rémy bocquillon

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At CTM 2021, the composer and oud player Khyam Allami presented a set of web applications, Leimma and Apotome, especially designed to experiment with non-Western tuning systems, either by (re-)discovering already existing ones or by crafting them from scratch. His tools are very important. Not only do they show a range of musical systems expanding beyond the Western equal tempered 12-tone system, but beyond that, they tackle a fundamental question in contemporary music production: the cultural bias and resulting relation of domination implemented in music instruments. What Allami shows is that even modern synthesizers (hardware or software) are already biased, through the keyboard they use, but also through the MIDI protocol they respond to. Indeed, this protocol, a 70s manufacturing convention, allowed synths from different brands to “communicate” with each other. The bias of MIDI protocol is the Western tuning system on which it is based. Synthesizers were then (and still are) produced with this communication protocol “in mind”, as if it became a natural “language”. However, a synthesizer is not limited to this range in itself. An oscillator driven by a frequency in Hz does not need to be reduced to a fixed amount of notes and intervals. In other words, nothing — outside compatibility, comfort, etc. — explains this limitation. And even if modern synthesizers give the possibility to set up microtonal tunings, the bias is still here. They constitute “repressed possibilities”, as Allami notes. They take Western music as a global standard, an always already there, a given, neglecting, if not simply ignoring, other musical traditions. This is why Allami’s tools are important. That’s why they are important to me. Between synths and electric guitars, I swim in this cultural bias without ever having given much thought about it. I participated, without knowing, to those repressed possibilities. This calls for a change in practices. Which tools do we use and how do we use them?