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The Animation of Lists And the Archytan Transpositions

by Warren Burt
XI Records, New York, 2006
2 audio CDs. 63'29" and 64'48"
XI 130
Distributor’s website:

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent
Jan Delvinlaan 115, 9000 Gent, Belgium


Warren Burt has a history of exploring the very edges of what is technically possible with new and old instruments. He has been using the mechanical gates of the earliest generation of synthesizers as percussion instruments, thereby changing would-be electronic instruments into acoustical ones. He has travelled the most remote regions of what is possible with the human vocal apparatus and redefined the borders between digital and analogous. With a solid background in musical and organological analysis and an ongoing interest in psycho-acoustics, he seems to be able to take any established practice just one step further, creating fuzzy no-mans-lands where entirely new aesthetics can be created, enjoyed and used to reassess old ones.

For this double CD Burt has been using a set of tuning forks precisely tuned to a just intonation. One would wonder how a tuning fork could not be precisely tuned, but the expression 'just-intonation' refers to the actual frequencies the forks are tuned to and not the fact that they vibrate at one frequency only. Our traditional tuning forks fit in a system of 'tempered scales' where certain tones are slightly off from what they should be in a perfect, just-intonation scale. Under pythagorean assumptions, all notes in a scale should — I emphasize "should" because Pythagoras and his followers soon discovered that reality isn't as ideal is they hoped it to be — be ordered in a series of ratio's of integers: for the octave, 2/3 for the fifth, etc. However, if one moves through the scale and tries to find the ratio's necessary to construct all intervals in this way, the system runs into serious trouble. It gets even messier when you go beyond the octave or when you move from major to minor and more exotic scales. Numerous schemes have been proposed to solve these problems before Western music settled for the 'tempered' scale where one instrument is supposed to be able to perform any scale. The tempered scale, however, trades harmonic integrity for practical ease and loses a lot of aesthetic qualities in the deal. I apologise for this long digression, and you will certainly find a better explanation in any good book on harmony and the mathematical basis of music, but it is necessary to explain what the otherwise cryptical 'Architan Transpositions' refer to.

In the first four pieces, Burt uses a series of sounds played on his tuning forks and manipulates that series to create a cycle of four equal-length variations. He digitally shifted the pitches of his series up and down and combined the manipulated recordings into highly intricate fabrics of very pure sounds. The sound of bass forks with a decay time of up to thirty seconds combine with the clear and crisp bell-like sounds of the treble ones. Their harmonics merge, melt, create unexpected chords and seem to play a game of their own. Nothing new-agey here, simply pure and almost pythagorean effectless music.

In the "Architan Transpositions", Burt does something similar with digitally retuned forks. The Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum proposed a variation on the pythagorean scale where a certain interval is taken to be 28/27. To our modern ears, this results in a weird scale, but using this interval to transpose the pitches of some of his forks, Burt succeeded in creating a combined virtual/real instrumentarium of 53 forks with harmonics that are more interesting than the ones in his first series of variations. The second cycle, called "And the Archytan Transpositions 1 to 4" has more colourful harmonies and at times even more drive because of the 'beating' interferences we hear between certain pitches. But don't expect anything like a drum 'n base record. The music is absolute. The harmony is most intriguing and yet unimaginably pleasing, but it takes a lot of effort to enjoy this record — or should we say, this perfect example of what 'research in music' could mean.



Updated 1st May 2007

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