pitch bending – the story

If you don’t add something to a note, it dies.
(Miles Davis)

Stefan Goldmann on pitch bending:

“Sitting in a Mehana restaurant somewhere in the border triangle between Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece, I had my eyes and ears on the left hand of the guy sitting behind the Korg Triton keyboard. While he was hammering idiotically catchy melodies with his right hand (and while the singer kept pushing the ecstatic and overly drunken crowd with onomatopoeic lyrics implying sexual action: shiki riki, chaka raka, djidji bidji, guci guci, trrr tak, tupur tupur), the keyboarder’s other hand never left the pitch bend wheel on his instrument. It is that little feature that lets you push a note’s pitch up and down, like a guitar player would pull a string. It wasn’t random though. This guy seemed to re-tune everything in real time. The tones kept howling with the cutting plastic sound of an extremely nasty synth bag pipe. It was ultra-modern and ancient at the same time. A Japanese synthesizer forced to perform expressively in Arabic Maqam scales.

I was familiar with some micro-tonal efforts of Western avant-garde music. That is, music tuned to intervals other than the even-tempered chromatic scale virtually all our music usually employs. Most of the time, those experiments seemed to me to be self-indulging fiddling not conveying much more than the “exotic” tuning itself. The dude in the restaurant as well as thousands of others across what is known under the names of Chalga, Manele, Tallava, Turbo Folk, Laiko or Arabesk (depending on where you encounter it) practice something quite different. It is the transfer of a real life, “empirical” tuning system, developed over hundreds of years, to a present day aesthetic brought forward by electronic equipment. Because the foundation of it is so tried and tested, musically/psychologically it really strikes something when you hear it. At the same time all the sound design is totally open to weirdo experimentation. When it seems sometimes that we have worn out all potential for melodies, pitch bending and tuning set it back to zero point. You could bring it all back up with a new meaning. The dumbest hooks sound fresh. It seemed to hold the single most important structural innovation in electronic music in a decade [there’s something academic microtonality missed, focusing on layers and multiple glissandi instead of exploring solid melody – as much as electronic music with its detuned sample effects and random glide curves]. And in building a modern local culture that is not derivative of Western styles there is a lot of extra potential, because you don’t want to live in a world where all pop cultures are limited to rock and trance.

My mixed German and Bulgarian identity easily fell in love with bending pitch the Chalga way. There are as many conceptual implications in it (that is my German part) as there is potential for having a party frenzy. It evokes associations of Göbek dance moves, Mastika delirium, risk-seeking behaviour and grilled meat. Yet probably anyone with a different background wouldn’t get these cultural implications. It took me almost a decade to figure out how Chalga pitch bending could become the abstract blueprint for something valid in a different world of music: techno. I had to go further, in terms of abstraction as well as geographically (regarding the sources). For 17:50, I’d “sample” just one parameter from any source: pitch information. That is, the tuning relations of tones in a scale. I avoided any ethnic sound as much as designing my own tunings from scratch since I was looking for something with very deep roots, yet stripped off all multi-cultural clichés. That’s why there are no samples in any relevant melodic material here. So it is partially “found sound / ready-made” – in one dimension, with the other dimensions actively designed. Besides different Arabic tunings (which are regularly used in Chalga too), I found the Indonesian Pelog and Slendro tunings to be particularly great sounding as a grid of center frequencies from which I could add expression by moving the wheel.

17:50 was designed to sound alien, yet warm. Therefore all melodic synthesis is based on (well known) processes, yet hardly ever used in dance music today. An array of effects, most of them hardware guitar pedals, enriched the textures. There were probably five different distortion units in constant operation, re-shaping anything from the hi-hat to pads to bass lines. A ring modulator adds ghostly second lines to melodies, floating to their own set of rules. Most drums come from the Vermona DRM1 analog drum machine, in turn hooked up with distortion pedals. The only obvious Chalga reference is Adem (named after a legendary 90s gangster whose grave is located next to that of my grandparents in Sofia – no relation though) with its typical “kiuchek” sound and Middle Eastern feel. It was about time to have that style in a techno track. Most of the other tracks obscure their conceptual roots, building a more abstract melodic system within the confines of techno and house.

The album’s name is lifted off a Chalga classic by Orkestar Universal, “10 to 6” which in turn refers to the near end of the working day and the beginning of excessive drinking, Skara grilling, Göbek dancing and sexual debaucheries. The phrase is also somewhat related to “five minutes to midnight”, meaning the world is coming to an end. The difference is in having six hours to fill.”

[ Also read Stefan Goldmann’s original pitch bending essay for Modyfier ]