Fifteen Questions with Kenneth Kirschner

Kenneth Kirschner about Alternative Tuning Systems

“I’m working on something that uses 5 different tuning systems at once. There’s some real questions as to whether I’m going to get through it alive.”

Name: Kenneth Kirschner
Nationality: American 
Occupation: Composer 
Current Release: Kenneth Kirschner’s July 27, 2022 is out via 12k

Recommendations on the topic of alternative tuning systems: I don’t know if this still exists or can be found anywhere in the aether, but Johnny Reinhard used to do an annual Christmas morning broadcast every year on the radio station WKCR called “Microtonal Bach”. His pitch was basically that what Bach really wrote for was Werckmeister III, and I, for one, found his arguments totally compelling and genuinely believed I could hear previously imperceptible turns and intentions when listening to Bach in Werckmeister III. Every year I would tune in to the show religiously, one might say, and it really had a huge impact on me.

And while it’s not entirely or even primarily about tuning, I can’t recommend enough the amazing book Music, Language and the Brain by Aniruddh Patel. The tuning parts are great, but there’s so much more to it. Everyone should read it.

If you enjoyed this interview with Kenneth Kirschner and would like to know more, visit his official website, where he publishes all of his finished compositions. He is also on twitter. For more thoughts by him, we recommend our earlier interview with him

For a deep look into his thoughts and musical processes, download Imperfect Forms, which, contains an 180 page ebook; 4,5 hours of new and exclusive music; a generative software piece; specially curated videos as well as a three-part ‘Best Of“ of selected pieces from the past 15 years.

Over the years, Kenneth Kirschner has collaborated and published with a wide range of artists, including Taylor Deupree, Dirk Serries aka VidnaObmana aka Fear Falls Burning, Joseph Branciforte, Tomas Phillips, and Zimoun.

When did you first start getting interested in the world of alternative tuning systems?  

I first got interested in alternate tunings soon after moving to New York City in my early 20s. My initial impression was that everyone who was interested in alternate tuning systems was a crazy person, and as you can imagine, that was a pretty big appeal. 

Over time, I’ve refined this observation into my current maxim about alternate tunings, which is: “Every person who’s into alternate tunings is a crazy person who believes that they alone have discovered the secret of the universe. And they’re all wrong – except me! I just happen to be that one person who has actually discovered the secret of the universe.”

I take this as my motto, but I guess anyone who’s into tuning could just as easily adopt it as well.

Which artists, approaches, albums or performances using alternative tuning systems captured your imagination in the beginning?

Balinese gamelan was definitely one of the first things that got me thinking beyond equal temperament, and hearing great Indian classical music helped as well. 

In terms of a more Western or avant-garde tradition, I feel like Terry Riley’s The Harp of New Albion was one of the first microtonal pieces that really got me interested in exploring this sort of thing.

Working with a different tuning system can be a very incisive transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?

I’m always trying to do weird stuff. I mean, that’s my job! 

And tuning is one of those absolutely fundamental aspects of music – so I just can’t imagine how you wouldn’t be interested in it, if you’re the sort of person who’s trying to ask very basic questions and hopefully do things a little differently.

How would you describe the shift of moving from one tuning system to another?

As with so much of my work, I think like an electronic musician – which is of course exactly what I actually am. And so different tuning systems for me are really just patches – they’re parameters, they’re knobs you can twist and buttons you can push, presets you can call up that work or don’t work. And that’s very much how I approach tuning. I’m not a theory-forward or math-forward tuning person – it’s all done by ear for me, by messing around, by experimenting, by seeing what feels right.  

A big piece like the new one – “July 27, 2022” – is really the epitome of this approach. 

I did pick three different tuning systems for it that seemed to get along in interesting ways – Meantone, Pythagorean, and Werckmeister III. But as I was building out the material – which is a very improvisational, very spontaneous process – I just kept twisting around the root notes of all the tunings, turning all those knobs to shift the centering of the scales until something interesting gelled.  And what you end up with is a very strange thing.

So I’m really in it for what works – for what gets results. I’m happy to change systems, to reset everything, to throw things around randomly until I come up with something that makes sense to me and sounds good.

Terms like consonant and dissonant are used in school, but mostly with very limited understanding of what they mean. How has your own idea of these terms changed over time and how do you see them today?

When I tried studying composition in college in the late 1980s, it was definitely a 12-tone world. And I remember my professor loudly smashing down these huge dissonant chords and me feeling very pressured to like them. Little did I know how close I was! 

But it wasn’t until hearing Feldman some years later that I came to understand that it’s not the chords themselves, but how you play them: those same crazy dissonances played with the softest touch at the edge of silence can be incredibly profound, in all the ways that smashing them down loudly just wasn’t for me.  

What was your own learning curve/creative development like when it comes to alternative tuning systems – what were the challenges and breakthroughs?

There’s hints and nervous little experiments with tuning here and there in my early work, but the first place I got serious about it was with a piece called “May 3, 1997”. 


The tech I was using at the time had no capacity for microtuning, but I was still excited about the idea, so I found a way to hack something together: I ended up remapping my sampler’s key tracking to pitch, so that everything was just a little askew. I have no idea what the resulting system was – but it’s really nice! 

I’d love to find a way to reconstruct it someday. But whatever that weird little tuning actually was, the piece became all about exploring it.

Incidentally, that same piano patch (though in 12TET) formed the basis for my first post_piano album with Taylor Deupree, among other things.

Tuning drifted in and out of my work for quite a while after that, with no stable process or system emerging until the early 2010s. And what I hit on then was what a friend of mine helpfully termed “competitive tunings” – multiple parallel systems of equal temperament, but detuned microtonally against each other. So you get the benefits and familiarity of ET within each system of material, but the systems talk to each other microtonally, giving you a lot of weird resonances and unexpected cross conversations. 

The first time I tried this was with a piece called “November 7, 2010”, which ended up on the album Twenty Ten:

I remember confidently predicting to Taylor that if anything this crazy was ever released on 12k, there would be mass suicides among his listeners. (Which hopefully I was proven wrong on?) I continued on with this approach for a while, with the piece “September 13, 2012” from Compressions & Rarefactions being perhaps the apotheosis of this technique:

As with everything, it eventually runs out of steam. By the mid 2010s I found myself focusing more and more on counterpoint, and tuning questions mostly drifted into the background, until I unexpectedly hit upon a new approach.

This started with a piece called “September 24, 2019”, which is a sort of fake string quartet:

Here, each instrument – each individual voice – uses a different tuning system with a different root note or fundamental. All those systems and roots are picked out by ear – and, importantly, they’re picked out after the harmonic structures emerge. So you’re essentially applying the tunings to “follow” the harmonies, and applying different tunings to each individual instrument to follow its pitch space and the contours of what it’s doing melodically. Plus each movement of the piece uses a different set of tunings, so you’re getting a whole bunch of tunings at once and they’re also shifting and changing over the course of the composition.

In my own notes or thinking I call this “ex post facto” or EPF tuning:  you construct the harmonies first, then apply the tuning to them. Clearly this only works electronically! Unless, that is, you have some incredibly patient string players who are willing to sit around and keep switching from tuning system to tuning system until you happen to randomly stumble upon something you like. 

But the real key here is that each voice or instrument gets its own tuning – so you may end up with different “versions” of the same note, with lots of weird collisions and tight corners. And you’re selecting – again, by ear, just by listening – all those tunings for how they’ll talk to each other, for how they bend or shape the melodic lines or vertical harmonies in interesting or unexpected or perhaps just weird ways.  

And this ends up being the blueprint for the big new piano piece, which settles on three different tuning systems, one for each voice, but manipulates their roots to follow the harmonies and create those strange, shimmering decay resonances. 

I’m working on something now that uses five different tuning systems at once, but there’s still some real questions as to whether I’m going to get through it alive.

How far has working with alternative tuning systems led to creating different music for you personally? Are there creative ideas/pieces which you could not realize in equal temperament? 

I think of there as being two broad classes of tuning approaches in my work, what I call “non-constitutive” and “constitutive.” 

The former are places where the tuning enhances what you’re doing, maybe giving a shade of color or subtlety to the harmonies – but which you could easily envision in equal temperament without losing too much. Often, for me, this is more than anything about trying to push against the limitations of the sample-based approach – so that the subtle shading or imprecision of the tuning lends a greater sense of naturalism to the instrumental sound. It may be hard to put your finger on, and may not sound super microtonal, but the recording ends up coming across as somehow less synthy in the end.

But the “constitutive” tuning pieces are a whole other thing – and these are pieces you just can’t imagine without the tuning, that couldn’t be played in 12TET without something very fundamental being lost. 

That early piece “May 3, 1997” is one example, and of course the new big crazy piano thing is another. What would that piece be without the microtuning? You certainly wouldn’t want to listen to it for 4 hours (not that you necessarily want to anyway).

Of course, these boundaries aren’t always quite so clear. Consider the case of my original “April 20, 2015” and the acoustic adaptation we did for Greyfade. The original, despite its clunky samples, is quite microtonal! 

Take a listen:

That uses the process mentioned above of microtuning different systems of equal tempered material against each other, in this case hockets of violin and piano samples.

But when Joe Branciforte and I sat down to develop the acoustic adaptation, the first thing we did was throw out the microtonality – it was just too much to take on. That was definitely the right choice in retrospect, given the immense challenges we faced with the project. And it definitely works just fine in equal temperament:

The first thing you notice, of course, is the tremendous improvement in timbre, the richness and nuance our wonderful performers bring to the piece that my clumsy chopped-up samples just can’t achieve. 

But what’s interesting, I think, on going back to that original source recording, is how the microtonality does lead you, in a very subtle way, to a different place. If you compare in particular the endings of the two versions, the very final sections, the acoustic version ends up being very, very pretty, very traditionally, consonantly sad, and that’s quite beautiful and works nicely for a clean and emotional ending. But the old microtonal version has, in retrospect, this very compelling ambiguity that’s been a little lost in the translation: where you end up at the end of the piece is somewhere subtly different, somewhere a bit more ambivalent, somewhere that’s perhaps, in its own quiet way, more interesting. 

So maybe that line between constitutive and non-constitutive approaches isn’t so clear after all, and there’s still some interesting grey spaces in between.

With electronic tools, playing and composing in just intonation has become a whole lot easier. Do you find this interesting? What are some of the technologies, controllers and instruments you use for your own practice? 

OK, now is probably the time to say that I am not, in truth, a just intonation person. I have many friends who are JI people, and I have some pithy quotes about why I don’t like JI – but I feel I should probably keep them off the record for fear my JI friends will run up and stab me with sharpened tuning forks.

But technology I can talk about – and wow, what a mess! It’s ridiculous! I mean, tuning is the simplest possible thing for a computer – it literally doesn’t care about equal temperament, it’ll do whatever you want. But every last piece of software made is either completely hardwired into 12TET or has some proprietary, idiosyncratic version of its own weird interpretation of what it thinks microtuning is or should be that completely contradicts every other possible piece of software’s approach or that just doesn’t actually do that one tiny thing you actually do want it to do! It’s hopeless.

Somewhere out there in the mist is MIDI 2.0, which is supposed to fix all this. But given that I’m still using the exact same MIDI protocol that came out of the box with the Yamaha DX7 I got in 1984, you can see why I’m a little pessimistic.

Some artists approach tuning systems from a strongly scientific angle. In case you’re interested in this, what do you feel “research” could potentially uncover and provide in terms of tuning systems? Where do you see the biggest potential for exploration at the moment? 

So the scientific process and the culture of science are deeply enmeshed in my artistic practice and my whole way of thinking. 

I spent the first formative decade of my life as an independent composer supporting myself by working at a day job in science – I was the secretary to a famous mad scientist. And the whole ethos of that world slowly began to permeate everything I did, and in a really great way. I came to realize the extent to which scientists and artists are really, very deeply, after the same fundamental things. To this day, I still spend hours and hours every week reading scientific journals and trying to keep up with everything that’s happening.

So how does this intensive immersion in the philosophy and methodology of science relate to my tuning approach? It doesn’t! 

Sure, the philosophy is in there somewhere, and at some level it informs everything I do, hovering quietly in the background and saturating everything. But in reality, as noted above, I basically just turn knobs, and tuning is just one more knob on my synths that I’m using to try to get a new or good sound.

Do you still use equal temperament? What are some of the aspects and goals for which you find it suitable? 

Much as I love to go on a good rant about being a brave freedom fighter against the evil hegemony of the equal tempered empire, in reality, I use equal temperament all the time. It’s fine! It’s a great tuning system and there’s tons you can do with it. 

Often, after going down some crazy microtonal rabbit hole for months and months, I’ll stumble back into equal temperament and be like, hey, this is OK! 

So basically you shouldn’t listen to anything I’m saying.