The Mr. Becos interview series continues with Christopher Morda, a guitarist, philosopher, expert in alternative tuning systems and Detroit native. Part 1 of 2.
Mr. Becos: You know a good deal about "alternative" tuning systems. Can you give a brief overview of what this means for the ignoramuses who read this blog?
Morda: I think of this in two different ways, both shaped primarily by musical background as 1) a guitar player and 2) by studying for a bachelor's degree in Ethnomusicology (primarily because of a love of Indian music and a desire to understand more about music of non-western cultures) and 3) my obsession with blues guitar for a number of years.
From my guitar player perspective "alternative" tuning systems for me are using a way to tune the guitar that isn't based on the "standard" guitar tuning. I mostly use "open" tunings on guitar that were used by either delta blues guitar players or electric slide players. Many "delta" blues players such as Son House or Muddy Waters (rooted in the delta before moving to Chicago) used an open A tuning which is basically tuning to an "open" a chord. So for this tuning you take your typical a chord in standard tuning with from low e to high e, open e, open a, E (d string 2nd fret), A (g string 2nd fret), C# (b string 2nd fret, and open e string. I mostly use a this tuning tuned a whole step down to g (dgdgbd). I like this tuning for acoustic slide, for electric slide I like the open E tuning (tuned down a whole step to Open D). This tuning is based on an open E chord and then tuned down a whole step (ebeg#be tuned down to dadf#ad).
These tunings are alternative in the sense that I am using an alternate to standard tuning but are still based on a typical "Western" system using the a note at 440 cycles per second as the basic standard of tuning relationships being based on the Western "Equal" temperament system. What I think of as "alternative" tuning systems on a broader musical sense takes into account systems of tuning that are used by other cultures as well as creating tunings of my own that are based on a mathematical basis.
Historically tunings were based more or less on simple mathematical systems. Classical Indian music for instance still uses an older tuning system based on whole number musical ratios. Any musical system based on whole note ratios is referred to as "Just Intonation". Just Intonation systems are fine when staying in one key or playing more "modally" based music, music with very little harmony.
Mr. Becos: La Monte Young has done a lot of work over the years with Just Intonation and Indian music and I know you spent some time in his downtown compound. Did you learn any important secrets there?
Morda: Interesting question, I was a monitor at the dream house a few times a month for a few years so got to spend a lot of time there. I'm not sure if I learned any "secrets" but it was interesting to spend time in the environment which has been there for 20 years or so now, and La Monte and Marian have lived downstairs from the dream house for like 50 years.
The dream house, a sound and light environment features 32 or so sound frequencies in a mathematically based tuning system being pumped out at around 107db (one night I was working there and an old sound engineer and his buddy who was a jazz professor from Cleveland I think, had a db reader and that was the reading they recorded), the tuning of these frequencies are digitally generated and haven't changed over the period of the installation. While you are in the room very slight changes in how you're holding your head will generate the auditory sensation of hearing totally new sounds, the volume and frequencies really make you aware of hearing sound and "music" in completely different ways.
I think from a kind of "Zen" kind of thing, and this is totally in my mind, nothing I was taught or anything while there but just thinking about the time I was there and things I’ve thought about it really brings to my mind this whole idea of how timeless each moment is, but at the same time how as we get older we have a tendency to look back at the past or our childhood as something we are trying to aspire to return to. When I studied music cultures, especially blues traditions and the folk revival of the 60's and my "romanticism" with those times as a child growing up in the 70's and 80's, I noticed how then when reading about ancient musics while studying ethnomusicology that there was this tendency for musicians, I think both very serious and not so serious as they age always look back to some time in the past when the music was "pure" or hadn't lost something and how we need to go back to that.
I have thought about this idea for a long time, I also look at in the context of the whole idea of the Apocalypse and the recent interest in the end of the Mayan calendar, etc. Basically since the book of Revelations, Western culture always looks at the current times and think we are leading up to the times spoken about in the book. I thought to myself, shit I understand that people always think that way but it seems we really are!! Maybe we are, but maybe we're not. Getting back to the Zen thing, it doesn't really matter in this moment.
There was a Woody Allen movie that came out last year or so where Owen Wilson goes to Paris and he's a movie writer and then each night at midnight he is miraculously sent back to his golden age time in Paris and meets Dali, Hemingway, and a number of famous characters that are his heroes and in his version of the nostalgic Golden Age, he meets and falls in love with a woman and then ironically they are transported back in time to her Golden Age and she wants to stay there and then she explains to him how crazy he is, she lives in what he thinks is the Golden Age and she lives there and it's not it's this other time that they have now arrived in.
So this idea that things are never really what they appear to be to all the people in the same room at the same time. Everyone perceives things differently and this perception is very interesting to me.
So bringing it back to the Dream House, I really think that room really encapsulates this idea of the changing and the not changing and this sense of kind of look backward and forward while being in the moment and how hard it can be to be in the very moment because you are always thinking about the future or the past.
Typically I would find myself in the Dream House all alone and would have a fairly common experience, I would grab a pillow and lay back and try to listen to the sound, I would then at some point think, holy shit this is way to loud I can't stand this. Then oddly enough I would fall asleep for anywhere from 5-20 minutes and wake up and realize I had some how fallen asleep in 107db of sound and go through the whole cycle again, man this is fucking loud, and then I’d get so focused on thinking how loud it is and somehow I would start thinking about this so strongly that I would cease hearing any sound and be absorbed in my thoughts how fucking loud it was, even thought I'd thought so hard about how loud it is that I couldn't actually hear it anymore, I'd then doze off again.