Saturday, August 17, 2013

Tolgahan Çoğulu. Microtonal Guitar

SOUNDBOARD, Journal of Guitar Foundation of America, Vol. 36, No. 3, October, 2010

You have designed a guitar that you called “Adjustable Microtonal Guitar.” Could you please describe which factors distinguish your guitar from the standard classical guitar?

On adjustable microtonal guitar’s fretboard, there are channels under each string. I have 150 fretlets (little frets) that can be inserted into or removed from these channels. These fretlets can also be moved along the fretboard as you wish. I should say that the channel idea belongs to German luthier Walter Vogt. In 1985, Vogt invented a guitar with a fretboard he called “The Fine-Tunable Precision Fretboard,” on which all the frets are movable for limited distances via the channels under the strings. As the title of this fretboard reveals, Vogt’s goal was to solve the intonation problems of stable-fretted guitars and he reached his goal by finding a remarkable solution. I’ve never had the chance to play a Vogt guitar or analyze its complex mechanism. When I saw the photos of the guitar on the web site of luthier Herve Chouard, who has been making Vogt guitars after Walter Vogt, I realized that the channel idea was the most logical solution to play microtones on a guitar, if a complete freedom of movement is provided for the fretlets. Besides, the fretlets had to be inserted into or removed from the fretboard practically. Thanks to the financial support of Istanbul Technical University, my advisor Şehvar Beşiroğlu and luthier Ekrem Özkarpat, I have a fretboard and fretlets that have all the related properties I need.

Why do you need a guitar with movable frets?

I live in Istanbul, Turkey which is located between the two continents, Europe and Asia. Musicians here have the chance to be trained in either the classical Western music tradition or maqam-based Ottoman/Turkish art music and Asia Minor folk music. After playing the guitar for some years and improving your technical skills, one starts to feel an urge to play or arrange the maqam-based music of the geography you live in. The maqams have microtones which can be played in a very limited way with the stable-fretted classical guitar. This was my initial reason to design a guitar with movable frets. Other reasons started to build up gradually throughout the years, as I started to become interested in contemporary microtonal music and classical Western music repertoire based on tunings other than the equal temperament system such as Pythagorean, just-intonation, mean-tone and well-temperament. The facts that the equal temperament violates nature, the just intonation consists of pure intervals, the pure major 3rd is 14 cents lower than the equal tempered major 3rd, shook my perspective of classical Western music.
You mentioned that the microtones can be played with the standard classical guitar in a limited way. How can these microtones be achieved?

To date, I came across six ways to achieve microtones with the stable-fretted guitar in the classical guitar repertoire. One is by bending the strings with the left hand fingers. When you bend a string, the pitch gets higher like in a fretless instrument. Another way is to tune an open string for a specific microtone you want. In this way, all the frets on that string will have specific microtones. A string’s tuning can also be changed during the performance. The performer plucks the string and than turns the related tuning peg and thus achieves microtones. The third way is to use an apparatus to achieve a microtone. Electric guitar slides, pencils or even pestles are touched gently on a string, thus allowing to obtain microtones when glissandi are made. The left-hand fingers can also fulfill this function by touching softly on a string. The fourth method is similar with the horizontal vibrato technique. By moving the pressed left-hand finger to the left or right without releasing the pressure, one can achieve microtones. The fifth method that I’ve encountered is the vibration of the left part of the pressed fret. One of the left hand fingers presses on a fret and then, the right hand plucks the string from the left side of the fret that was pressed. In this technique, the left part of the fret is vibrated and some microtones can be achieved. Playing the strings on the tuning peg is also included in this method. The last method is some of the harmonics and multiphonics. For example, harmonic on 4th fret or multiphonic on 6th fret are microtones. These six methods will provide you the microtones that you need but these are not practical solutions.

Guitarists such as John Schneider have been playing microtonal music with special design guitars. How did these guitarists come up with a solution?

When guitarists realize that they can achieve microtones in a limited way on a regular guitar, it is a natural consequence that they resort to new guitar designs. In my opinion, John Schneider is a very important figure in the history of the contemporary guitar. Schneider’s book “The Contemporary Guitar”, his article “Just Guitar” and his interview that was published in Soundboard had great influence on me. Schneider has been playing a guitar with interchangeable fretboards, which was invented by Tom Stone in the early 1970s. He has many fretboards with the nailed adjusted fretlets. Lily Afshar has also been using additional nailed fretlets on her stable-fretted guitar’s fretboard. One other solution is the Vogt guitar that I’ve already mentioned. I learnt from John Schneider that he and Wim Hoogewerf played microtonal music with the Vogt guitar on which the channels are completely open the full length of the string. Another option is the fretless guitar which has been played by Erkan Oğur since 1970s, in order to play maqam-based music. I think the classical fretless guitar is a great instrument but it sounds very different than a fretted classical guitar. It is like a new stringed instrument somewhere between guitar and oud. Also it is very difficult to play chords on a fretless guitar.

Now you have a guitar with movable frets. Have you already started exploring the possibilities of your new guitar?

First, I started to arrange maqam-based Asia Minor (Anatolian) folk music for the adjustable microtonal guitar. The Anatolian necked-lute bağlama (also known as saz) is a very common instrument in Anatolian folk music and it has generally 17 frets per octave. I adjusted my fretboard accordingly and I was excited when I found some chords using the microtones of the folk melodies’ maqam. The microtones are essential elements for the melody. When you omit the microtones, the folk melody sounds like a Gregorian chant and therefore the arrangements for classical guitar may not be so original. My guitarist friend Cem Günenç arranged a piece, which is one of the earliest examples of Ottoman art music by the composer Abdülkadir Meragi. For that piece I adjusted my B’s 15 cents lower and F sharps 10 cents lower. My composer friend Onur Türkmen wrote a piece called Merhamet (Compassion). It modulates to many different maqams and therefore I had to adjust many frets lower and higher accordingly. I have also had the opportunity to meet William Allaudin Mathieu, who taught my own music theory teacher, Michael Ellison. Mathieu is a great composer and has a very important book called “Harmonic Experience: Tonal Harmony from its Natural Origins to its Modern Expression.” He was interested in the adjustable microtonal guitar and composed a piece called “Lattice İşi,” which is written in five-limit just intonation and employs twenty-eight different pitches within the octave. All the frets had to be adjusted on the fretboard and I must admit I really got confused with that one! Tolga Zafer Özdemir and Mutlu Torun also composed for this guitar. These were the first pieces that I’ve played and recorded. If I don’t go crazy with the complex maps on the fretboard, I hope I will continue exploring microtonal music repertoire on the adjustable microtonal guitar for the rest of my life.