A Journey of Nineteen

19-division tuning 

I’ve been interested in tuning since I was a student in the late 70s, early 80s, when I encountered very sporadic examples of quarter-tones in music by Penderecki and others.  More than the music itself, or the use of the quarter-tones, it was the idea that the 12 division octave could be expanded by acoustic instruments that I found interesting.  In 2000 I was appointed composer-in residence at London Guildhall University (now London Metropolitan University) and here I was introduced to 19-div tuning by Patrick Ozzard-Low and Lewis Jones.  Their project, The Centre for New Musical Instruments (CNMI), had already produced two 19-div recorders and a prototype 19-div trumpet, the latter made by David Cowie, a mature student on the instrument making course at LGU.  He had designed and built a 12-, 19- and 24-division microtonal trumpet in 2001 and, at the time, there were plans to develop a range of 19-div brass instruments of various sizes.  The trumpet was to be appraised by new music trumpeter Stephen Altoft and my task was to write pieces, studies and exercises for it, while Stephen attempted to get to grips with the trumpet set-up and notation.  By the end of that year, I had written pieces in 19- and 24-div including the 20 minute mixed media piece Slide (24-div), Verses 1 and Verses 2 (19-div plus percussion) and about 12 of the studies which were to become 24 Microtonal Studies (19-, 24- and 48-div).

There were, however, a couple of issues for Stephen and I with the CNMI prototype trumpet. The first was the use of a solenoid valve (which was a  part of funding arrangements – intended to help brass players who have physical disabilities) which proved to be unreliable, noisy and which didn’t develop despite the problems Stephen encountered.  The second was the fact that the modified instrument (modified, that is, to become a microtonal trumpet) was a Boosey and Hawkes student model and therefore was not designed for professional use.

And so the year – my part of it funded by a one year Leverhulme Artist in Residence grant – came to a end in a rather inconclusive manner.  There was great enthusiasm, but nothing really concrete and the situation grew somewhat dismal over the forthcoming months as, unfortunately, CNMI effectively folded due to lack of funding and, once again, interest in tunings reverted back to sporadic projects within the university. So Stephen, with whom I had been working before our involvement in CNMI on the development of quarter-tone fingerings, decided to pursue the idea independently.

It is worth pointing out that, at this time, we were aware that quarter-tone trumpets were commercially available.  However, they were expensive and they were fixed in their tuning.  Our quest, driven by financial reasons certainly, but also inspired by the CNMI project and a subsequent loss of fear about venturing into instrument design, became focussed on the development of a professional instrument which could be altered temporarily to access a number of tuning systems – although initially we were most interested in 19- and 24- because this gave us the opportunity to continue with established projects. The possibilities manifested themselves slowly and a number of people were helpful in advising us including Patrick and Lewis but also composer Georg Secor.  The solution, however, came down to a conversation Stephen had with a brass repairer in Freiburg, Germany, where he has lived since 2003, and came down to such ‘basic’ procedures as measuring his trumpet with string and tinkering with lengths of brass tubing until the tunings started to work without too much lipping.

You can read how it all worked out by reading the chapter ‘Valve Mechanisams’ in our online book at www.microtonalprojects.com.  See the Microtonal Trumpet page and join our mailing list to get the download link.