New Album: Centaur, based on Zeta Centauri tuning and 3x4 knight's tours

Today I've released a 12-track, 3-hour album based on Margo Schulter's Zeta Centauri tuning. Listen to it on Bandcamp while you read my slightly geeky notes about it.

Click the image to stream free or buy on Bandcamp; it's also releasing on Spotify, iTunes etc over the course of this week.

Zeta Centauri is a 12-note tuning, so it's convenient to work with a normal piano-style keyboard, but otherwise it's quite exotic. Here's Pianoteq's visualization of it:

As you can see, apart from the fourth and fifth above the base note, everything is pushed around by a good amount and we have a large selection of non-standard intervals available. I'd already used Zeta Centauri in my previous project, The Chymical Wedding so I knew a bit about what I was getting into.

To dig into it deeper, I decided to be old-school and do one track in each key, because with unequal temperaments that means something again. Rather than "key" I should really say "major scale", since this is pretty resolutely atonal music -- although there are still "centres of gravity" in most sections, there's no functional harmony or tonicization at all. Atonal music using a subset of the total chromatic was experimented with quite widely in the early twentieth century, by Stravinsky among many others. Developing from my approach in The Chymical Wedding, I tended to think of the harmony of each piece as a static 7-note chord, the notes coming from the appropriate "major scale".

On a bit of a whim I organized various elements (track length, key, title, some other large-scale musical parameters) according to knight's tours of a 3x4 "chessboard". I was lucky enough to find some very nice work by Rob Gaebler and Tsu-wang Yang that cataloged these and many others, so I didn't have to go to the trouble of finding them myself. The track titles are names of stars in the Centauri, Ceti and Ophiuchi constellations in various languages.

The point being that Zeta Centauri contains the word "centaur" which, like the knight in chess, is a sort of horse. In fact, I have a made-up just-so story that says the myth of centaurs was invented by a people who hadn't domesticated horses running into another group riding them. And of course the names of the tracks look out to the stars; one can wonder what the equivalent encounter would be out there, and much of the music on the album is rather "spacey" as a consequence of such thoughts.

I also used an unusual (to me) method of working. I knew I wanted something suggestive of atmospheric perspective:

or Hubble images where the depth is unimaginably large

This kind of image also makes me think of some of Stan Brakhage's abstract films:

or even the paintings of Polke or Richter:


These clues led me to the approach of building and rendering quite simple layers one after another, like a painter working a canvas. Or like we used to work (naively) with 4-track tape decks back in the old days: record some stuff, bounce it down, record more stuff and so on. Gradually the earlier parts fade into the background and the saturation they all create ties them together. This was a "virtual 4-track" approach -- all the composition was done on a laptop, although many parts were run through analogue gear as part of the process.

So what started off being rather Oulipean and formal has ended up with this very warm, organic sound that I wasn't really expecting. Indeed, against my intentions, some parts ended up sounding like an orchestra due (I think) to having many layers of different timbres moving against each other in formations. I hope you enjoy it!