Sorry. I’m terrible at writing headlines, actually. I’m also mostly terrible at writing reviews. So let me just say that if you haven’t heard Horse Lords, the Baltimore-based indie band, since their 2010 founding, you deserve to. And they make a great argument for why alternative tunings really do matter in music.
They do so not so much in the sound of just intonation as the interplay of tuning and rhythm. Those two are, of course, interlinked in the view of physics and the science of sound. What we hear as pitch actually is rhythm, the result of our perception fusing successive oscillations into a tone. But they’re also culturally linked, from the use of beating in Indonesian music to the association of certain tunings with certain rhythmic practice. Like spice and texture working together in food, tuning and rhythm tickle our brains with their forward flow.
As for Horse Lords, their work is best described as a hybrid – one aware (and crediting) its roots in Western African music as well as Western band structure and experimental composition. The quartet is Andrew Bernstein (saxophone/percussion), Max Eilbacher (bass/electronics), Owen Gardner (guitar), and Sam Haberman (drums). Evidently the likes of La Monte Young helped encourage them to explore just intonation, with Owen refretting instruments as needed. But as for the polyrhythmic structures, I think it’s significant to note this isn’t just appropriation of a particular culture – on the contrary, it’s finally that Western music has woken up to the language of the polyrhythm in musics from different corners of the world.
But don’t take my high-falutin’ Ivory Tower take on the matter – just listen. Because this spring Horse Lords released a spectacular latest record, and I think it’s their best yet.
I get lots of promos but buying this on Bandcamp is a no-brainer.
But if that isn’t enough to inspire you, there’s more. For one, us European residents (ahem) get to catch these Americans at Unsound Festival in Poland in October, so there’s that news. (No secret lineups in Krakow this year.)
And two, the boys have put together a nice Spotify playlist of compositional and microtonal/non-equal-tempered inspiration – suitable if you’re thinking of working with musical technology acoustic, analog, digital, or any combination. Love this one:
Your next four hours twenty minutes are sorted on that playlist alone.
So if nothing else, guys, this does remind me that we really need to get on this matter of allowing easier alternative tunings in our software and electronic projects – a discussion a lot of us are having lately. Oh, that and — you can always reboot your musical influences to create wonderful new experiments.
Huge tip of the hat to Philip Sherburne on Twitter for picking this up.