Jon Catler is one of the world's leading innovators on microtonal guitar. For many years, Catler's life has been devoted to the exploration of the "notes-between-the-notes," or microtonal music. Specifically, he has devised his own system of tuning based on Just Intonation or the pure intervals of the Harmonic Series. He has redesigned his guitar to allow an unprecedented range of consonance and dissonance, alternating between a 62-note per octave fretted guitar and a fretless. Noted for his work with legendary composer, La Monte Young, Mr. Catler can be heard as featured soloist on the Gramavision double-CD "La Monte Young and the Forever Bad Blues Band."
The CD has been widely reviewed (four stars in Rolling Stone) and the band has toured Europe and played Alice Tully Hall, the Kitchen, and The Knitting Factory. Catler has appeared as composer and performer on the Futurismo/Futurismi Festival, Manca Festival, Montreal Jazz Festival, Quebec Festival d'Ete, the Angelica Festival and the American Festival of Microtonal Music of which he is co-founder. Catler performed in the world premier version of Ives' 'Universe Symphony' at Lincoln Center, a climax of AFMM's 20-year history. Catler also performed on the original Harry Partch guitars with Newband in a performance of Partch's 'Oedipus' at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
Catler has recorded and performed throughout Europe and the U.S. with many Just Intonation groups, and can be heard on The Microtones' recording 'Cowpeople' on the M-Tone label and on the Just Intonation CD, 'Steel Blue,' on the Koch International label, both of which feature his own compositions. As the founder of microtonal music label, FreeNote Records, Catler has released the CD 'Crash Landing' by the Catler Bros., as well as 'Birdhouse,' which features some microtonal transcriptions of actual birdsong. In 2001, Catler, with the co-sponsorship of La Monte Young, premiered the 'World Out Of Tune (W.O.O.T.) Festival' which featured performances of composers working in Nature's Harmonic Tuning system, Just Intonation.
Jon Catler's pioneering work 'Evolution for Electric Guitar and Orchestra' headlined W.O.O.T. Festival at the NYC venue Makor. The 2nd annual W.O.O.T. Festival commences in May 2002 with performances in Los Angeles followed by October performances in Boston, New York and Baltimore. In January 2001, 'Evolution' was recorded with Grammy award winning conductor Joel Thome. Jon Catler's most recent musical project is Just Intonation rock band 'Swallow' which debuted in June 2001. His book, 'The Nature of Music,' is being published in September 2002. Catler has made his microtonal fretting designs available through an exclusive deal with G&L guitars, one of America's top builders. These guitars, along with the above CD's and others, are available at his web site: www.microtones.com
IE: If I understand correctly, you were at Berklee in the late 70s when you encountered microtonal music. Did this pursuit make you the "odd man out" on campus? Were you forced to segregate your microtonal approaches from the traditional jazz curriculum? Was there any source of encouragement or support for microtonalism at Berklee?
JC: There was a teacher at Berklee who had escaped Chekoslovakia with quartertone composer Alois Haba - they had been persecuted for their use of quartertones and had to leave their country. When I found this guy in a tiny room at Berklee, he seemed happy to see me, but as soon as I brought up the subject of microtones, he wouldn't talk to me. I think he was afraid I was a quartertone cop out to hassle him.
But my guitar teacher, Jon Damian, was encouraging, and half of my senior recital was in 19-tone and 31-tone equal temperaments. I wrote my first quartertone into a piece for a class taught by John LaPorta, a clarinetist who had played with Bird. As he was yelling at
me for wasting the class's time with unplayable notes, the musicians figured out how to play the quartertone. While the note sounded so natural to me, and got someone else so upset, I realized there must be something to it.
IE: Guitarists have been doing microtonalism to some extent for a long time and, in fact, you cite players like Jeff Beck and Hendrix as influences. However, from what I understand, until the leap is made to just intonation and the natural overtone series, a lot of harmonic material will be inaccessible to the "normal" player such that their "microtonalism" is only partial or an undeveloped potential. In other words, a person using 12-tone tuning and bending "out" will never be as microtonal as they may think because the underlying harmonic content of the tuning itself is working in opposition with the player? Can you expand on this?
JC: Guitarists have always been bending and sliding and doing whatever we can to get to those in-between notes - guys like Albert King, Hendrix, and Beck are masters of microtonal melody. But because of their frets they don't have access to pure harmony. Since guitarists work so hard to play the in-between notes, why should we be denied access to these notes as chords? And once you've had access to Harmonic 7, 9, 11, and 13 chords and 62 notes per octave, it's hard to go back to only 12 notes. Imagine if you'd been playing a guitar with 5 notes per octave your whole life, and someone handed you a guitar with 12 notes per octave -- you'd think they were crazy, as all your songs could be played on the 5-tone. But after you began to play and write songs with the new notes, it would be hard to go back to using less notes as you couldn't play your new songs without them, and your ear would miss them.
IE: Mentally or psychologically, what represents the greatest barrier to microtonalism for the typical guitarist? Do you think it's the tuning and differences in the instruments or, more the case, an issue of social pressure to sound "in" as opposed to "out."
JC: The greatest barrier is lack of information. Most people, even musicians, don't have a real understanding of the Harmonic Series. There is a false perception that there are 12 'real' pitches, and many people don't know that those 12 pitches have been changed by Man, and nature has given us a scale more beautiful and deep than anything we can come up with.
IE: How did the G&L/Freenote relationship come about? That's pretty exciting that a person can now just order one up from the factory.
JC: The other obstacle has been the lack of instruments. People interested in new notes have had to rip frets and position markers out of guitars, then fill in the fret slots and dots and figure out where to add new ones, or convince a luthier to do it. G&L is a very cool company that lets me order guitars without frets or markers, so we can put them in where we want. They are the first U.S. company to get behind tuning. Any G&L guitar or bass, with any of their options, is available from us in any tuning.
IE: I'm constantly interested in the problem of weird music and audience reception. Specifically, microtonalism, like any "weird" music runs the risk of "alienating" people because it's not what they're accustomed to hearing. Do you see your style of phrasing or approach to composing as trying to meet the "normal" audience member halfway so to speak? Honestly, when I listen to your music it doesn't strike me as being "out" so much as "in" such that anybody who likes jazz and blues would immediately embrace your playing. Also, it appears that you've sought out receptive ears by situating your music in relation to the fine arts crowd. Can you give us some insight?
JC: Tuning to the Harmonic Series, called 'Just Intonation', can produce chords that are dramatically more 'in tune' than standard tuning. Music schools teach that 7th chords must resolve, but a pure Harmonic 7th chord from the Overtone series doesn't need to resolve anywhere - it's perfectly in tune. Chords with higher Harmonics, like 11 and 13, may sound strange to some at first, but familiarity with them reveals their consonance. I just write what I hear. I'm also interested in hearing orchestral instruments playing these pitches, and composers such as Ives, Ligeti, and others have introduced new pitches and notation in their symphonic music.
IE: I know that a lot of independent musicians and those creating unconventional music are fighting an uphill battle with market forces and corporate culture. You've created your own label, I would assume, to bypass this as much as possible. Still, you must feel constraints of some variety in distribution and getting disks out into stores? How have you overcome the problems of getting your music into the hands of "consumers"?
JC: The microtonal community is small but worldwide, and I think it helps that we are identified as a microtonal label. We've sold guitars to guys from Israel and Hong Kong through the internet, and people from all over order CDs. It's not like being on a major, but I guess that has its problems too.
IE: How does heavy distortion translate to microtonal guitar? All the recordings I have of microtonalism feature a clean to gritty sound? For the person who wants to plug into a Marshall on the brink of meltdown, what can they expect? Is it total chaos to mix 49 frets and "These go to eleven"?
JC: An electric guitar through a hot amp is an overtone-generating machine. Distortion is just higher harmonic content. Putting 12 Equal frets on an electric guitar is like putting training wheels on a Harley - the overtones being generated are in conflict with the fretted notes. When two overtones are played together, they create sum and difference tones above and below the two pitches being played, so the two notes are reinforcing each other instead of canceling each other. In 12-Equal, you're limited to playing 4ths and 5ths as power chords with distortion, and I think this has hindered the evolution of heavy music. When the pitches you're playing are really in tune, you can play all sorts of new and complex chords with tons of distortion because the overtones that make up the distortion aren't fighting with the pitches being played. I grew up listening to Hendrix, Cream, Beck, Sabbath, and I've always been fascinated by the magical elements, like feedback. I remember playing a low 'E' note and wondering why the 'D' note that was feeding back was not on my guitar - my guitar's 'D' was much sharper. I believe that for heavy guitar to progress, we need to realize that the sound of that Marshall amp distorting and feeding back is the sound of the Harmonic Series.
IE: Jon, at your site you say "The Harmonic Series is a naturally occurring series of notes present in every voice, vibrating string, electrical hum, and elsewhere. The common 12-Tone Equal Tempered system found on almost all pianos, guitars, and other instruments in this country is a man-made system that distorts the pure intervals of Nature for the sake of 'convenience'." But is it not true that any system of tuning is just that, a system, and just as much a construction as any other system? Some people would say, and I hear them say it, that microtonalists have invented an alternative approach and then insist, through mathematical evidence, that they found it in Nature and, since it's "in Nature" it's a better thing? I mean, "interval" is a signifier and not a property of nature itself. How would you address this?
JC: People need to play it for themselves and decide. To hear a pure 'A Harmonic 7/9' chord on guitar, tune the open strings low to high: E, A, C#, G half flat, B, and E All these notes can be tuned by finding the harmonics 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, and 12 on the open 'A' string. (Any harmonic times 2 is just the same note an octave higher, so 12 is one octave above 6, which is one octave above 3.) If you do this correctly, you will have a pure chord that can be played clean or with as much distortion as you like and it will still sound solid. Compare that with a 12-Equal 7/9 chord and see which sounds better to you. The first complete scale that occurs in the Harmonic Series is from the 8th - 16th Harmonics, and this is the scale that I use as the basis of my 62- tone Just Intonation guitar. In 12-Equal, you have the half step, and every interval is a combination of the same half step. Intervals do appear in Nature - the first interval in the Harmonic Series is the octave, and that's the only one that is the same in 12-Equal. The next interval is a 5th, then a 4th, then a major third, then a minor third, then a smaller minor third. Every time you go to a new overtone, a new, smaller, and unique interval is created that is different from those that came before it.
To me, this is a recognition of the validity of the individual, which is obliterated in 12-Equal, where conforming to the masses is the order of the day. Why should guitarists let others tell them what pitches they can play? Every guitar in every music store is available in red or pink with stars or stripes or in shapes and sizes, but every single one of them has the same frets, and they're all in the wrong place. We've been denied access to pure Harmony for most of our lives, and this is outrageous. Guitarists have even been denied the option of going into a store and playing some pure chords to see how they sound. It's as if we've been told "you can bend, whammy, and slide all you want, but you can't play any in-tune chords." What happened to the rebellion that the guitar initially stood for? Don't we need to seek out pure Harmony, especially in these times? I didn't invent an approach and then say it's better, I found an ancient lost chord that was here before Man and will be around long after.
IE: What contemporary musicians and guitarists are you especially excited about right now? Do you have any "essential recordings" recommendations?
JC: To hear Just Intonation, there's no place better to start than with La Monte Young, who has been doing it since the 60's. His piece, 'The Well-Tuned Piano' is a 5-cd set, and it's now out on DVD. He makes an acoustic piano sound like strings, choirs, flutes, and the cosmos. Neil Haverstick has some CDs with a number of different tuning systems, and I've heard he has a new CD coming out. And Rod Poole has some JI recordings on acoustic guitar. These and others are available on our web site.
IE: For the person wanting to dive into microtonal guitar but not sure where to start, what advice or guidance do you have for them?
JC: There are a lot of different microtonal systems, and you want to find what fits your personality. Microtonal music is not a style, and any style of music can be played in any tuning system. I developed the 12-Tone Plus system for people who want access to pure chords without having to give up the frets they are accustomed to. 12-Tone Plus adds pure Harmonic Series frets to the standard 12, so the guitarist can play everything he or she normally plays and still have new notes available. It has 7 new frets to give 11 new notes that can be combined in all sorts of ways. The 12-Tone Ultra Plus adds 12 new frets to give 24 new notes. They come with a manual, and are designed for the guitarist who wants to get into microtones.
IE: Jon, is there anything else you'd like to say or want people to know about yourself or microtonal music and guitar?
JC: The history of music can be looked at as Man's gradual acceptance of increasingly higher members of the Harmonic Series. Guitarists are in a unique position where we can slap new frets on our instruments and have access to all kinds of new sounds and feelings. The first time I ever played a pure Harmonic 7th chord on a 31-tone guitar, I played it for ten minutes straight and then put the guitar on my lap, and realized that my life had changed. I hope all guitarists have the opportunity to play and hear chords that have been denied to so many for so long.