Finding Harmony and Overcoming My Polyphony Envy

As a wind controller player, been quite taken by harmonization effects. You play one note, and other notes are heard in addition to this one, creating a chord structure. Harmony (the succession of chord structures) is a pretty powerful effect in music. Being able to play harmonically is a key feature of some instruments, most notably keyboard-based ones (piano, accordion, organ, harpsichord, clavinet… and most synthesizers).  In fact, keyboards are uniquely designed to make it easy to produce multiple notes at once (polyphony). Some even have special keys to play chords. Harmony is a major affordance of the musical keyboard. Which might explain pianocentrism, the tendency to think of every instrument from the point of view of a piano keyboard.

(In polyphony, we talk about “voices”. When multiple notes are played at the same time, each note is part of its own voice. So, four-voice polyphony means that you have four notes playing at the same time. There are many principles and rules as to how these voices may relate to one another.)

Most wind controllers are monophonic (only playing one note at a time). Same with the two main categories of wind instruments, brass (French horn, trombone, tuba, Sousaphone…) and woodwinds (English horn, flute, clarinet…).

(Polyphonic wind instruments aren’t rare, but they’re often not recognized as wind instruments. The accordion and organ are pretty good examples, since they’re keyboard-based. But the harmonica can also produce multiple notes at the same time. So can the sheng. There are also some keyboard instruments which are monophonic, most notably the early synthesizers which are currently making a comeback, sometimes with added polyphony.)

Though often associated with brass sections, my main instrument is usually classified as a woodwind. And it’s indeed monophonic.

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Not only is the sax monophonic but it often requires the use of fingers from both hands to play a single note. It’s technically possible to do something with the right hand while playing notes on the left hand, but that’s quite limited.

Hence my polyphony envy.

For the longest time, wasn’t paying attention to it or even aware of it. But it was there, lurking. My favourite musical experiences were playing in a sax quartet or a sax section in a Big Band (sometimes with the same players). Been enjoying polyphonic music, from barbershop quartets and horn ensembles to Jazz combos and (some forms of) electroacoustic music. Listening to others’ music, can often hear extra lines responding to what was played or providing some background. My own instrument wasn’t able to play harmony so playing on my own was often unsatisfying. Never became accomplished enough on a polyphonic instrument to satisfy my need for harmony.

Which is where the harmonization effects (chorders, harmonizers…) come in. Through those, a monophonic instrument can play harmony.

There are several options to play chords from single notes. The most common one (often associated with EDM) is full parallelism: every note produces the same chord structure, just transposed lower or higher. Many synthesizers (in software as in hardware) support this, as do most Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs). Another option is to trigger certain chords by notes or patterns. The Chord Trigger effect in Logic Pro X works this way and there are many plugins which do the same. Unless somehow modified with other controls, these techniques produce the same chord from the same note. When you play a note repeatedly, you repeat the same chord. Can be useful, but it’s not my cup of tea. (A variant of these methods is to add “scale quantization” meaning that the output of a chording effect will stick to notes in a scale.)

Which is where more elaborate approaches to harmonization sound like a more appropriate option to solve my polyphony envy.

One set of solutions is more about producing chord sequences by manipulating chords themselves in a DAW or in code. This is closer to composition and can be very satisfying. But it doesn’t fulfill my need to simply play chords directly.

The “Michael Brecker Effect” (MBE) is among my favourite harmonization effects. Michael Brecker was a wonderful sax player as well as one of the most prominent wind controller players. To me at least, Brecker remains the key inspiration for sax players doing electronic music.

The effect in question was originally created on Robby Kilgore’s Oberheim Xpander synthesizer. In MBE, the synth produces rotating chords based on notes being played on a controller (typically monophonic). The idea is that the succession of chord structures changes as the intervals which make up those chords are rotating. For instance, you play a B♭ once and you get a G below that and a D above (as well as the B♭ you played).  The result is a G minor chord. You play B♭again, and you get F instead of the G, creating a B♭ Major chord (second inversion). Depending on how you set it up, you can play all sorts of fun chords with just one note at a time. It’s a lot of fun.

This technique takes advantage of the fact that the sound generator (the synth) and the controller are separate parts of the setup. These could be integrated in the same device but there’s still a distinction between the notes you play and what is heard. This is a basic form of interaction between human and machine that we take for granted. Which fascinates me. Especially when you get to play with it. It’s a bit like a sandbox game. It’s certainly related to playfulness. Which, to my mind, is very important.

Over the years, been searching for ways to experiment MBE, to play with it. Several apps and plugins do exist to produce harmony from melodic notes. Some get very close to the MBE or even do it exactly. It was still difficult for me to find just the right setup for my needs. Maybe it’s not quite the exact same thing as the MBE. Which is useful to realize.

(Part of the issue is that, to be honest, my ear isn’t trained for polyphony enough to notice what’s really going on with one of these effects without recording the notes they output. That’s also part of my polyphony envy.)

Recently got access to a script Kilgore himself created to reproduce the actual Michael Brecker Effect with current software. Been playing with it, having quite a bit of fun.

That aforelinked post makes things much clearer to me, about the MBE.

Before playing with Kilgore’s script, thought that all voices besides the notes played on the controller were rotating. Some apps and plugins implement things that way and it can be quite fun. Sounds to me like Johan Looijenga’s MIDI Harmonizer mostly works this way, rotating multiple voices. Same with ewiVoicing by H. Yanase, AFAICT. Again, a bit difficult for me to tell. It also sounds like both can produce exactly the same thing as MBE, but they also use other modes.

In Kilgore’s version, restricted to the actual MBE, there’s less “rotation” and more parallelism. AFAICT, the MBE produces a total of three voices: the notes played on the controller is one voice, another voice runs in parallel with the first one, with a constant interval. The third voice is the one rotating. Perhaps because of half-digested lessons about parallel fifths, way back when, was trying to avoid parallelism and enhance the rotation. The results were satisfying but not Brecker-like.

Been experimenting with several techniques, most of which can fit my needs at a given time.

One approach which actually came very close to MBE (including the parallel fifths; forgot about that part) was a little script of mine for use in Sonic Pi (my favourite music coding software).

Another approach was through the MIDI Rotator iOS app by Tom Gullion. (Confusingly enough, Kilgore’s script bears the same name, at least on Facebook.) Gullion’s MIDI Rotator can do the actual MBE (one parallel voice and one rotating one) but it can also rotate all voices (same as Looijenga and Yanase apps?). MIDI Rotator has recently received a major overhaul (it was quite unstable before that). Been having fun musicking with it.

Another approach to rotating chords is found in the tonespace plugin by mucoder. Like most apps and plugins in that space, it has a variety of modes. The one which probably gave me the most pleasure is to cycle through chord types when certain notes are played. In other words, if an incoming note is part of the current scale, tonespace will play a chord which fits that scale. Repeated notes will play different chords in a cycle (from the most fitting to the least fitting). A neat part of this is that, depending on the way things are set up, non-scale notes can be heard as a solo voice. This way, scale notes trigger chords and non-scale notes can produce their own melody. To me, it heightens the overall effect.

Was also able to emulate this effect in Sonic Pi.

Which then gave me the idea to try counter-motion: when the controller voice goes up, the countermelody voice goes down, within a scale. Even added some flourish, like the fact that non-scale notes create a glide. The script might be a bit strange but the result sounds fun, to me.

All of these work well with my main wind controller, the Yamaha WX11. It took me a while to really appropriate this controller (bought it in 1996 and only became comfortable with it a few years ago). But it’s become my tool of choice. The fingerings are basically the same as on a saxophone and the mouthpiece is also quite close to a sax mouthpiece. With proper “patches” (synthesizer settings), it’s really fun to play and quite expressive. For instance, been using the WX11 to control crazy sounds from a “virtual pedalboard” on the Raspberry Pi computer and change some blocks in Minecraft.

Changed my setup for Ottawa’s second @raspberryjam_official. Still two Pi boards, each using the @blokaslabs pisound HAT, one running @sonic_pi and @minecraft, the other running @moddevices emulation. But, this time, the two were connected through MIDI. So, my @yamahamusicusa WX-11 (or Alesis Vmini) would control synths on MODEP and also send notes to SPi, which would then change blocks in Minecraft. The effect was quite striking. Kids frequently had a two-step reaction: first being intrigued by the sounds and then the jawdrop of finding out that Minecraft can be controlled by music. Also added a delay effect to the synth sounds. None of this was meant to be impressive. In fact, positive reactions for my musicking were more pronounced the first time. It also sounded like the synths were going into very high pitch range as some kids had negative reactions even when it wasn’t that loud. Really sorry for them. Will be much more careful next time. It was also easier to get interactions going the first time, talking about what was going on with my Raspberry Pi setups. This second time around, people were more intrigued but a bit less engaged. Still, the overall event was quite successful at generating a specific kind of curiosity. My guess is that many of the people who passed through our jam will be able to appropriate computer technology in new ways thanks to our work.

A post shared by Alexandre Enkerli (@iethnographer) on

The Yamaha WX11 may have its limitations (most notably that of being polyphony-challenged), but it’s become my primary instrument in electronic contexts. Even more so than my Selmer Mark VI alto sax.

Apart from harmonization effects, the main solution to my polyphony envy has been to play with others. Lot of fun but it doesn’t happen very frequently.

The wind controller at the right is a completely different solution to my polyphony envy. It’s the Eigenharp Pico from Eigenlabs.

WindControllers

Unique among wind controllers (AFAICT) and unlike my two other wind controllers (Yamaha WX11 and Akai EWI-USB), the Eigenharp is polyphonic. Each key produces a note and can modify the sound of that note independently of other notes, through something now recognized by the MPE standard. Wind controllers are recognized for their expressiveness. The Eigenharp combines the expressiveness of a wind controller with the complex polyphony of some of the most futuristic instruments around.

By Thomas Bonte (Flickr): Geert Bevin, Roger Linn, David Wessel 2 – The Eigenharp, SLABS and LinnStrument Hands-on with three new musical instruments for the post-mechanical age., CNMAT, Berkeley, CA, 2011-05-06

 

 

 

Some Eigenharp players may not really conceive of it as a wind controller. For one thing, in most setups, the “breath pipe” isn’t necessary to produce a sound. And the bigger Eigenharp models (Tau and Alpha) are much bigger than any other wind controller. But, to me, the Pico is indeed a wind controller. Been holding it and playing it very similarly to the other two.

So, did the Pico alleviate my polyphony envy? Not quite or at least not yet. Part of the reason is that there’s a whole learning curve involved. Some chords are relatively easy to play on it, in the default setup. But switching from one chord to another can be quite difficult, at least for me.

Thankfully, the Eigenharp is a very flexible instrument (maybe too much, in some respects) and it should be possible to create a setup which makes it easy to play diverse chords. Have yet to experiment with this but several approaches have gone through my head at different times. The simplest approach would be to have each key play a certain chord. That’d likely be as unsatisfying as chord trigger effects mentioned above, but it’s worth a try. One which sounds more interesting to me would be to use a kind of accordion principle: one hand plays chords and the other plays notes. There are some chord effects which do something like this already, but they require a polyphonic input (which the Pico does provide). The playing technique might still be difficult. In my mind, though, it could lead to something interesting, like changing scales to go with a chord progression. Yet another approach, similar to the accordion one but perhaps a bit easier to play would be akin to guitar playing: one hand creates the chords and the other plays the notes in that chord (strumming, arpeggiating, etc.). Not sure how these things would work. Have yet to think them through.

All of these methods and techniques make for a lot of musicking fun, even the more limited options. Might focus on one or the other, at some point. For now, though, the experimentation is what satisfies my polyphonic needs.

And they’re all about technological appropriation: making these tools my own and making them appropriate to my contexts.

Keyword: fun.

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