Political Overtones: The Politics of Rational Intonation and Nature through the Music of Catherine Lamb

Saturday, Feb 25, 2023

13:15 p.m. - 17:30 p.m.

In contrast to the common notion of a musical interval as the distance between tones in equal temperament, rational intonation – a tuning system that derives intervals as whole number ratios from the naturally occurring overtone series – as practiced by composer Catherine Lamb (b. 1982) invites listeners to attend to the interactions between tones. Lamb (2018) equates attending to interactions and relationships in music with interactions and relationships between individuals and their environment. This paper examines how changing the way one perceives intervals can offer a new perspective on relationships between humans and nature.

To understand the contemporary use of rational intonation, I first observe the 19th and 20th century discourse surrounding rational intonation, specifically focusing on its relationships with nature, colonialism, and notions of purity. In doing so, I reveal conceptual oppressive frameworks which pitted artifice against nature, temperament against rational intonation, and western ideas against the rest of the globe, elevating the former and subjugating the later. 

Considering pressing environmental issues of the 21st century, I reevaluate rational intonation through the harmonic theory of James Tenney (1983), and the lens of ecofeminist philosophy (Warren 2000, Glazebrook 2004), and the writings of Lamb herself. Drawing on Tenney’s theory of harmonic perception, which fused human auditory perception with the overtone series generating a relational definition of nature, and tools from ecofeminist philosophy, I investigate unjustified dominations of musical elements and the prioritization of others; not only to examine hegemonic musical perspectives but to imagine alternatives and devise solutions to problematic perspectives and practices. Lamb’s musical practices and ideologies challenge these frameworks and invite listeners and performers to engage with music differently.

To fully understand rational intonation, I analyze point/wave (2015) by Lamb for steel-string guitar and environmental chord cycle focusing on two facets of the piece: 1) Lamb’s use of environmental sound, external to the performance space, as the musical generator for the environmental chord cycle and 2) an autoethnographic account of attempting to tune my guitar to perform the piece, using the politics of exile as a frame to better understand music, humanity, and nature in an equal tempered world.

Joshua Rosner

Joshua Rosner is a PhD student in Music Theory at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University. He is a member of Stephen McAdams’ Music Perception and Cognition Laboratory and the Analysis Creation and Teaching of ORchestration (ACTOR) Project where he is involved with the Composer-Performer Orchestration Research Ensembles, the Equity and Diversity subgroup, and the Teaching and Mentoring Committee. He is also a composer and guitarist.