Thingamajigs began in 1997 when two old friends met for the first time and started the Music for People and Thingamajigs Festival, a still extant annual forum for composers and performers working with homemade original instruments and/or alternate tuning systems.
Started as an art project at Mills College in Oakland, we are now a California non-profit that also features a band, an international exchange program and an educational program featuring hands-on instrument building. When Edward Schocker and I created the festival we wished to honor and showcase the long tradition of West Coast Experimental musicians working with unusual tunings and materials. 17 years later, many of our mentors are frequent contributors to the organization as performers, advisers, and musical collaborators.
Thingamajigs particular music ecology has developed organically over the years, driven most strongly by the compositional concerns and inspirations of our founding members and artistic collaborators. We are best known for our work with alternate tunings and materials, but site-work, durational work, experimental forms and collaboration are also central to our activities. In this article I will focus on tuning theory, offering brief sketches focused on the tuning methodologies of composers who have had a direct influence on our work. I hope to evoke how the sometimes complementary sometimes competing sets of methods and ideas that inform tuning the musical interval contribute to a lively living conversation about how to better integrate and express the complicated relationships between what is called human and what is called nature.
A tuning(n.) documents or scores an act of tuning. Tuning(v.) is a meeting of theory and practice involving numerous transpositions between materials in time and space. It can get complicated, even when we are only speaking about tuning the strings of a guitar one to the other. It was common in the family folk music culture of my childhood to soften the frustration of somebody's tuning difficulties on an instrument with, 'Don't worry, it was tuned at the factory.' An absurd thought then that nowadays, with the advent of digital tuners that physically mount on acoustic instruments or plug-in between an electric instrument and its amplifier, is a lot more like reality. Just turn the little knob until the light flashes green.
The tuning theory that green light gets excited for is called 12-tone Equal Temperament. By the far the dominant tuning system in Western music theory and practice, it doesn't reflect the tuning reality of many of those practices including American popular song and blues. In my family music we don't use digital tuners. This is not because we are anti-technology. It's just that they do not actually help us to tune our instruments the way we need them tuned. Our tuning is local to factors that the tuner, and the theory it reproduces, can't compass. We 'sweeten' our tunings to sound the way we like them to on our various instruments, tune differently for different songs, and tune differently depending upon which other instruments we are playing with. We tune the voice to the place. As we think through some technical, social and rhetorical aspects of tuning the musical interval, we might keep, 'tuned at the factory,' in our minds to help us re-think a tuning practice and theory that has become too clearly bounded and self-assured - too prone to repetition.