Recently, my composerly colleague Dennis Báthory-Kitsz linked to an article in which composer Eric Chasalow argues too many electroacoustic composers are missing the importance of pitch in their compositions. (“Pitch” meaning frequencies that we hear as notes.)
I can’t claim to be up on the latest trends in electroacoustic music, but I thought that this was an interesting argument to make, given the prominence of a recent movement to use electronics to identify the pitches inherent in sounds: spectralism is, broadly, the compositional practice of identifying the pitches/overtones/partials in various sounds and using them to inform the selection of notes for a composition. The classic example is Gérard Grisey’s “Partiels,” in which the orchestra “plays” the notes indicated in a sonogram analysis of a trombone’s low E. The ensemble plays not just the low E, but all the other frequencies that the sonogram indicates are present when the trombone plays that one note.
I’ve had the opportunity to begin exploring the notes hidden in non-musical sounds by starting in the same place as a spectral piece: taking recordings of not-instruments, figuring out the pitches those not-instruments make, and using those pitches to to inform the notes that acoustic instruments play.
I was able to begin this experiment via a Disquiet Junto assignment to make a piece using a recording of a refrigerator. I figured out the pitches of my refrigerator’s thunks, rumbles and whirrs by ear:
After that, I wrote a melody for the accordion to go above the “notes” the refrigerator was “playing,” with the end result sounding something like:
For a different, very exciting project (that I will post more about soon!), I took a recording of a woodblock, and used Ableton’s Spectrum to figure out frequencies were in the woodblock’s sound, and then used those notes as the basis of a piano part. The musical intervals between those frequencies (a triad of an augmented fourth and a half-step) became the seed for the whole piano part.
If you’re curious about doing this yourself, there are a number of ways to figure out the pitches of sounds that most people don’t think of as having pitches. Here’s the ones I have used:
- My ear
- SPEAR (SPEAR can do a lot more than just deduce pitches, but I haven’t explored it deeply)
- Ableton’s Spectrum plug-in
- Ableton’s slice to MIDI function will remove any guesswork and judgment on your part and convert any audio into MIDI data.
- Temporarily pitch-shifting a sample WAY up by octaves so that a pitch emerges, and then reverting it back to its original pitch (this is how some electronic producers tune drums)
A fun project would be to map 88 samples to a MIDI keyboard and link each sample to its closest pitch on the keyboard…