01/23/2013 (12 Moons Solo Project Day 23)

12 Moons Solo Saxophone Project Day 23

Date: 01/23/2013
Instrument: Tenor saxophone
Location: Home studio in Clinton, WA (Whidbey Island)


I spent my practice session today dedicated to the use of “quarter tones.” Within an octave, there are traditionally 12 chromatic pitches. These are called half steps, but with the use of quarter tones you can double the number of pitches possible to 24. This is however a very imperfect system, as you you will hear in my piece today. In my study of Hindustani music, I learned that classical musicians can recognize up to 10 pitches within a half step. My ears are simply not this finely attuned, though I hope to someday have this level of sensitivity. 

Quarter steps on the saxophone are achieved through not traditional fingerings or bending with the embouchure. To my ears, I have found quarter step fingerings from the saxophone’s low D up to altissimo C, with a gap between a G# and an A because of the particulars of the saxophone’s construction. However, when these pitches are played melodically, it is clear that these are not true quarter steps at all, but are instead a few cents sharp or flat of a perfect quarter step. I may achieve a quarter step above a middle C, and then play what sounds to me like a quarter step above a C#. If I had truly accomplished this, my interval would be an exact half step. As you will hear in my improvisation, this is not the case at all. 

In this improvisation I aimed to create melodies that use quarter tone fingerings exclusively. As you will hear the end result is a kind of de-tuned piano result. As stated above, this is partially due to the finite relationship from one pitch to another, but also because many of my quarter steps are actually a bit out of tune. The vibe captured through playing with these fingerings is a kind of suspended, free tonality sound even if I am play a consonant melody. As a player, my ears become more and more attuned to this sound as I practice these fingerings and I find that I fall into a kind of dreamlike state while playing. When I move back to traditional fingerings it sounds so structured and limiting!