Study in Microtonality and Lutherie – Summer Summary

Lutherie and microtonal composition are not only uncommon fields of study, but are also obscure arts. It is this complexity which has consistently determined my eligibility to make progress; an enthusiastic, long-time immersion in the catalogs and literature of microtonal music does not suffice as a platform from which one can dive into the art – before proceeding to a greater step, one needs greater understandings of philosophy, humanity, nature, aesthetics, et c., and technique. For these reasons, my progress has been slow, but not unsteady – just very cautious. The goal, for down the road, is to develop familiarity with the knowledge by which one can compose and practice microtonal music – yet still, music which respects emotion and also exploits, with delicacy, the homogeneity of harmony and timbre. Considering this objective, I chose to fabricate an instrument with which I could form a personal relationship and from which I could easily derive microtonal intervals because it seemed an impetus to a reasonable end, given the time constraints of this school year.

I find fascinating the techniques of the Parisian Spectral School, and I pine for the skill to compose along considerations for spectral data collections. Few pieces mystify me as do the works of Horaţiu Rădulescu, whose musical demeanor procured so much from his education in Musique Spectrale, and whose epoch as a composer ended not until his death in 2008. It was in his literature that I began this project. I acquired his writings, then further collected texts in reverse chronology, tracing student-teacher relationships. Wary of the project’s expense, I attempted to learn as much as possible without having to hire assistance. With this disposition, I received most of my education by reading. After a quick review of Schoenberg’s writings on traditional harmonic theory, I acquainted myself with the writings of figures who revolutionized Western understandings of timbre – an approach I consider most logical in developing a mind for this music. I also read on the physics of acoustic instrumentation, and I read the writings of Xenakis, a didactic saint, and then Rădulescu, whose words were superfluously bohemian (albeit, I fear am I) and uninformative. From these readings, and through nurtured listening, I began to develop ideas with which I can ponder and criticize musical philosophy.

For building my guitar, I have always first referenced Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology by William Cumpiano and Jonathan Natelson. I have not taken any word as gospel, but I have been quite satisfied with their methods and their clarity in describing how to best perform detailed work. Not until I had given it a read did I begin my hunt for tools and materials. For each supply, I weighed the recommendations of many luthiers and woodcraftsmen against one another. I set up a workshop in my living room, and I had to familiarize myself with the use and care of each tool, which includes, for a lot of equipment, frequent sharpening. It was during my experimentation with the tools that I was perplexed by their weak performance, and once I discovered that many tools require some sort of preparation, ease met me. I also purchased such beautiful woods, but in fear of erring those materials, I chose to save them for a day when my skills are strong. This is but one reason for which I decided that this instrument will be a prototype. I purchased some less elegant lumber upon making this decision.

Thus far, all developments have concerned the guitar’s neck. For this particular endeavor, as only the neck is of an unconventional design, it is with consideration for the neck that my plans have been refined to maturity. I expect to finish to the heel near the mark of October, and I hope to finish the guitar near that of December. To buy myself some time for to compose, I decided to re-fret an old guitar in 17-tone equal temperament. This demanded more accuracy than I could have predicted, and, I must admit, that for having dedicated myself to such a project in the spirit of passion for precision and accuracy, I am tired of exactness – yet eager still, to say I can string up.


  1. Jp!
    More pictures.