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Our familiar system for dividing the octave into 12 equal intervals is so ingrained in our musical culture that we take it for granted. It seems more like a law of nature than a construct of the human imagination. But 500 years ago, before the establishment of equal temperament, many quite different schemes for organizing the pitches within the musical scale found themselves in competition with one another.

One music theorist greatly invested in the topic was Nicola Vicentino (1511–c.1575) who, inspired by the writings of the ancient Greeks, wrote a treatise proposing a 31-tone division of the octave. Had Vicentino's system caught on, music history could have taken an entirely different direction.

This "what if" scenario captured the imagination of Jon Wild, associate professor of theory and composition at McGill University's Schulich School of Music, who studied the treatise and soon realized he could use modern Auto-Tune software to bring Vicentino's startling ideas to life nearly 500 years later.

For Tech Week, CBC Music teamed up with CBC Radio One's Spark to find out how Prof. Wild "Auto-Tuned the Renaissance." Listen below to his interview with Spark's Nora Young, and read on for Wild's in-depth answers to our questions about his research project and to hear audio examples of Vicentino's 31-tone polyphony.

Pitch-shifting the Renaissance
on CBC Radio One's Spark

Who was Nicola Vicentino and what was his treatise about?

Vicentino was a musician and composer attached to the household of the Duke of Este in Ferrara, in what is now Italy. He's best known for his 1555 treatise, Ancient Music Restored to Modern Practice, which is about many things, but most importantly sets out his theories of a music built on a much finer subdivision of musical pitch than we are accustomed to.

Essentially he started from the coincidences that the difference in pitch between an F-sharp and a G-flat in the common meantone tuning of the day was just about exactly one-fifth of a tone, and diatonic semitones (like E-F and B-C) work out to be two-fifths of a tone. Extrapolating to the octave, this yields 31 parts.

Vicentino wanted to revive the kinds of effects ascribed to ancient Greek music, which had a much wider variety of melodic intervals available to it, of which the smallest were just about the same size as the tiny F-sharp/G-flat "fifth-tone." Ancient Greek treatises on music were newly available in translation in Vicentino's day.

Why were you drawn to Vicentino's — let's be honest — pretty wacko concept?

Here's this guy, half a millennium ago, who dreamed up a completely novel basis for the musical scale, cross-fertilized it with half-understood concepts from ancient Greece from almost two millennia before he was born, and took the whole thing to its logical conclusion in the name of expressiveness and novelty.

He had to invent a new musical instrument to try to teach singers how to make these avant-garde sounds, and other musicians thought he was crazy. Who wouldn't want to hear this music the way he intended it? It's just wonderful that today we can adapt these technological approaches so we can finally hear the music.

It seems intriguing on paper, but did Vicentino actually think this 31-tone system could work in reality?

The difficulties have to do with what singers are comfortable with based on their experience — the difficulties aren't inherent to the system itself. We do know Vicentino was frustrated by the attitudes of singers. He writes:

"Some singers and musicians, who believe themselves knowledgeable, show their amazement to everyone whenever they encounter a novelty in musical signs that has been introduced for the sake of some sort of consonance. Straight away they begin by saying, 'It is not good, it is not easy to sing,' and conclude that 'it will not endure,' citing the example of past composers to prove that if the practice in question were good those composers would have used it."*

We also know he entered into a legally adjudicated bet on whether he could successfully teach a group of singers to perform in his system; the singers were made to sign a non-disclosure agreement binding them for a period of 10 years to not reveal his methods to any competing musicians.

In practice he found it necessary to accompany the singers at all times on his archicembalo, a special harpsichord he invented with two manuals and many split keys, encompassing all 31 notes of his system. Even with this instrument it was hard. We have this account by Vincenzo Galilei (father of the scientist Galileo, and himself an important musician and writer on music):

"Don Nicola [i.e., Vicentino] had some students, who, while he played, especially in the enharmonic genus, sang this sort of music composed by him. He had this music performed in all the principal cities of Italy and I have heard it often, in various times and places. Let it be the sign of whether this music pleased or not that after his death it was practised neither by his students nor by anyone else. If by misfortune one of the singers lost his way while singing, it was impossible to put him back on the right track.

"Thus this kind of music necessarily required an instrument that could guide the voices of the singers through unknown tracts (not to say through precipitate cliffs), not letting them proceed according to the nature of singing and through a straight path. These particular sounds of the enharmonic ... could only be unpleasant to the senses. After Don Nicola’s death the music was not sung anymore; the instruments were no longer played in that manner and his students completely abandoned the enharmonic, not finding anyone who wished to listen to it."*

What solution did you come up with to the problem of creating audio examples to illustrate Vicentino's theory?

The recordings of actual singers, whose original performance did not take into account the microtonal inflections, had to be adjusted in post-production using the software Melodyne to yield precisely the pitches demanded in the score.

Since the adjusted version retains all the vibrato and richness of the original vocal timbre, only transposing the pitch centre of each note and leaving all other audio "information" intact, the results are particularly naturalistic and compelling.


Vicentino: "Musica Prisca Caput" (excerpt) Soprano part, Auto-Tuned

For the ensemble recordings, this adjustment was carried out on each voice part individually. The singers had to be recorded in isolation, each listening through headphones to a reference recording that we had them make as the first step of the process. While re-recording their own part, singers also watched a synchronized video of the reference performance to obtain timing and expressive cues, so they could recapture as much of the nuances of the reference performance as possible. In this way we hoped to achieve a convincing musical result when recombining the re-recorded parts.

The isolated recordings had to be anechoic (dry) for the pitch-correction process to work. Convolution reverb was added as the final step, to simulate a suitable performance space.


Vicentino: "Musica Prisca Caput" (excerpt) 4-part polyphony, Auto-Tuned

What sort of reaction to this project have you received from practitioners of Renaissance polyphony?

Some bewilderment, and some great enthusiasm!

What have you learned from undertaking this project?

I realized Vicentino was in fact a very talented composer: the effects he invented are often wonderful, and remain in your ear for a long time. I also realized his writings on tuning were actually informed by the rich musical practice evident in his compositions, and weren't just abstract ideas whose place should remain on the printed page.

*Read Wild's full research paper: Genus, Species and Mode in Vicentino’s 31-tone Compositional Theory.

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posted by Robert Rowat on Jun 12, 2015
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