Vanishing points: a personal approach to non-tempered tuning

Illean Finnis, L. (2021) Vanishing points: a personal approach to non-tempered tuning. Doctoral thesis, Royal College of Music.


The tuning of keyboard and zither instruments is tempered, that is, the system of tuning their intervals pragmatically approximates that of just (or pure) intervallic tuning. This has certain advantages, but results in a rigid, cyclic, closed system of tuning (and by extension, harmony). By comparison, non-tempered tuning is an open system requiring a flexible approach to tuning each interval in turn. The resulting harmonies are sonorous and distinctive. Much music written using non-tempered tunings has an acute awareness of the phenomena arising from the interactions between the vibrations causing the sensation of sound, the physiology of our ears and the psychology of our hearing faculty. Without diminishing this awareness, my work also investigates the evocative potential of this approach to harmony, in part through visual analogies and tactile processes of sketching. Examples informing this investigation include Vija Celmins’ drawings, Dan Graham’s pavilion Double Exposure, the architectural concept terrain vague, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, animated sound pioneers such as Arseni M. Avraamov, Percy Grainger’s “free music machine” and the works of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. My portfolio spans works for chamber orchestra to pieces for ensemble or soloist with pre-recorded sound and image. Through composing, I grappled with recurring questions concerning my evolving approach to non-tempered tuning—questions arising out of a meeting of theory, practice and imagination. These include the place of melody in my works, the place of traditional acoustic instruments (including those tuned in —or tuning to—equal temperament) and the relationship between perceptual phenomena and a personal evocative world. My study is indebted to—and extends—the work of composers like James Tenney, Ben Johnston and Marc Sabat. The title Vanishing Points poetically encapsulates different aspects of this exploration.

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