Salt Peanuts

The tuba. An instrument that has traditionally had comic associations, rarely seen far from an orchestra or brass band, and even more rarely regarded as a leading instrument in any ensemble. Microtub – Robin Hayward, Kristoffer Lo, and tuba-evangelist, Martin Taxt – take the tuba into a different territory as a tuba trio, utilizing the instrument’s full, rich sound, and expand it with the use of microtonal tuning to create a kind of minimalist (structurally speaking) drone music.

Hayward has long experimented with the possibilities of microtonal tuning, and his theoretical work is somewhat forbidding reading to the layman (such as myself). However, the theoretical concerns simply serve to underpin the validity of the enterprise (although the creation of music doesn’t actually require any such underpinning in real terms, but for some, experimental music certainly requires a strong abstract to introduce it – presumably to separate the surgeons from the snake oil sellers).

For this, their second release, the evolution of the pieces is almost glacial, but there are overtones, hints of hidden sonic interplay and harmonic layering that have a curious appeal. Rather than standard musical notation, the trio used three-dimensional graphical scores, one of which graces the cover of the album (the eponymous «Star System»). Whether such methods help elucidate the experience of the music for the listener is certainly down to whoever the listener happens to be, but undoubtedly it has had a meaningful effect in terms of the performance of the music. While it might be tempting to speculate that such music could be created using synthesisers, the reality is that the sound is truly organic, as the instruments are not bound by simple mathematically defined oscillations of fixed widths and frequencies.

The flow of air through metal, the natural vibrations generate an interplay of sounds that synthesisers could merely imitate, never fully emulate. The constraints afforded by human lungs rather than an endless supply of electrical current create a natural punctuation of the pieces. The microtonal aspects of the music manifest themselves as pulsations of texture rather than obvious differences in pitch, and a certain kind of drama emerges from something that initially seems quite simple and straightforward, ranging from suggestions of fanfare to low-flying B52s, from machine-like hum to purring lions.

I can’t say that this is music to sir the emotional pot, or likely to produce any kind of physical response (except at higher volumes, where the effect is quite astounding, actually – but look after your speakers!) However, as music – leaving theories of microtones and non-standard compositional methods aside – Microtub create a pleasant sonic carpet upon which to lay thoughts, to ruminate, to ponder. While not distracting, it is not ignorable, either. It is its own experience, and, albeit one that is highly abstract, it is an enjoyable one.