulting music can be extraordinarily refined and beautiful, sometimes even revelatory.
All of this is to say: Refinement has its rewards; the pursuit of precision is often well justified. Thank heaven for the dedication of the theorists, composers and performers whose diligence makes this music possible.
My own musical work, on the other hand, seems consistently to go in the opposite direction. Almost everything I do comes out sloppy. This is true in matters of tuning, and it’s true in other aspects of instrument- and music-making as well. It’s true partly because I just don’t seem to have the personality or the patience for the level craftsmanship required for very high degrees of precision – I say this with no pride, believe me – or the passion for perfect performance. But there’s another reason as well: I actually like those sloppy places. I like them a lot.
One of my early instruments was a dual slide whistle. It’s comprised of two slide whistles strapped together side by side, both fed by a single, flexible blow tube about two feet long. A calibration stick protrudes beyond the end of the two pipes as far as the farthest extension of the slides, and pitch locations are marked on this stick. In the normal slide-whistle playing position the calibration stick wouldn’t be visible, but the flexible blow tube makes it possible to position the instrument on a table in front of you, or on your lap, and in this way you can find your pitches visually even as you blow through the tube. When you play you can move the slides together to play the two pipes in unison, or you can operate them independently for playing in harmony. You can see and hear the instrument here.
Even with the markings on the calibration stick, the pitch accuracy of the instrument tends to be pretty sloppy. That’s the nature of slide whistles, and the effect is exaggerated by the instrument’s natural portamento from note to note. But more striking to the ear is another dimension of sloppiness: when you attempt to move the two slides together and play in unison, the unison is never perfect; the tones from the two pipes inevitably are a tiny bit off from each other. The amount of detuning is not consistent; it’s forever varying as you play. It creates a chorusing effect, richer and more organic than electronic chorusing because of its variability. With the breathy tone of the slide whistles the effect is particularly evocative. If you could somehow play the dual slide whistle with better precision and accuracy of pitch, the sound would, I think, be less interesting, less organic feeling, and in the end result less musically rich.
I won’t bore you with a list, but as I look around at the many instruments that I’ve made and that I try to play, I see this all over the place: my cup overflows with inconsistency, imperfection, non-reproducibility, imprecision. Not enough, I hope, to make things feel random and directionless, but enough to lend some complexity, depth, messiness and fullness to the sound. Much of this sloppiness arises from the fact that I’m not the best woodworker, not the most disciplined player, and so forth. But it also is – well, not an aesthetic choice exactly, but an aesthetic place I like to be, and that I’m happy to invite others into.