Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Meter and Rhythm

Written as such, the poems are not yet set for a particular meter, but are open to collaborative suggestions. Rhythmically, when the poems are read aloud, a speaking tone (not forced, sing-song rhythm or overly oratorial) is preferred. As with the meter, the rhythm (as well as duration of individual notes and other musicological consideration) can evolve through preference and collaborative suggestions.


Early in the experiment, we included most accidentals (the sharps and flats) represented as + (plus) and - (minus) respectively. This was taking more time and space than we wanted to afford, so we decided we would leave off the accidentals. This decision finessed over the notating of the next several rounds of poems to follow these rules:
• Accidentals can be left off in most cases for purposes of notation, with the understanding that they are available in the finalization of a suitable melody
• If a series of same vowels represent adjacent identical notes but the actual vowel sounds are not the same, we include the accidentals to distinguish the suggestion that the music reflect the phonetic difference.
• If a line ends with a vowel sound that takes an accidental, we include it.
• An R after the vowel sound generally brings the base note down a half-step.
• The short vowel sound takes the note generally up a half-step.
• O is proving a special case, as it has so many vowel tones, and the “short” sounds often feel closer to other short vowels than to seemingly adjacent sounds (au as in cot or caught and ow as in now seem close to the schwa sound, which is assigned to the first note in a particular mode, as it is (at least allegedly) the most common vowel sound in the English language. O and all the sounds originally assigned to its respective note is also problematic as it is a sixth above the base tone, which is not as common (or pleasing) an interval as a fourth or fifth.


The numbers above the poem’s words represent a seven-tone tonic scale of your choice, or as suits the mood of the poem:

Ionian: Bright, joyful, most common scale in Western music. White key octave starting with C (i.e. 1=C, 2=D, 3=E, 4=F, etc.).
Dorian: To some ears, tense and dark, to others the mid point between Ionian and Aeolian. White key octave starting with D.
Phrygian: Towards the darker side of moods. White key octave starting with E. (See Gypsy scale below.)
Lydian: Considered the happiest, lightest mode of the traditional Greek modes. White key octave starting with F.
Mixolydian: Considered to be midway (neutral) in mood. White key octave starting with G.
Aeolian: Sad, serious, disquieted. A simple minor scale (notes do not change in descending scale). White key octave starting with A.
Locrian: Very rarely used, does not resolve naturally (to Western ears). White key octave starting with B.

Gypsy scale: Phrygian scale with raised third (octave starting with E: EFG#ABCDE). Irresistible.
Flats (-) and sharps (+) are indicated but optional (use them if they sound good, otherwise use the neutral note).

From bright to dark in mood: Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Locrian

Please note there may be errors in the translation of the notes into numbers and there will always be fuzzy areas where words are pronounced differently by different speakers (singers) and even in different contexts.


The pentatonic notes are based solely on the vowels (DEGAB = AEIOU) as written, not as pronounced. This system would be much better in most any other Western language, as English spelling is so capricious. The letter “Y” takes on the tone of the vowel (usually E or I) that it sounds like. Silent letters may for aesthetic value (to alleviate from the otherwise “drudge” of one note per syllable) tone, but we did not include them (to keep the notation from getting too unruly for a first draft.) Theoretically, edits to the poem would require edits to the musical tones as well, but a good melody (when/if they occur) should not suffer because of a strict application of the system.

If you are not familiar with music, you can still easily play the pentatonic version for the poem by using the black keys on a piano. You will notice the black keys appear as a set of two and a set of three. D = the leftmost black key in the set of two (written vowel A), and E = the rightmost of the twosome (E vowel). G = the leftmost black key of the threesome (I vowel), A = the middle one (O vowel), and B = the rightmost (U vowel). In case you wonder, we did try to devise a system with A the note equal to A the vowel, just as E = E, but this seemed too random; the vowels O and U have a tonal connection to each other, to our ears at least, as do A to E and E to I (especially in the short forms, eh and ih). O has slight tonal connection to I, and U connects to A through the short U, uh, which, being the most common vowel sound in English, was assigned to the modal base tone. (You had to ask, didn’t you?)

The Application

Currently Grunge and BRASH are working with two systems. The first is the pentatonic (represented by the letters above the words), which just as its name suggests, has only five tones, which correspond more or less well with the five vowels (AEIOU = DEGAB) (Please. Don’t ask why “A” does not correspond with the note “A.” Please don’t go there. Please.). Amazing Grace is in the most common pentatonic pattern, which you can easily play on a piano’s black keys with the notes as assigned to your poem, assuming each note is flat (i.e., D = Dflat). The other system (using numbers) is based on the seven-tone modal system which traces back to ancient Greece, all of which consists of notes using predictable intervals of half and whole steps, and which can be expressed using only the white keys on a piano, and. (The plus and minus signs indicate sharps or flats, which would mean using the black keys as well; in using only the white keys you can tell if you’ve gone up a whole step if there is an intervening black key, which is a half tone between the adjacent white keys — if there isn’t, you’ve only gone up a half step). Did we mention we wanted to keep this super simple?

In keeping it simple, we originally were only going to consider three of the Greek modes, Ionian, which corresponds to the Major scale in Western music, the aeolian, which corresponds to a basic minor scale, and the Dorian, which we incorrectly were assuming was the basic scale playable on a fife, which was going to be the means by which we tested the melodies as they were written. (Pause for much giddy laughter at such an absurd idea.) In the fateful moment (really, someone should put up a plaque) of researching the mood created by music in the Dorian mode (we thought for some reason it would be happy), we came across the concept of the Gypsy scale which blew us out of the water (BRASH is 7/36th full-blooded Gypsy), in part because it is so familiar, so haunting and beautiful, and presented the idea of intervals which were not limited to steps and half-steps. (We know of other music, both culturally indigenous and computer-generated, that uses other tonal intervals than the Western scales and modes allow, but we were deliberately avoiding those because neither of us have any instruments that can play any of those scales.) So we decided we had to allow for all the modes, so that at least the rudiments of a fitting melody could arise for each poem (at least theoretically and hopefully).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The History

In August 2011 Grunge approached BRASH with the idea of creating a tonal system that would link specific vowel sounds to specific musical notes. In concept, this would mean that the poetry would write its own music, somewhat simply and straightforwardly. It seemed like a good plan at the time.

Grunge first met BRASH at the Blue Elephant Gallery in Frederick MD during the closing of the Art and Addiction show where BRASH performed several of the poems written for that show to simple Balkan folk melodies. They tried some experiments using existing folk melodies or improvised melodies with BRASH’s collection of Artomatic poems. As lovely as the folk melodies sometimes are, issues of international copyright permissions promised a more extensive project than either of them wanted to take on, and the improvised melodies, even recorded, were sometimes hard to stabilize, and difficult to transcribe into the Western scale. There was also an agreement that the improvisation, although tempting, seemed to fall into a “sameness,” almost a natural iterating of a twelve-tone or chromatic scale.

At the time, when Grunge suggested the idea of connecting specific musical sounds to specific vowel sounds, it seemed a simple concept to implement. (Pause for maniacal laughter. Cut it off before it goes too long.) Now we know why no one else ever came up with such a brilliant and simple system. It is taking a lot longer than we anticipated, we don’t have time to actually test the melodies and tweak them or make aesthetic suggestions, but are hoping that the artists themselves will test the different modal iterations and let us know what their preferences are, and maybe go forward from there to creating the rest of the texture of the piece, such as chording, rhythmic settings, and all the other etceteras of composing (not to mention the editing process of poems written so quickly in the context of AOM that most of them would certainly need some degree of rescue, which in turn would in most cases change the melody....). We’re hoping that all of the artists would be interested in this process, but we’re also hoping that not all of them will, because that’s looking at an enormous amount of time and effort, which leads to our simple and insane hope that we won’t kill each other by the end of the run of AOM-Fred, because in that case one of us will be working from jail and the other from the grave.

All talk of murder aside, please contact us if this project is of interest to you, or even if the idea completely baffles you but you’d still like your share of the insanity. The worst that can happen is that you’ll learn a little about musical modes, which is something the both of us have always wanted to get around to doing, and now we have. Thank you for your participation at Artomatic-Fred.

Tonal system and specific tonal patterns copyright © October 2011 MdlGrunge All rights revered.

The Poetry and The Music

The Concept

The idea is to create a meaningful system of connecting the specific sounds of the poetry to musical tones, so that in a sense, in writing the poem, the particular vowels or vowel sounds used would suggest a specific and unique musical pattern. For the most part, the desire was to create a system based on the sounds in a meaningful way. For example, one early idea was to connect arrange the vowel sounds from those formed at the back of the palate to those formed in the front of the mouth with a tighter jaw. The problems that arose from this system included the fact that linguists do not agree on how many different vowel sounds there are in the English language and more importantly, English spelling offers no true connection between the written and pronounced vowel, and most importantly, experiments with this system using the 12-18 different vowel sounds suggested matching to a chromatic scale, which proved to create musical patterns that had a certain sameness, and were not pleasing overall. The Western ear hears seven main tones in music (the basic scale), with accidentals (sharps and flats) rounding out the repetoire for composers and songwriters. It’s logical to think of vowel sounds in terms of these main notes, with accidentals happening less frequently. Even within the seven tone scale, certain intervals are more common or pleasing to the ear, for example, the base note of any given scale (in C Major, C, or “doe” in the song Do Re Mi from The Sound Of Music), its fourth, fifth, interval above the base (F and G respectively for C Maj, and fa and sol in the song) and for jazzier ears, the seventh (B and ti).