When you look at a piece of music written out on a scale have you ever wondered how those particular notes came to represent the sounds we hear? In part, it's based on the way instruments are tuned so they play a particular sound when a string, or its equivalent depending on the instrument, is depressed and vibrated. The majority of our popular music has used what's known as the Twelve Tone Equal Temperament system of tuning in order to create specific scales and octaves that allow composers to arrange those sounds into the recognizable patterns we call music.
It stands to reason there are other sounds, or notes, that exist outside of it that could just as easily be used to make music. However when they are played in concert with Twelve Tone notes, they sound so wrong we call them out of tune. Yet, there are many music traditions through-out the world that make use of those sounds without a problem, we're one of the few cultures that limit ourselves to only using those twelve tones. According to the people behind Freenote Music microtonal music, music that uses those notes not employed under the Twelve Tone system, is just as viable and can be achieved through the use of what they call Just Intonation, tunings based on what they call the pure notes of the naturally occurring Harmonic Series.
Through the simple expedient of adding more frets to the neck of a guitar or a bass, playing a fretless instrument, using alternate fingering on a wind instrument, or by experimenting with open tunings, musicians can redefine the notes they play. When a string is plucked on the guitar more than one note is actually sounded because of the harmonics created by the vibrations – how many different possibilities exist within that one resonance for creating new notes that we currently don't use in our music? Well the folk at Freenote produce records by groups like Willie McBlind, who have just released their second album of blues music, Bad Thing, using Just Intonation tuning giving us a chance to hear some of the possibilities that this systems opens up.
Willie McBlind are Jon Catler on 64 tone Just Intonation and fretless guitars, and vocals, Babe Borden on vocals, Neville L'Green bass, and Lorne Watson drums and percussion. I was curious as to whether someone like me who doesn't have a musician's ear for music, I couldn't tell you what key a song was in by listening to it, would notice an appreciable difference in the music they were playing. In other words, does it really matter whether you play the blues using the old Twelve Tone system or embrace the new Just Intonation system? On the other hand, would it still be the blues if it wasn't played using Twelve Tone – would the sound be changed so much that it would no longer trigger the same reactions that you'd get listening to Muddy Watters and B B King?
As to the first question, the answer is yes there is a definite difference in the sound of this band from that of your normal electric blues band. While you won't really make out any difference in the rhythm section, as L'Green and Watson do the needful in holding the music together. It's in the guitars and vocals where it becomes obvious that something different is happening with the music as both instruments create unexpected sounds. It's noticeable right off the top of the disc as "13 O' Clock Blues", the opening track, opens with sustained guitar work by Catler. While he plays familiar enough sounding patterns, he appears to be filling the space with more and different sounds than what you'd normally hear.
Things become even more interesting when vocalist Borden joins him and you really begin to notice just how much they have expanded upon the range of a typical blues song. Under any circumstances Borden has a great voice for the blues, powerful, expressive, and a tremendous range. She also has the control required to find and sing the notes outside of the normal scale without sounding unnatural or strained. Not only does this give her voice an added dimension when it comes to how she sounds. those extra notes seem to give her access to greater emotional depth. Listen to her on the eighth track, their cover of Willie Dixon's "It Don't Make Sense (You Can't Make Peace)" and you'll hear what I mean.
The hardest part of listening to any of the songs is that are notes both Borden and Catler hit that sound discordant because we're just not used to hearing them. However they are in harmony with each other and what the band is playing soon offsets that initial discomfort. Which begins to answer the second question as to whether what they're singing is still the blues. While there is no denying that they don't sound like the blues you've been used to hearing, there's also no denying that what they're playing is the blues as they generate the same emotional reactions as any tunes I've heard played by any blues band.
What was refreshing was the absence of the cliches dotting the work of many electric blues players, especially those with a tendency to play fast and loud. With the additional notes at their disposal it only makes sense that they are able expand upon what both a guitar and a voice can do. Even better is that they don't waste it by doing silly things like having longer or faster guitar solos or showing off of any sort. They have taken a genre already rich in emotion and found a way to make it a deeper and more fulfilling experience for both the listener and I'm sure those playing as well. Having more notes at their disposal seems to have given them the equivalent of giving a painter new colours that allow him or her to give extra texture and depth to their creation.
I have to admit that when I first read about the idea of going beyond Twelve Tone for playing the blues I was intrigued, but also doubtful as to whether it would really make that much of a difference for the listener who isn't a trained musician. However, after only a couple of listens to Willie McBlind's Bad Thing it's obvious that breaking free of the constraints of Twelve Tone scales is just as liberating for the blues as it's proven for any other form of music. They've brought new depth of meaning and emotion to an already passionate genre making it blues as you've never heard it before, and all the better for it.