Update: October 14th.




I am now on vacation…. so I will be sleeping, listening to a LOT of Frank Zappa’s music (which means listening to Roxy & Elsewhere over and over and over), and writing, writing, writing. I will be back in a couple of weeks with a post on creativity, so stay tuned for more… お願いします!

In the meantime, here is some music: a more unhurried track titled “Ghost Of A Chance” from legendary prog rock band RUSH.





The Secret Genius of South Indian Music.

As I often write about various aspects of South Indian music, I thought I would do a brief post summarizing how the various topics work together as one: “the” secret behind South Indian music (especially drumming) that reveals its particular genius. So what is the secret? The secret is that underlying South Indian music is a beautiful and often complex mathematical relationship between arithmetic, algebra, and geometry: three aspects of math that come together to produce a fascinating world of speech and rhythm. But before we begin we must know a few basics.

The Essential Principles of Rhythm in Karnatak (or Carnatic) music and South Indian dance are called the Dasa Prana, also known as the 10 vital elements of Karnatak music. These include various ways of indicating rhythm, subdivisions, tempo, classification, and the idea of “time” in general. Through these elements South Indians who study singing, dance, drums, and other instruments learn the essential foundation for expressing themselves.

This means that in musical terms, musicians and dancers learn how to utilize mathematics in three distinct ways: (1) arithmatic, expressed in the art of what is known as solkattu, (2) algebra: expressed in the art of what are known as jati, and (3) geometry: expressed in what are known as yati.

(Note: words like talam, jati, and yati are both singular and plural in the Tamil language, so I will being using them as such: “talam are…”, “a talam is…”.)

First, konakkol and solkattu. The art of studying rhythm through clapping and speaking syllables is known as konakkol: a technique used to teach students how to organize and feel rhythm through speech and hand movement in order to get a better sense of how time flows in South Indian music. Solkattu is one half of konakkol, the art of singing/speaking syllables.

hindu mandala

Looking at the Hindu mandala above then, we notice that the flower petals are arranged in a circle. This is an excellent visual metaphor for how beats are visualized in South Indian music,  the solkattu syllables being the petals. So having this image in your head will help you eventually see how the mathematics of solkattu, jati, and yati join together. A cycle of solkattu syllables (taka dimi taka jonu) is known as a talam : rhythmic cycles consisting of three beats or more… three syllables = three beats, four syllables = 4 beats, etc., each beat/syllable placed on an imaginary circle like positions on a clock.





Each of the talam have names to distinguish each from the other. For example, the most commonly studied south indian rhythm, known as Adi Talam is an eight syllable ergo eight beat cycle, spoken or sung as: “TA KA DI MI TA KA JO NU”. Khanda Eka Talam, for example, is a five-syllable (5 beat) talam spoken or sung as “TA DIN GI NA TOM”. These can be expressed at three speeds (slow, medium and fast), three speeds holding to a strict ratio of [1:2:4], each doubling or halving in speed, essentially creating precise multiplications and divisions of a talam. Imagine a car shifting gears that automatically increase to double the speed. For example, an eight or a seven beat cycle becomes:

TA      KA      DI        MI       TA      KA      JO       NU


takadimi takajonu takadimi takajonu

TA      KA      DI        MI       TA      KI        DA


takadimitakida takadimitakida

Having looked at the arithmetic aspect of South Indian drumming (addition and subtraction), we can now look at the second aspect of its genius, its algebraic aspect. Algebra, the study of numbers and mathematical symbols together, plays a particularly fascinating part of Karnatak music many may not be aware of. This is best explained as how groupings of syllables can be assigned to variables like X or Y. These groupings of syllables or beats are known as jati. Therefore a particular jati has a particular number of syllables. For example, “Chatusra” Jati has four syllables, “Tisra” Jati has three, “Misra” Jati has seven, etc. So when we sing an eight beat talam like Adi Talam: TA KA DI MI TAKA JONU, we are singing a talam with two Chatusra jati in it.

To really see the algebra at work, we can look at a fourteen beat cycle called Dhruva Talam. Dhruva is made up of a grouping of 4 beats + 2 beats + 4 beats + 4 more beats, the basis of this talam being the number 4 (Chatusra jati). Expressed as algebra this can be written as X + 2 + X + X. What makes this so interesting is that you can change the jati variable (X) without changing the structure. Thus, you have great creative freedom while also holding to a strict skeletal formula (which is a lot to process in the mind of the drummer). Dhruva Talam, based on Chatusra jati, changes from a fourteen beat cycle… to an eleven beat cycle in Tisra Jati (groupings of three) as the variable: 4 + 2 + 4 + 4 now becomes 3 + 2 + 3 + 3.



Taking this a step further, Dhruva Talam [X + 2 + X + X] can now become a twenty three beat cycle if we use groupings of seven (Misra jati) as the basis for our talam: 7 + 2 + 7 + 7. If we look at other talam, we see this occurring across the board. For example, the talam called Matthya can be expressed as X+Y+X, so Matthya is a ten beat cycle using Chatusra (4 + 2 + 4), an eight beat cycle using Trisra (3 + 2 + 3), a sixteen beat cycle in Misra (7 + 2 + 7) and so on.

The third and possibly most interesting mathematical aspect of South Indian drumming is expressed in the form of geometry, the art of yati, which are the expansion and contraction of both solkattu and jati, simultaneously, which can be mentally visualized as various shapes: a triangle, upside-down triangle, hour glass, diamond, and so on. Yati are the addition and subtraction of both jati and solkattu syllables simultaneously. Expressed on paper, this tales to form of words creates underlying geometric shapes, for example, Gopuccha yati, upside down triangle shape as the Cow Tail yati





The yati known as Damaru, the “Hour Glass Drum” yati, looks like an hourglass, an upside down triangle on to of a regular triangle.









So if we return to the Hindu mandala I showed earlier (below), we can now see an excellent visual metaphor for how solkattu, jati, and yati can be conceptually combined into a unified whole, which gives those of us without extensive experience in Karnatak music an effective way of understanding and appreciating this art form. 

hindu mandala

Thus South Indian musicians create and convey meaning in music through arthimetic, algebraic, and geometric strategies that shape speech, dance, and rhythm in a manner unlike any other in the world. Thus, as essential participants in the art of Karnatak music, these musicians have been preservers of vital intangible cultural properties… an ancient legacy of creative wisdom that has vitalized India, and indeed world heritage, as it has been taught and performed all over the world.


Robert Okaji: (A Slight Return)

Okaji Image

Having reviewed poet Robert Okaji’s latest chapbook From Every Moment A Second a couple of months ago, I have had time to sit with it and reread various poems that either made immediate impact or have grown on me, The Resonance of No being a strange combination of both. I say “strange”, as one does not expect a thing that resonates with them to not continue to do so. But I did not anticipate the depth at which The Resonance of No would reach or continue to reach within. I have wondered why this is. Then I realized that Okaji creates something I have missed all this time… the sound of Okaji.

“That quality we call beauty . . . must always grow from the realities of life.” This statement by Japanese novelist Jun’ichirou Tanizaki in his essay In Praise of Shadows evokes a sense of the aesthetic being rooted in lived experience. Having “experienced” we then categorize, judge and assign value to the “reality” our senses provide. It is on this kind of phenomenology that author Salomé Voegelin builds her book Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. Critiquing traditional and modern historical musical research (musicology) Voegelin’s believes that traditional musical compositions and contemporary sonic works are investigated through separate and distinct critical languages (and histories), and thus no continuous study of both as a unified field is possible. Having discovered this she then offers a new framework for analysis that can access and investigate works across time and genre, making possible comparative research into a much wider (and more creative) field of study. But in the process of sound creation for example there can arise great discrepancies between what we believe we have heard compared to what we have actually heard. Thus, Voegelin seeks to explore the possibilities of a sound landscape that is “an environment that involves everything that is and that could be” (pp. 13-14).

What is most interesting to me about the book is how Voegelin “converts” sound into text, as exemplified by a quote taken from her blog (entitle “My Room”). She describes how sound enters her room from other rooms, being “invisibly present” in a visual space. These sounds play a part of her constructing meaning and value in her life, like a walk through autumn leaves becomes a “socio-symbolic” relationship for the person, especially if it evokes strong memories of past walks connected to loved ones, sad times, good times, etc. Thus, Voegelin and her apartment/leaf sounds are written in such a manner that is decidedly not the standard academic manner in which such things are done. Thus, in the book Voegelina argues for a more open and flexible academic language to include such writing, what she calls “textual phonography”, writing that produces not a written “recording” of what was strictly heard, but the sound/ideas that happen in the imagination of the listener, a generative interpretation, what the reader imagines or remembers of what Voegelin heard, or what she herself imagines she heard. This idea of textual phonography became particularly relevant to me recently when I visited Vietnam to perform and do some research.

Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám is a Hanoian Confucian Temple that also held the ancient Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. Built by emperor Lý Thánh Tông in 1070 CE, Văn Miếu is a place (or meant to be a place) of serenity and history: its various gardens, courtyards and stele honouring cultural heritage and inspiring Vietnamese to follow the traditions of respecting teachers, scholars, etc. While walking through the various pavilions and courtyards, my goal was to document the temple’s architectural and aesthetic features to complement similar research I have done in East Asia. But this effort was interrupted by loud pop music blaring into the temple complex from an adjacent store located on the northeast side of Văn Miếu Street. The music, with its cheery electronic beat, filled courtyards and gardens: its presence inescapable and embedded within the temple’s spatial and acoustic ecology. Immersion in this unwanted sound created a very real socio-symbolic presence (intrusion), a new social relationship within a physical environment meant to be its opposite: quiet, scholarly and ethical. But the pop music also represents a “new” Vietnam that is modernizing, and its intrusion may be a matter of my own desire to see a culture I do not come from adhere to some kind of imagined Orientalist purity not accepted or valued by Vietnamese themselves. In this case I may be imagining a Vietnam that is contrary to the actual Vietnam. But at least this language includes the sound of my thought as music as the sound of pop music in as much as language can “sound” music.

Having reread Okaji’s work again a few minutes ago I was struck by its own unique textual phonography:

The Resonance of No

Yes, yes, we’ve heard. The dishwasher wastes less
and cleans better. But Kenk­ō believed in the beauty
of leisure, and how better to make nothing
while standing with hands in soapy water, thoughts
skipping from Miles Davis’s languid notes to the spider
ascending to safe shelter under the sill (after I blow
on her to amuse myself), washing my favorite knife
and wondering if I should hone it, not to mention
my skills on the six-string or the potato peeler.
And if I linger at the plates, even the chipped one,
admiring their gleam after hot water rinses away
the soap residue, who could question the quick gulp
of ale or the shuffle of an almost-but-not-quite
dance step-or-stumble while arranging them on the
ribbed rack, back-to-back, in time to Coltrane’s
solo. Then the forgotten food processor’s blade
bites my palm, and I remember that I’ve outgrown
the dark suit, the cut branches still need bundling
and none of the words I’ve conjured and shaped
over decades and miles will extend their comfort
when I stand at my father’s grave this week or next.

Okaji immediately evokes the soundscape with the idea that (1) No is “resonant” and (2) we have heard something before, which coincidentally is how the original sayings attributed to the Buddha Siddartha usually open: thus have I heard. Even using water evokes the inevitable splash of pans and dishes entering the cleansing sink, as the brooding tones of Miles Davis’ trumpet waft through the air. Following this Okaji blows on a spider as he washes a knife (evoking air and water sounds). A banjo, potato peeler, and a chipped dish too all suggests mental soundings, as do gulp (air sound), ale, stumble, and John Coltrane playing his saxophone (a wind instrument; evoking the beginning of Coltrane’s Blue Train for me).

A much more subtle sounding occurs at the end when Okaji acknowledges he will stand at his father’s grave in the immediate future after decades and miles of travel through the world and Life itself. This kind of writing is summed up by the Japanese term furyu. Meaning “wind and water”, the impermanence of things is in part due to the effect of the forces that drive wind and water to shape what they come into contact with, including many erosion patterns that end up being beautiful. Thus, wind and water are creative, as their destruction is not intentionally “destructive”. Rather, in the process of creation, things are uncreated. Thus Okaji says he shapes words, not “creates” words.

The sobering line at the end when Okaji stands at his father’s grave is evocative of the funeral, which films almost inevitably portray as occurring on rainy, windy days to visually sound the emotional resonance of loss. Though I love film, I immediately heard wind and rain sound when I reread this line… and thus realized I had missed Okaji’s textual phonography of the implication of sound, if not sound itself. Okaji’s forte is the word, but I have come to conclude that he is a composer as well, a writer of the hidden melodies of our nature: recordings from the fields of the soul. I may be imagining this power, but then this is the whole point of textual phonography. The Okaji sound is “that which I imagine I hear in Okaji” as he sounds himself. This is yet another aspect of his poetic power, and reveals just how rewarding and vital it is to live with his work rather than merely “read” it. The silent sound of and the sound in Okaji still resonates in Life though it exists in word…it affirms sound, not negates it, it is the resonance of yes.

From Every Moment A Second is now available from Finishing Line Press.

Lu Chi: 文賦 (On Literature).

Ping Fu


As many of my readers are writers themselves, I thought it would be fun to post one of the classic East Asian works on writing dated to sometime during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280), Rhymeprose On Literature, or “On Literature”. Composed by General Lu Chi (261 – 303), it is China’s first systematic treatise on literary criticism. I have edited or abridged many sections for brevity’s sake, but have tried to retain the original translation’s clarity, using as my source material text from The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (1994, Columbia University Press): pp. 124 – 133.



Every time I study the works of great writers, I flatter myself I know how their minds worked. Our constant worry though is that our ideas may not equal their objects and our style may fall short of their ideas [reference to Confucius: writing cannot express words completely: words cannot express thought completely.]. Now, it is true that I am hewing an axe handle with an axe handle in my hand, the pattern is not far to seek. However the conjuring hand of the artist being what it is, I cannot possibly make my words do the trick. Nevertheless, what I am able to say I have put down here.


Taking his position at the hub of things, [the writer] contemplates the mysteries of the Universe, he roams in the Forest of Literature, and praises the symmetry of great art. Moved, he pushes his books away and takes the writing brush, that he may express himself in letters.


At first he withholds his sight and turns his hearing inward; he is lost in thought, questioning everything. His spirit gallops to the eight ends of the universe, his mind wanders along vast distances. He sips the essence of letters; rinses his mouth with the extract of the six arts [the six classic Confucian texts]. He gathers words never used in one hundred generations; picks rhythms never sung in one thousand years.


He taps at the door of all that is colorful: he chooses from among everything that rings. Now the tiger put on new stripes, to the consternation of other beasts; now the dragon emerges, and terrifies all the birds. He traps heaven and earth in the cage of form; he crushes the myriad objects against the tip of his brush.


There is joy in this vocation; all sages esteem it. Poets struggle with Non-Being to force it to yield Being; we knock upon Silence for an answering Music. We enclose boundless space in a square foot of paper; we pour out a deluge from the inch-space of the heart. A laughing wind will fly and whirl upward; dense clouds will arise from the Forest of Writing Brushes.


Forms vary in a thousand ways; objects are not of one measure. Confronted with bringing something into being or leaving it unsaid, he groans; between the shallow and the deep, he makes his choice resolutely.

Lyric poetry traces emotions daintily; rhyme prose embodies objects brightly. The epitaph balances substance with style, while the dirge is terse and mournful. Disquisition is rarefied and subtle, while discourse is dazzlingly bright and extravagantly bizarre. Differing in form, they all forbid deviation from the straight, having no “twisty thoughts” (depravity).

Multiple Aspects

Ideas should be cleverly brought together… and the mutation of sounds and tones should be like the five colors of embroidery, sustaining each other. If, however, you have missed the chance and reached the sense belatedly, you will be putting the tail at the head. The sequence of dark and yellow being deranged, the whole broidery will look smudged and blurred.


Weight merit or demerit by the milligram; decide rejection or retention by a hairbreadth. If your idea or word has not the correct weight, it has to go, however comely it may look.


It may be that language and thought blend into damascened gauze – fresh, delightful, and exuberantly lush. Glowing like many-colored broidery [while hinting at weltschmerz], like many chords; but assuredly there is nothing novel in my own writing. True, the arrow struck my heart; what a pity, then, that others were struck before me. [Thus] as plagiarism will impair my integrity and damage my probity, I must renounce the piece, however fond I am of it.

Purple Patches

It may be that one ear of the stalk buds [only one line stands out among many]; solitary and exquisite. But shadows cannot be caught; echoes are hard to bind. Standing forlorn, your purple passage juts out conspicuously; it cannot be woven into ordinary music, and your mind, out of step, finds no place for it. When the rock embeds jade, the mountain glows, when the stream is impregnated with pearls, the river becomes alluring. We will weave the market ditty into the classical melody; perhaps we may thus rescue what is beautiful.


Entrusting your diction to an anemic rhythm: living in a desert you have only yourself to talk to. Fitting your words into a frazzled music; gaudy, your language lacks charm… the harsh note of a wind instrument in the courtyard below. Forsaking reason and going for the bizarre: you pursue inanity and the trivial.


I have been paying tribute to laws of words and rules of style. I know well what the world blames, and I am familiar with what the worthies of the past praised. Originality is a thing often overlooked at askance by the fixed eye. Gems and purest jade beads, they say, are (1) as numerous as the dry beans in the fields, and as inexhaustible as the space between heaven and earth; growing co-eternally with heaven and earth themselves. The world abounds with masterpieces, and yet they do not appear in my own hands. Oh how I grieve that the bottle is often empty; how I grieve that Elevating Discourse is hard to continue. It is no wonder I limp along with trivial rhythms, and make indifferent music to complete the song. I fear being a drummer on an earthen jug: mocked by jinglers of jade pendants.


You cannot hinder its coming or stop its going. When the Heavenly Arrow is at its fleetest and sharpest, what confusion is there that cannot be brought to order? When on the other hand, the Six Emotions [original text unclear: possibly like, dislike, pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy] become sluggish and foul, the mood gone but the psyche remaining, you will be as forlorn as a dead stump, as empty as the bed of a dry river. True, the thing lies in me, but it is not in my power to force it out. And so, time and time again, I beat my empty breast and groan, I really do not know the causes of the flowing and the not flowing.

Encomium on Style

The function of style is to serve as a prop for your ideas. It travels over endless miles, removing all obstructions in its way: spanning innumerable years, taking the place of a bridge. Looking down it bequeaths patterns to the future; gazing up it contemplates the examples of the ancients [sun, stars, moon, dragons, mountains…]. It is a match for clouds and rain in yielding sweet moisture: it is like spirits and ghosts in bringing about metamorphoses [comparison to the heavenly principle Ch’ien: the celestial aspect of the cosmos]. It inscribes bronze and marble to make virtue known; it breathes through flutes and strings, and is forever new.


Selections from Classic Chinese (Comedic) Anthologies.


Though an almost endless amount of analysis and criticism of Chinese texts has been on classical philosophy, religion, politics, and military tactics, etc., few people know of the ancient collections of jokes and funny stories, such as the Grove Of Laughter (Hsiao-lin), Master Mugwort’s Miscellany (Ai Tzu tsa-shuo), Ticklish Tales (Hsi-t’an lu), Bowled Over With Laughter (Hsiao-tao), Have A Good Laugh (Hsiao te hao) and others. So I thought I would post a few of my favorite classic Chinese tales, being anywhere from 500 to 1000 years old. As there are many spots where the literal translation would obscure or confuse the punch line, I have paraphrased and slightly altered the original text for clarity.


The Man Who Bit Off His Own Nose (from The Grove of Laughter).

While they were arguing, Dingbang bit off Chenglei’s nose. When a government official wished to prosecute him, he claimed that Chenglei had bitten off his own nose. “A person’s nose is higher than his mouth,” said the official, “so how could it be that he could reach his nose to bite it off?” Said Dingbang, “He stepped up on a bed to do it”!

The Ox Year Wife (from Treasury of Laughs)

The subordinates of a prefect who was having a birthday heard that he was born in the Year of the Rat, so they gathered some gold and cast a full-scale solid gold rat to celebrate his longevity. Being much pleased with the gold object the prefect said, “Did you know that my wife’s birthday is coming up soon? She was born in the Year of the Ox”!

Vegetables And Wine… (from Expanded Treasury of Laughs)

A Confucian official named Fu was about to leave his home to meet a superior when a local villager named Chao stopped by for a visit. Not having time to give his wife Bin-bin detailed instructions, he simply said, “Just offer the villager some vegetables, wine, et nihil alter”. His wife, not speaking such literary language, had no idea ‘ex nihil alter’ meant “and nothing else”, thought that he had somehow referred to their pet goat, so she butchered and prepared it, offering Chao a great feast. When Fu returned, he lamented that Bin-bin had misunderstood him. Much chagrined, from then on he made sure to tell her to serve “vegetables, wine, and absolutely not a single bit of “ex nihil alter”!

Pleasing The Archery Target God (from Expanded Treasury of Laughs)

A military general named Anguo was on the verge of being defeated in a bloody battle when a glorious warrior appeared and helped Anguo achieve a great victory instead. Anguo kowtowed before the glorious superhuman warrior and asked his name. “I am the God of All Archery Targets”. But General Anguo was confused and asked, “What virtue does a mere mortal general like myself have that would induce you, oh honoured god, to trouble yourself to come to my aid?” The god replied, “I was moved by the fact that in the past, when you practiced archery on the range, you never once hit me with an arrow!”

That’s Preposterous! (from In Praise of Laughter)

Li-ko, in an attempt to improve his vocabulary, overheard someone say “How can there be such a principle!?” (in English: that’s preposterous!). Falling in love with the phrase, he went about saying “that’s preposterous” wherever he went. While crossing a river on a ferry one day though, he happened to forget the phrase, so he wandered the ferry trying to remember it. The ferryman asked him if he had lost something, and Li-ko replied, “I have lost a sentence”. “Whoever heard of losing a sentence,” said the ferryman, “that’s preposterous!” “Ahh! You found it for me,” exclaimed Li-ko. “Why didn’t you say so earlier?”

Moving The Statues of Lao-Tzu and The Buddha (from Have A Good Laugh)

There was a certain temple that had clay statues of the scholar/god Lao-Tzu and the Buddha himself, set side by side. Upon seeing this, a Buddhist monk said, “The great teachings of the Buddha are profound. How could you disrespect the Buddha by placing him to the right of Lao-Tzu?” So he moved the Buddha to the left. Upon seeing this new arrangement, a Taoist priest exclaimed, “The Doctrine of the Tao deserved the utmost respect. How can Lao-Tzu be placed to the right of the Buddha?” So he moved Lao-tzu to the left of the Buddha. This continued on, back and forth relentless, until the clay statues crumbled. “You and I were getting along fine,” said Lao-Tzu with a laugh to the Buddha, “until those two nitwits wrecked us with their constant moving!”

Geomancy (from Grove of Laughter)

Chung, who firmly believed in divination through casting earth and reading its texture, always consulted a diviner before he made the slightest move. One day, as he leaned against an earthen wall, it toppled over upon him. Pinned beneath it, he called out for help. His family, knowing of his love for geomancy, consoled him, saying, “Just wait, we will consult the master as to whether today is an auspicious day for moving dirt!”


(source texts from The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature (Victor H. Mair (ed.), 1994, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 658-670).


Saxophone Multiphonics Chart


For many years I have often used “multi-phonics” on the saxophone, fingerings which produce two or three notes simultaneously in a dense cluster. Though these note clusters are invariably dissonant, when played properly they create a rather beautiful “fog” of sound, and thus every creative saxophonist should be familiar with them.

In the past (many years before the Internet) I had to experiment with a lot of fingerings in order to cobble together a set of working multiphonics that I knew worked on all the main four saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone). But I eventually compiled the set of fingerings pictured below by 1998 right before I left Canada to live in Japan… which was fortuitous, as I became heavily involved in the Kansai Onkyoukei scene that was developing at the time.

Be forewarned though. Multiphonics initially sound like “yelling”: all scratchy and scream-y when you first begin to try them. Once you learn to hold them steady with a consistent air stream though, you will hear what they are capable of as complex, expressive phenomena.


The multiphonics shown above this paragraph are two of the nicer sounding ones a person can choose (an empty circle = don’t press that key, the side names = palm, spatula, side, and/or end keys). The top one should come out sounding like a bit like a diesel engine idling, while the lower one should come out sounding like a low pitched electric razor. It takes a bit of practice playing multiphonics, as you have to direct the air through the mouthpiece at a specific speed, and at a slightly different angle from a normal note. These are micro-adjustments, and eventually your mouth and mind will naturally work out the right position.

[Note: I gave them all names to remind me of what they sound like to me, but if you hear them differently I suggest you transcribe and rename them yourself to help your memory.]




Saxophone Quarter-Tone Charts


The saxophone, invented and patented in Belgium in the mid-1800s, was not designed with anything more than a semi-tone in mind, measured against the Western chromatic scale: C, C#, D, E♭, etc. As such it is not designed to play tones smaller than a semi-tone (the note between C and C# for example). As notes of this size (quarter-tones) sound “out-of-tune” when compared to what we are used to, music from places like Turkey, Lebanon, or traditional music from Japan for example sounds exotic. 

To make a long story short, during my M.A. studies (2003 – 2005) I developed the quarter-tone charts pictured below (for my Yamaha YSS – 62S soprano saxophone) in order to study and perform traditional Arab and Persian classical music. Since then dozens of professional musicians have used them, including the World Music Ensemble at Berklee College in Boston. The fingerings and exact pitches take some getting used when working them into one’s scale practice, but my charts at least make such study possible. A lot of people ask me for these charts, so I am (once again) putting them up for you all to download and use. 

I am also including a sample of one of my quarter tone scale exercises, in this case a basic ascending and descending pattern that helps one get a feel for moving from note to note. Starting the note encased in a square, one moves two quarter-tones up then back, then proceeds to move two quarter-tones down and back, essentially pivoting around a central point. As you are learning new fingerings that will now be “interrupting” how you regularly move from semi-tone to semi-tone, this kind of exercise retrains your fingers and mind on a fundamental level. 

Note: if you are using these charts to play traditional Arabo-Persian music, make sure you remember to use them judiciously. Such quarter-tones are particularly powerful when nuanced and reticent, so use them wisely.