Xenharmonic advocate: Interview with Stephen Weigel

still from Stephen Weigel's video for "what the world needs now"

Stephen Weigel is a composer and performer of Indianapolis, IN, with a Master’s in Music Composition and Bachelor’s of Music Media Production at Ball State University. His recent endeavors include the microtonal podcast Now and Xen and transcriptions of microtonal music in a wide variety of equal temperaments.

ASN: Tell me about your journey with microtonal music. What got you interested in this topic, and what continues to fascinate you about it?

SW: There’s so much that could be said about this question! Forgive me if I over-explain here. I was always interested in it from an ideological perspective after becoming interested in music theory and composition. It seems like a natural extension to want to use non-12-tone equal temperament (TET) tuning systems as tools, in the same way one might not want to always write in 4/4, or only for one type of instrument.

There have been many steps along the way, and I owe a lot of thanks to a lot of people. Aaron Andrew Hunt, inventor of the Tonal Plexus keyboard, is the person who introduced me to the microtonal Facebook groups in 2015. At last I had found a large group of people who were good at this stuff, and also generally interested in expanding the toolkit. That led to discussion with theorists such as Paul Erlich, whose extraordinary patience helped me understand regular temperament theory enough to use it. And of course I’m hugely appreciative of Sevish, who started the podcast Now and Xen with me. I’m interested in music I can’t figure out right away as a general principle, and so microtonality is a must for me—a worthy ear-training foe and bastion of aesthetic freedom. Sevish’s music was some of the first music I had heard in a popular style that was xenharmonic to me (xenharmonic meaning: sounding noticeably different from standard tuning). Music in 24-TET can be cool but I don’t think it’s very structurally different to my ear.

As time has gone on, my role as a microtonal musician has evolved significantly. I’m interested in contributing in ways that other people are not. My starting questions are, “what’s something people pretend is impossible?” and “what’s a really fantastic piece of music?” Regarding the last question it doesn’t matter if it’s mine or someone else’s—if it needs to exist, it needs to exist!

I have shifted to more virtual projects and recordings that can simply be posted online for people to see. Including visual elements is also something that seemed lacking, hence the YouTube channel. Things should be a performance if possible! So I have slowly been accumulating more instruments, and playing many of them at an intermediate level to throw arrangements together. I’ve discovered that arranging songs for microtonal tuning is often really refreshing, and the instrumental challenges are unique as well (I am really a piano player first and foremost). The podcast and covers also serve as a sort of monument to music I consider great and want to honor. This gathers positive reactions from the community.

Doing everything alone/recorded is so much faster, but I miss playing live music terribly! Something has been lost with this risk-free, insular methodology. When I was in college there wasn’t an obligation for me to make this kind of material but now there is. Who else would make something like “Starfish, but with 22 22-tone guitars?” Excess is fun. “Gleam” was the first big cover and I think it really shocked the community. From then on I knew it had to be a thing, though sadly Gleam is not mixed at all, and the video is made using iMovie! HitFilm and Reaper have been essential tools for me ever since. There’s a list I created of important covers and transcriptions that I want to do before hitting composing really hard again, and that list gives me about 100 covers and 50 transcriptions! Right now it’s at 85 and 30. Some involve much more effort than others though so it’s disproportionate. In short, it seems microtonality is a huge catalyst for interest!

ASN: On the front page of your website, you list guitars you own with several tunings and invite people to compose for them. What should composers know about these guitars—i.e., what’s “idiomatic”?

SW: Yes! Four of those are acoustic guitars made by my wonderful uncle, who is a retired engineer. The first one he made for me was in 19, and I think the other 3 were ones I requested years later, after learning more. The electric guitar is the 20-TET guitar originally owned by Dan Stearns. The headstock was this insane teal color that I repainted to red recently to match the body. I don’t remember where Dan got it from, but at some point it was given to Chris Vaisvil, who graciously gave it to me. What an icon! 20 is an extremely neat tuning, and I think it may be the first equal temperament where the smallest step in the tuning sounds “microtonal” to me instead of like a smaller minor second. I have plans to play Dan’s hymn in 20-TET.

There’s definitely more information that can be given—my observation is that of all my guitars (15, 17, 19, 20, 22), 22 is the hardest to play by quite a bit. By default, I tune the guitars in near-standard tuning, but the open strings are adjusted for the intonation of the equal temperament. In 17 and 19 this is the most straightforward because the logic of a diatonic scale is the same as in 12, just with intonation-different sizes. 22 has a regular diatonic scale with very small steps from “ti” to “do” (1\22 of an octave), and that scale is used in my open tuning (in other words, G to B open is tuned as a Pythagorean major third, not the major third of G to B-down). The way 15-TET works, all the open strings are members of 5-TET, and simply stack in consecutive fourths of 480 cents.

I would say something that is idiomatic for 12-TET guitar is likely so for microtonal guitar. 17, 19, and 22 have pretty unambiguous staff notations, so they would be the easiest to think about in that way. 17 uses half sharps/flats. 19 doesn’t use any microtonal-looking accidentals, and can operate entirely on using the same ones as 12-TET. 22 uses standard 12-TET accidentals and then you need intermediate accidentals for the notes in between. In 22, C to C sharp is 3\22 of an octave, so we point the arrows in a way that minimizes unnecessary stacking like so – 1\22 is C-up and 2\22 is C sharp-down. You can use any symbol for these arrows, and the Gould arrow accidental is the best choice because it’s already in use in contemporary classical music. It doesn’t stack well but you don’t need ridiculously stacked arrows until you go well beyond 72-TET.

15-TET or 20-TET are more complex. If someone used either native fifth notation (5-TET circles of fifths and arrows) or a subset of 60-TET, I would figure it out.

The only person who has written something on guitar for me so far is mannfishh! (Hopefully some others come in with ideas!) Although there have been a few microtonal piano pieces written for me.

My YouTube video “Open chords on microtonal guitars” explains the structure of these quite well and should be used as a resource. It’s a visual representation of the oft-quoted benefit of 15-TET open guitar tuning—that the shapes are the same as you cycle through strings.

Most of all, composers should know that I like playing new xenharmonic music! I also am looking into interchangeable fretboard options for live setups. That would be better than carrying around 3 guitars to play in 3 different tunings…

ASN: Besides your own compositions, you champion microtonal music through YouTube videos and a podcast, Now and Xen. What has been the reception for the podcast and YouTube channel? How have these led to more connections and opportunities?

SW: I think the reception overall has been pretty positive. There are occasional unnecessarily nasty comments, but those are rare. There’s something about my videos that really draws in a staggering variety of people, which is wildly exciting! Because I’m extremely broad in my aesthetic tastes and the people who come to my videos are that way too, responses can be quite surprising. There are many times where I’m sure some-such cover will be tuned too deviant for certain individuals, and I am often wrong!

I also think the YouTube channel and the podcast have become a better showcase for my work than my compositions ever were. Lots of people have found me, like Matthew Sheeran, Adam Neely, Ben Levin, Classical Nerd—the list goes on! It feels impactful. Now and Xen is a unique space because it just allows people to get unapologetically nerdy about music theory. There have been quite a few episodes that aren’t “music theory” episodes. Some that are the most “music theory” a podcast has gotten. Microtonality is just that interesting, because music is that interesting. It connects an overwhelmingly large number of subjects. I think it would be impossible to find a completely uninteresting piece of music.

ASN: Besides composing, performing, and podcasting, what do you do to make a living?

SW: I teach music lessons to all ages at Bach to Rock in Carmel, Indiana. It’s mostly piano, guitar, and band. Strangely, I think the reason my microtonal work has become so individual and self-actualized is because it’s deliberately free from any institutional influence. Unfortunately there’s usually not time for it in my teaching.

I also am known as the xenharmonic music transcription guy, and do this for a fee, as well as accept gratuities from supporters on the Now and Xen Patreon account. I hope people do think of me as someone who composes, performs, and podcasts for a living!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience in the microtonal world, Stephen! Readers, I urge you to check out Stephen’s gorgeous cover of Jvke’s “Golden Hour.”

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