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Implications of Polychromatic Music

Implications of Polychromatic Music

The development of new musical languages (like any language) provides a conceptual framework for the discovery and expression of an expanding awareness of the world. And like the chicken/egg paradox, the process of exploration and discovery itself often creates a need for the development of new language.

The polychromatic system is intended to remove some of the practical difficulties associated with the exploration of the expansive and integrated worlds of micro-pitch and harmony—exponentially increasing the tonal resources available to musicians and composers. Optimally, it can facilitate a seamless assimilation of diverse sonic pitch-palettes within the pitch continuum.

The experience and practice of polychromatic music brings to auditory awareness new harmonic interactions and multidimensional spatial effects. Additionally, the increasing auditory perceptual discrimination developed in the practice may lead to innovations in ‘hearing’ research models and methodologies within science.

Randomized studies do not help elucidate the vast, uncharted potentials of human perceptual development.

Perceptual (psychoacoustics) and medical (audiology) research is conventionally based on randomized studies. Implicit in this methodology is a delineation of statistically significant, average responses. Unfortunately, this methodology does not help to elucidate the vast, uncharted potentials of human perceptual development which could be demonstrated by the intensive study of trained and exceptional (nonrandom) subjects. It seems intuitively obvious that a great deal of qualitative information regarding color perception would be gained by research conducted with painters and visual artists—those who have the intensive perceptual practice and development, as well as a vocabulary to express their qualitative awareness. Unfortunately, medical research tends to be based on quantitative (measurable) data and statistical analysis, and as a result, immeasurable aspects of qualitative ‘data’ lie beyond its scope. And yet, it is precisely these qualitative aspects of perception which are the greatest strength of Art. This suggests an integrated sense of Art and Science as complementary (qualitative-quantitative) perspectives.

My practice and experience with high pitch-resolution scales (72 and 106 equal divisions of the octave) within the polychromatic system has made me aware of the lack of integrated models of ‘hearing’—expanding beyond the ears to include the perceptual limits and qualities of sound/vibration, sensed through active touch, the skin, and teeth/bones, etc. Medical science models are still rooted in anatomical concepts which segment the senses by organ: sight/eye, hearing/ear, touch/skin. Yet, the perceptual effects of polychromatic music (harmonic interactions, sensations of dynamic, multidimensional auditory structures, physical resonance, etc.) inspire my curiosity about the perception of sound through an integration (gestalt) of conceptually separated senses. I also wonder about the scientific and aesthetic innovations possible with the practice and development of integrated visual/auditory associative synesthetic awareness.

I am curious about the impact of ultrasonic (> 20 KHz) harmonic interactions which create audible effects within our audible range. Rudimentary examples of audible harmonic interactions are found in the perception of combination tones (sum and difference tones). The definition of combination tones is revealing of the current conceptual framework of auditory perception: “a psychoacoustic phenomenon of an additional tone or tones that are artificially perceived when two real tones are sounded at the same time.”

Here is a musical example of this type of artificial perception of pitch:

Because the qualities of perceptible combination tones are not measurable by technology and do not fit into theoretical hearing models, their presence is relegated to a category called auditory “distortion products”. In other words, the anomaly is conceptualized as a deficiency in perceptual awareness rather than a deficiency in the theoretical model of perception.

Rather than thinking of the ear/hearing as a passive organ/process involved in receiving/decoding the sounds of the world, it is important to recognize that the ear (cochlear apparatus) produces sound as well. These phenomena are recognized by science as otoacoustic emissions and are poorly understood. Otoacoustic emissions are defined as low-level sounds generated by the ear as a natural by-product of the hearing process. They can occur spontaneously or in response to incoming sound stimuli. They have been documented scientifically by small microphones placed within the ear canal. Thus far these microphones are detecting only sounds within a limited frequency bandwidth. The impact of ultrasonic frequencies generated by the ear and the resulting perceptual effects of their interaction with incoming sounds would be an amazing area of research.

Further intensive research into human perception of the effects of these types of ultrasonic harmonic interactions may provide a basis for the future development of high-resolution audio technology which implements frequency response capability, end-to-end, extending far beyond 20 KHz.

The wider impacts of polychromatic music as a practice and system of artistic expression are compelling in our era of increasingly pervasive technology and artificial intelligence. New perspectives of reality, meaning, and individual responsibility are emerging in response to a world of virtual and augmented reality, robotics and beyond. The human impacts of these emerging technological perspectives are worthy of reflection.

The active interactions and unique expressions of the individual are increasingly impeded in the converging, highly routinized, and homogenizing tendencies of a society oriented toward efficient conformity. Standards of practice, procedures, and algorithms are implementations of mechanical processes on human activity and behavior. In this context, the unique expression and development of each individual’s potential is minimized and sometimes actively invalidated.

As artists, our gift is a catalyst, meant to be shared.

The arts provide nourishment to the creative, imaginative, intuitive, and emotional aspects of human existence. As artists, our ‘gift’ is a catalyst, meant to be shared, in the hope of igniting these innate characteristics of full and vivid living awareness, in all who are receptive to the opportunity to openly experience and interact with art.

We also have choices about how we express creativity through technology. Will we efficiently conform to the processes defined by the software and creatively work from that baseline and within the limitations of that framework? Will we inefficiently find workarounds to make technology do things it was never designed to do?

The trajectory of progress seems to move us further into the role of passive consumers of technology. Our essential purpose as artists may be to rekindle human imagination, intuition, and creativity from within a technological culture which tends to make these qualities irrelevant. Art exists to catalyze the growth of aesthetic awareness and recognition of meaning, values, and purpose in a detached world of consumption, diversion, and ‘progress’.

The process of creation and interaction with art provides a context for the practice of sustained concentration and active conscious engagement in an era of increasing distraction, passive entertainment, and decreasing attention spans. Passive engagement with change and technology develops only further passivity. And a vivid engagement cannot spontaneously emerge when creative interaction is not actively pursued and practiced. Patience is the essential lesson from the study of music and is all-important in an era of instant gratification. The more challenging something is to attain, the more rarely it is developed. By recognizing value in the practice and in patience, our orientation to and interaction with nature and each other can be transformed into a more expansive perspective of value, purpose, and meaning.

Passive engagement with change and technology develops only further passivity.

In our modern era, with its immense and quickening expansions in knowledge, collaboration is essential for pushing each dimension of aesthetic expression to its farthest potential. This collaboration becomes an integrated creative expression, one of interacting individuals with diverse areas of expertise (music, technology, science, design, visual art, etc.); a new creative context of synergistic influences beyond the segmented and arbitrary divisions of art and not-art.

The enduring value of authentic art has nothing to do with commodity value, yet this is the overwhelming message of our era. It is essential for artists to see the importance of their role in society: in catalyzing inspiration, imagination, intuition—those immeasurable human qualities that are essential to a vivid life experience filled with growth, meaning, and active engagement.

The idea of ‘simulated’ art in an era of computers and electronic music describes a tendency toward artworks with an increasing magnitude of technologically assisted and generated content. Simulated music would describe recordings of music created without any actual musicians (samples, loops, sequencing, etc.) as well as an increasing pervasiveness of technological compensation and enhancement of human musicianship – i.e. with autotune (melodic quantizing), harmonizers (harmony quantizing), sequencers (rhythmic quantizing) – in a sense, recreating a ‘clockwork universe’ aesthetic in music. Perhaps in the future, art will become categorized on a scale indicating the extent of authentic human creation/performance content. No value judgements are intended here, just a search for descriptive distinctions regarding the relative degree of direct human involvement in the creation of modern art.

Technology is now presenting us with captivating simulations of experience. Our choice and responsibility is to determine what role, value, and importance we place on technological simulation in our creative and expressive processes.

The immeasurable human qualities of creativity, imagination, and intuition are not only elements that make us most vividly human, but may ultimately be what distinguishes us from increasingly sophisticated technology.

[Ed. Note: Dolores Catherino’s talk above was given at a TEDx event in 2016 using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.]


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Dolores Catherino is a polychromatic composer and multi-instrumentalist. Her avant-garde compositions use sonic ‘pitch-palettes’ of 106 and 72 EDO (equal divisions of the octave) and are performed on visionary 21st century keyboard instruments.  As a musician, she is focused on exploring new sonic worlds within a polychromatic framework which simplifies and unifies our rapidly multiplying microtonal pitch-scale methods. Polychromatic concepts of musical ‘pitch-color’ and ‘interval-color’ are also intended to simplify the exploration of new aesthetic possibilities in the practice of associative synesthetic awareness: learned associations and conceptual/perceptual integration of audible... Read more »


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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