Manfred Stahnke: Infinite Meloharmonies - Speculations about the Wind


Vibrating membranes everywhere. Sound everywhere. Partly audible to us. Organs other than our ears could register the whole polyphony (legend has it that Dufay could still hear the celestial harmonies): Being ready. Let's leave aside the vibrations in the subatomic region, the vibrations of the atom, and of the molecules in the water and the wind, and of the thin membranes of lumps of stone circulating around the sun. Let's leave aside the vibrating galaxies and turn to the middle range, which is all we can cope with:


There's a thin layer, a vibrating membrane on the surface of the earth: the biosphere, of which human beings are a part. Next, as a part of the 'human', comes that layer with a new quality, the 'semiosphere': namely, language in sounds. It sets the air vibrating in a completely different way than animal throats once did: it forms of its own accord interacting with the being that is using it, reflecting its reactions to the world around it. (Jurij M. Lotman: Über die Semiosphäre, in: Zeichen über Zeichen. Texte zur Semiotik... Hrsg. von Dieter Mersch, München 1998, dtv, S. 229 ff). And, indefinably related to 'language', similarly encompassing the globe, there is also a resonant layer, which I would like to call the 'musicosphere'. This too is constantly rebuilding. This most dreamlike of all the spheres is split like language into local forms, and is coherent, like language , by virtue of mental structures in the brain, and also by virtue of the limitations and specificity of our ears. 'Music' is so closely connected to cultural forms that many forms of music are scarcely capable of crossing from one culture to another any longer. And yet we cannot help noticing that there is something universal, which can utterly sweep us away and can drag us up out of the mire of backward cultural narrowmindedness: and this is the human-bound, earth-encircling 'musicosphere' beyond all local relativities, including the art cathedrals of Europe. Seen in this light Europe becomes just one ethnic group amongst many. And I say that in full awareness of the present situation where Western pop music is swamping ever greater stretches of the earth and stifling the indigineous music in its path. It remains to be seen whether the local can hold its own against the global.


The point here is not some wishful brotherhood of 'world music' but an 'infinite meloharmony': that unending element that is intrinsic to music and which we must reclaim for future 'music languages'. It is not a matter of amalgamating different ethnic musical forms, but about ways of seeking out the immanent infinity of music. And for our purposes here I will concentrate on certain predispositions of our sense of hearing which allow us to pour this unending element into forms that lie far beyond our old notions of twelve tone scales. Let's start by looking at the way we hear difference tones and at the meloharmony that could ensue from this.


We build little houses for ourselves to live in - the philosopher Sloterdijk calls them 'spheres' - protection against the wind. Only by biding our time in these weather-proof shelters can we construct our castles in the air, our speculations about the wind, and assess the many things outside. We construct our houses to prevent ourselves being swept away by the wind. And today we can't shut our eyes any more nor are we able to recognise that these things are only constructed by us. Of course we can always become political, each loudly claiming that our particular home - our castle - is the only viable one. There were plenty of noises to that effect in the 1950s (some are still to be heard), when the so-called New Music was first postulated. This nonsense vividly reflects our yearning for protection (which we of course cannot escape since we carry our own houses with us, inside the walls of our skin). But we would be better advised to search for 'second degree protection' by focusing on all the various mental constructs available to us, imagining them brought together in a 'mind city'. Then we would properly see the small amount of freedom that we have been granted: it is plural, yet never rejects, and can never reject our predisposition to castellated thinking, in order not to be carried away on the wind.


From the moment the cell encases itself in a membrane, the die is cast. And within its membranous borders the cell, linking up with others, forms ever larger, plural membranous structures, a union of cells that develops ever new 'theories' (going beyond the initial membrane) - theories about the outside world (for ever since the membrane came into being there has also been an 'outside world'). Most recently this union of cells has also started to use the movement of the wind to form its theories about the outside world, having developed a very special membrane for this purpose which we call the 'basilar membrane'. Here certain cells - interacting with the 'hearing' that has now come into being - even seem to influence the wind itself (by creating sounds of their own), and so signals are sent out to other cell unions. The mutilation of the sounds by the wind has been increasingly well calculated in reverse by the membrane in the ear, which is then able to speculate about what is actually meant: the auditory membrane became an active wind amplifier ('cochlear amplifier'). Meanwhile that same auditory membrane can re-create parts of the sound that have become lost, be these deeper or higher partial tones. Even our amphibious brothers and sisters are capable of this.


My concern is: how can we as sound-builders respond adequately to the intrinsic activities of the ear? Is it possible to develop meloharmonies which will exploit the specifics of the sound processing that takes place in the ear? I use the term 'meloharmony' in order to emphasise the close affinity of linear and vertical tonal developments.

If two primary tones - one of frequency f1 and a second, lower tone of frequency f2 - sound together in the inner ear, these then spontaneously produce additional 'difference' tones (or combination tones), which are not part of the original signal. Of these combination tones, we will focus here mainly on two distinct kinds of difference tones, the most prominent ones. The so-called 'quadratic' difference tone is the best known: it results when f2 is subtracted from f1. The so-called 'cubic' difference tone is the result of 2 x f2 - f1. Where the primary tones are only a small distance apart, the cubic difference tone is much more prominent than the quadratic. The perceptibility of the cubic difference tone quickly reduces when the distance between the primary tones increases. Meanwhile the quadratic difference tone is always dependent on the primary tones being really quite powerful in terms of volume. The interesting and important distinction between quadratic and cubic difference tones is the fact that the quadratic is only a single virtual tone, whereas the cubic initiates additional difference tones. We can describe the cause of this phenomenon as follows:


The quadratic difference tone could be produced by a so-called 'peak picking' in the inner ear. The auditory membrane follows the oscillation curve that results from the sounding together of the two primary tones (in the following example these are oscillating in a relationship of 9/8) and calculates these to be a simple 'tone' (9 - 8 = 1).


I stop here, you go on ....