Thursday, January 21, 2016

Situated Music (Continued) - The Tonkori Kalimba Mark II

Further situated music research into the melodic space of the Ainu fretless zither, the tonkori.

The Tonkori Kalimba made by Caleb Schepart of  nyKalimba
Classic Tonkori photo mother playing to child

Research context

Recap - situated music follows a research programme first proposed by Hugh Tracey in Ngomi in 1948. The melodies follow the path laid out by the instrument, then melodies suggest themselves to the musician pushing for a new possibility of the instrument. It could be argued that the Hugh Tracey Kalimba was the first conscious exploitation of the notion - a full compass of notes in a modified illimba layout.


I have been using the ideas from Ngomi to design a series of instruments to explore the melody spaces from different cultures, which I blogged about earlier. This post concerns the Tonkori Kalimba. It was a pentatonic kalimba in re-entrant tuning that permitted the playing of tonkori pieces. It had octaves for tonal variation. It needed however to be retuned for the different pieces. What I wanted was something where the notes for the different pieces were available for playing immediately, but the question was how - easy retuning was possible with small neodynm magnets, but that was problematic as there was still a process of retuning which meant you had to first work out what tuning was there and then work out the difference you wanted. Also the extreme variations (say for Keh Keh Hetani Paye An) weren't achievable. And one can't have a concert that involved rebuilding an instrument on stage. Well, I suppose you can, but this would detract from the central idea.

So I got to conceiving the different tonkori tunings as avatars of the echt tonkori, offering the same relative melodic affordance but with different melodic outcomes. So in the tradition of avatars, they could be present at the same time in a representation (the many arms of the deities in statues represent this).

Let's briefly review the core tonkori tunings*. The unaltered pentatonic ("white note") is used for three classic tonkori pieces - Kento Hahka Touhse, Kehe Kehe Hetani Payean, and Ucaore Irehte.** For Kehe Kehe Hetani Payean, there is an octave with no seventh.
Then there is a tuning with lowered degrees 3, 6 and 7. It's fair to say that most of the "classic" tonkori pieces use this tuning: Ikersohte, Etouhka Mā Irehte, Tōkito Ran Ran, Suma Kā Peka Touhse Irehte, Sumari Pū Kosan, Ponsumarī Hechire and Hosuyasuya Ikos**.

There are a number of other tunings that have been employed - some are perhaps experimental. There is likely also to have been a shift in the tuning - the archival versions of these pieces use a different tuning and sound markedly different. But it's hard to say - emphatically the literature says that the tune is the same regardless of the tuning. In this it is similar to the mobility of Shona great pieces regarding of the tuning of the mbira on which they are played.
Other lesser tunings include 2232,3222,5232, 3223 and 5232, but these are of sufficient rarity for them not to be of significance here.

The Tonkori Kalimba Mark 2 - scope

So it seemed to me that an instrument that had two ranks of tines, each with their own scale, would pretty much cover the tonkori repertoire for the purpose of exploration. And because of the major/minor - up/down correspondence in the brain it seemed to me that the tuning with lowered scale degrees should be placed on the lower rank.

The melodic affordance of the tonkori in all of these scales and tunings is UUUDU, and I obviously wanted to preserve this. This meant that the scale degrees were arranged as and which translated (given that I wanted a rich tonic and I love the low A in kalimbas for personal historical reasons) into the actual note layouts:

which then translated into this tine arrangement:

The Tonkori Kalimba Mark 2 - design

Discussions with Caleb at nyKalimba told me that he would build an instrument to these specifications - this would be a modification of his existing two rank instrument. His ambira lamellophone is unusual in that the adjoining notes make the scales divided between the ranks. Most other two rank kalimbas have octave or fifth arrangement (I simplify here).

This was out working map (drawn by Caleb):
 realised as 

Caleb added an extra note on the left for aesthetic and structural reasons.

And now it is here at home:


How has it worked out? Well, for playing the tonkori repertory, and for experimenting in the tune space, it has been magnificent. And also as a musical instrument as well - I have basically had it on my person for months playing it everywhere. Everyone I show it to falls in love with it playing it. I'll put up a video of it being played shortly, this is to tell the world about it in the interim.

As regards playing the music, it's perfect. Anything written in tonkori tabs of all sorts can be read, as can sheet music. There is some to-ing and fro-ing as regard how to play the middle tines, especially on the lower rank. But once that has been worked out it's easy.

As regards playing anything for the tonkori on the fly, it's also brilliant. When you know the layout it's pretty immediate. I suppose it isn't as immediate as the Mark I, but only in the sense that you didn't have to think about it.

Ainu music is highly figurative. This is music that illustrates sisters and brothers of the Ainu in nature - birds, animals, ghosts. It is also highly ritual and in the right context sacred. Having a layout that lets the player get involved in the melodic affordance directly really does make it possible to emulate the eloping lovers, the swooping cranes, the shuffling monster, the creeping fox, the playul fox cub. And that was to large extent the point of the experiment.

Oddly enough friends who have played it (jazz musicians) have been more interested in it as a means of improv in an unusual scale. So where I see it as 3 separate co-extensive instruments, they see it as a parti-chromatic instrument. And the high C I mentioned got immediate use. One friend start a riff on c' c'' a a' and improvised around that for a while. Which is I imagine unavoidable - the people repurposing it.

But then, isn't that further substantiation of Tracey's notion? This is an extended range instrument, providing a new melodic affordance that is reasonably certain never to have existed before.

So experiment successful. I am hoping Caleb will make it into a product in his shop, as people everywhere I go seem to want one. I am arranging a book of tab for it and will make that available when ready.

*I will assume for the sake of simplicity that everyone who reads this knows that numbers with hats means scale degrees, and down and up arrows mean raising and lowering a degree half a tone.  I will also assume familiarity with the practice of describing pentatonic scales with the intervals. I used the free font XPTChords from Philip Tagg for the scale degrees -

** Kento Hahka Touhse = "Kento's hat has blown off"
Kehe Kehe Hetani Payean  = "Come on, let's go"
Ucaore Irehte = "the sound of the argument"
Ikersohte = "the sound of the shuffling monster"
Etouhka Mā Irehte = "the sound of the washing crow"
Tōkito Ran Ran  = "descending and pecking" (cranes coming down to eat leeks)
Suma Kā Peka Touhse Irehte  = "the sound of skipping across stones" (Lovers meeting in twilight on a rocky beach)
Sumari Pū Kosan  = "the fox creeps down" (into the warehouse to eat the goose fat)
Ponsumarī Hechire  = "the dance of the fox cub"
Hosuyasuya Ikos  = "the dance of swaying hips"

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