MEET THE ARTIST: JUSTIN CURFMAN (FEEDING FINGERS)
Hello Justin and congratulations to an exceptional album. "Do, Owe, Harm" deals with xenharmonic music. How did you come to this type of music?
Hi Daniel. It good to be in touch with you. I’m happy that you like the album. I came in contact with xenharmonic music many years ago, back in my teenage years through the study of composers like Charles Ives, Julian Carrillo, Harry Partch and others - pioneers of microtonal music, working with quarter-tones, twelfth-tones and other temperaments. However the term 'xenharmonic' wasn’t coined until the mid-late twentieth century by composer Ivor Darreg. The term serves as something of a catch-all word for classifying music that isn’t written in common 12-tone temperament.
When did you decide to compose an entire album based on the microtonal music?
When I was working on the previous Feeding Fingers album, "Attend" (2016), I set a personal challenge to finally write a song using a microtonal / xenharmonic tuning system for the album. In 2014 or so I started studying and listening to xenharmonic music in a much deeper way than I had done previously. During this time I came across Wendy Carlos’ album, "Beauty in the Beast" (1986) and found the use of her "Alpha Scale" tuning system for the title track to be something really mysterious and beautiful. I decided to try my hand at writing a song myself utilizing that system. The result was the song, "Where All of These Towns and Choices End". I so enjoyed writing music without being tethered to the limitation of working within the 12-tone temperament that I decided right away that the next Feeding Fingers album would be a somethign of a study of microtonal / xenharmonic music. I wanted to go further into that tonal palette. Now, a couple of years later, we have "Do Owe Harm".
Xenharmonic music is the realisation of tones between our "traditional" tempered semi-tone. How was it for you, when you listen to this "foreign" sounds for the first time?
My first memory of listening to microtonal / xenharmonic music comes without a doubt from the first time that I heard Ivan Wyschnegradsky’s "24 Preludes in Quarter Tone System". For anyone unfamiliar with what we are talking about here, I strongly suggest that you not focus too much on the verbiage here and simply listen to this. The first time that I heard this, I heard it at high volume and felt a bit disoriented and a little nauseous over time. The subtle mental gymnastics that the mind does in trying to push the notes a few cents to the left or right to put them "in tune" - to find resolution - is a fascinating phenomenon. You should try it. I think that this says quite a bit about how our minds attempt to, either consciously or unconsciously, bend and shape our perception of even the most abstract of stimuli into something "agreeable".
I can imagine, that it is not that easy to play these tones on synthesizers, guitars and so on. What preparations are to be done to let the machines and instruments sound microtonal?
Without getting too boorish and bookish about it, I will just give a very, very simple run through. I am sure that the more pedantic among us will fling insults at me right away, as they seem wont to do. It’s rather simple, really. With traditionally fretted string instruments like guitar, electric bass, etc. your two most common options for getting into those microtonal nooks and crannies are to either install more frets between the half-steps, or to remove all of the frets entirely from the fretboard. One may go from one extreme to the other. For example, a traditional guitar has twelve frets per octave. So, if you want to be able to play more than twelve tones per string from one octave to the next, you must install more frets within that octave to divide the intervals further and further apart. Or, you may go the opposite route and remove all of the frets entirely and play the guitar on a flat fretboard as one would a violin or cello, thus allowing you to play, in theory, whatever tone you wish - depending on the length of the string and fretboard of course. As for synthesizers, depending on the limitations of the hardware and(or) software that you are working with, you may tune them however you wish, assigning a certain tone or Hertz value to each key. You may do this with a piece of software like Scala for example, a tuner, by ear - whatever works for you.
Especially in your case, how did you tune your instruments?
For my personal setup, I use a Stratocaster guitar body that I change necks in and out of. For this guitar body I have a fretless neck that I made myself and use primarily for leads and melodies and I have a 22-tone / quarter-tone guitar neck made by Ron Sword at metatonalmusic.com that I use primarily for chords and more precise tones. I change the necks out depending on what it is that I am working on. I primarily use a fretless bass as well. And for synthesizers, I use a Korg Monologue which has microtonal functionality - it was released coincidentally at the same time that I was working on the new album. I got really lucky with the timing on that. I also use a Roland Gaia along with countless other bits of hardware and software. But, the most indispensable tool that I used throughout the composition and production of the album was Jacky Ligon’s series of microtonal synths at xen-arts.net.
You also got some support by a German saxophonist, Philipp Gerschlauer. How did you got in contact with him?
Ich habe von 2010 bis 2015 in Deutschland gelebt. Während meiner Zeit dort hörte ich viel Jazz von verschiedenen deutschen und österreichischen Bands und Solisten. Ich fand Phillips Arbeit sehr interessant. Er ist spezialisiert auf mikrotonale Musik. Ich hörte seine Arbeit mit seiner microtonal Jazz Band Besaxung sehr oft während meines Studiums der mikrotonalen Musik - nicht nur von einem akademischen Standpunkt aus, sondern auch zum Vergnügen und als Inspiration. Ich wollte direkt mit ihm zusammenarbeiten. Aber als ich anfing, das Album zu realisieren, war ich bereits nach Italien gezogen. Also habe ich die Musik in Italien geschrieben und aufgenommen und wir haben über das Internet kommuniziert. Er nahm das Saxophonsolo für "Hate Yourself Kind" in Deutschland auf und schickte es mir nach Italien.
How difficult (or maybe even easy) is it to compose xenharmonic songs?
I wouldn’t say that writing a song in a xenharmonic scale is more difficult or easier than writing in common 12-tone - at least in my opinion. For me, at this point in my creative life, I find it a bit more enjoyable than writing in 12-tone. But, I wouldn’t say that I find it any more or less difficult. I just enjoy working with all of these new "colors". I feel like I am better able to discover new things when I work this way and I have a greater sense of adventure - naturally.
So what steps have to be taken for such a composition?
The way that I compose xenharmonic songs is probably more akin to something one might call "polytonality". I compose a song in its entirety in a certain tuning that I chose to work within beforehand. I probably lifted this in an indirect way from Brian Eno’s "Oblique Strategies". I give myself a limited parameter to work within. Before starting, I have a selection of "tunings" or equal divisions of the octave (EDO) to choose from. I can write these tunings on slips of paper and draw one randomly from a box. Let’s say that I draw from the box a piece of paper that has "15-EDO" written on it. Now, I must write a song using fifteen equal divisions of the octave. Instead of 12 tones per octave, I will be working with 15. So, I write a song using this system. I write the chord progressions, the melody, harmonies, etc. using 15-EDO. Then, I play drums, percussion, bass, vocals, etc. Finally, if toward the end of the composition and recording of the song I feel that something is maybe a bit too "unpalatable" for a general music audience, I will add certain common 12 tone elements to the piece to, hopefully, make it more "listenable" - to sort of round out the more jagged edges. As a result, here is such a song written in 15-EDO from the album. It is titled "Arrive a Leech"
What do you expect from the people when they listen to "Do Owe Harm"?
My primary concern is in creating music that I hope that people will enjoy listening to as much as I do making it. I like to share in the joy of making things through, at times, unconventional means. But, I don’t care to rub those means in people’s faces and say to them, "Look at what I did!". I would rather the listener just sit back, listen and enjoy while hopefully finding something new - even if they can’t quite put their finger on what it is.
As far as I know this is the first post-punk-album in xenharmonic style. But for me the oppressive atmosphere of this genre fits perfect with this kind of music. Do you see yourself as a pioneer?
I agree with you in that this type of music maybe does create a certain sense of claustrophobia, technophobia, "otherness", etc. It is naturally a bit disorienting, which is essentially what the post-punk sort of ethos was going for - at least in the early days - a musical outgrowth of fetishistic dystopian science fiction from post WWII writers like Burroughs, Ballard, et al. While this is maybe the first xenharmonic album inhabiting this tiny little pocket of the musical landscape, there are other artists out there that aren’t afraid to cross-pollinate xenharmonic / microtnal music with elements of pop, rock, metal, jazz and other disciplines / genres. A few that come to mind are Elaine Walker (ZIA), Brendan Byrnes (ILEVENS), Ron Sword (Last Sacrament) and Sean Archibald (Sevish) to name a few. I don’t see myself as a pioneer. I’m just trying to keep my creative spark aflame through looking for new ways to compose music. The last thing that I want to do is to write the same album twice.
Your voice reminds me also a bit of Robert Smith. Is the Cure-Singer some kind of an idol for your musical career?
I am told often that our voices have a similar timbre, but I can’t say that he has had much influence on my career. I am not familiar with anything that he has done within the past eighteen years or so.
"Do, Owe, Harm". Three words with a very melancholic attitude in combination. What do you want to express with this title?
I’m not sure yet. Ask me again in ten years.
Some songs surprises me just by reading their titles: "A Happy Lust For Alphabets", "Hate Yourself Kind", "In Hallways Feared From Birth". They have some kind of surrealistic, some kind of André-Breton-esque style, have they?
I have read André Breton, Georges Bataille, Guillaume Apollinaire, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard and the rest, of course. Les décadents français. Les surréalistes français. But, their methods and mine are not so similar. When I was very young, they surely gave me some much needed, naive wild-eyed enthusiasm. But, I can’t say that I have ever consciously tried to emulate them. My writing process for text is quite different from what they were doing. What I do is probably far too tedious and dull to get into.
The enigmatic (and somehow surrealistic) stone cover with this planet-like bullet is also part of the video for "Fontanelle". Was it just chosen for aesthetic reasons or is there something more behind it?
You are correct. That image is a still created by the video director, Steven Lapcevic. He is a long-time creative collaborator of mine and something of an honorary fourth member of the band. The image was chosen as an attempt to provide some visual continuity between the video and the album. However, there is something more behind it. But, I won’t tell.
Your latest work, as well as all the other albums before, proof you to be a free-minded artist. Is this study of microtonal music just a once in a lifetime experience or could you imagine to compose again in this style?
I will certainly keep microtonal composition as another element in my future work. It will be another tool in the toolbox. I am itching to get started on new music as soon as our tour ends in April. We will see what comes out next.
|| INTERVIEW: DANIEL DRESSLER | DATE: 01/25/18 | CONTACT >
PHOTOGRAPHY © STEVEN LAPCEVIC
READ MORE IN ENGLISH? HERE ARE SOME EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS TO ENJOY
Andi Harriman & Marloes Bontje, Authors of the 80s Postpunk/Goth Compendium, "Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace"
Sophie and Marianthi of Marsheaux talk about their recent Depeche Mode Tribute, "A Broken Frame"
Paul Anstey (Bloma) on how Marijuana, Paranoia and Creativity fuelled his studio work
Matt Howden (Sieben) talks about his RASP project, a recent collaboration with Jo Quail
D.Notive and his retrofuturistic crime-opera "The Sentinel"
Alex Svenson of Then Comes Silence gives an insight of "Blood"