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Tuning as Communication: Listening Interaction and adjusting tones and codes

By Gameli Tordzro

Ha Orchestra, Treasured Opportunities and Mutual Enrichments

There are opportunities, and there are ‘treasured opportunities’. When opportunities are recognised and treasured, they generate positive action and interaction.

Aside the challenge of time, the main concern in 2014 was how to make all the different instruments interact musically to achieve a desirable new sound that is attractive enough for the musician and the audiences to be engaged by the music. Part of this challenge was in how to resolve questions of tuning as all the musical instruments are fabricated traditionally in different keys. In the end this is the sound we achieved by 2019 on the 5th anniversary of Ha at the UoG Cloisters.

Social affordances in music afford joint entrainment and allow us to experience music with others in a very intimate way. I suggest that this shared listening, which involves a mutual attunement to the social affordances in music, modifies how music is given (i.e., phenomenally manifest) to multiple experientially integrated, perceiving subjects. (Krueger, 2011) 

Resolving all the issue of tuning meant some interactive negotiation with and between the musicians to synchronise the tunings of their instruments. It also meant musicians interaction with other musician’s instruments to get used to how they sound alongside their own instruments. In some instances, it meant making big compromises and sacrifices and letting go of tradition for all of us. For example, one musician was extremely sensitive to the sound of the Gakogui bell and sound not stand it. We needed the bell the keep the basic time. And so we had to dampen the bell stick with rubber. However, when we played Akaya tune, she found a way to endure the sound.

Interaction Tuning fosters a different kind of interaction very important to music making and sheds light on interaction between musicians, their instruments, and the music they make. I am using the Kora as a focus to reflect on tuning issues and how it is related to interaction in Ha Orchestra. I focus on the Kora to reflect as it offers easy reference because of the nature of the instrument. When musicians tune their instruments, many elements of interaction come into play that affect the musical experience and the development of each musician involved. These include but are not limited to the following;

1. How musicians learn to and synchronise the notes of each instrument together.

2. Ways of reducing the amount of time used to tune all instruments.

3. When to tune and check to make sure the instrument is tune-ready for rehearsal and performance.

4. How and where to keep the instrument to make sure it remains in tune. 

5. How to react, adjust and retune during rehearsals and performance.

6. How seriously a musician takes their responsibility to keep their instruments in tune.

7. The awareness and respect shown by others to someone needing to tune or in the process of tuning their instrument.

8. The willingness and readiness of a musician to seek help or clarification on tuning in relation to other musician’s ability and enthusiasm to assist with tuning difficulties.

Tuning is an important problematic aspect of music making especially when several musical instruments and musical traditions come together for the first time. The way musical instruments are stored and transported either protects them or exposes them to changes in humidity levels, and atmospheric temperature and pressure. These changes affect different musical instruments in various ways and can affect how the instrument sounds. It means that some musical instruments need regular tuning and retuning. Thus, the attitude and awareness a musician brings to the care, maintenance, the need to tune, how to tune, where and when to tune is a major factor of interaction. Such important point of interaction for musicians can generate new relationships as much as it can be affected by the quality of relationship a musician has with their instrument and with other musicians. Additionally, the relationship each musician cultivates with their instrument affects and shapes the development and relationships between musicians. Sometimes, just for the sake of the difficulties of maintaining an instrument in a perfect tuned state, some musicians would not permit another person to touch their instruments. For the same reason, some musicians find it difficult to touch other musician’s instruments. In Ha Orchestra, the idea is to encourage everyone to introduce their instruments to other musicians and foster a fertile environment for new musical experiences as much as possible.

Tuning requires a major attention and musicianship, can take considerable time to master and carry out correctly with some musical instruments. The Kora for example is a temperamental musical instrument when it comes to tuning. Because the Kora is fabricated from wood and leather both of which are easily affected by the atmospheric changes, a special attention needs to be paid to its tuning. This is complicated by the fact that the Kora has twenty-one nylon strings each of which is traditionally held in place on the long neck by corresponding twenty-one rings of woven hide. This simply means it takes time to tune a Kora.  Today, most musicians have electronic tuners attached to their instruments and can quickly tune their instruments accurately to calibrated notes on an electronic tuning device. 

However, some musicians still prefer to tune by ear and have to do that in relation to other instruments in the ensemble. In both instances there is quality of personal interaction plays a major role in how long it takes to tune one instrument. The issue of time and space is still a problem especially when dealing with a large group with various attitudes towards tuning. Some musicians are not as sensitive to an out of tune instrument as others. Some musicians need a very quiet space to tune their instruments while others plug into and use an electronic tuner to tune without needing silence. Certain people can become very worried and distracted when their instruments or another person’s instrument is out of tune.

I have seen new friendship between some Ha Orchestra musicians begin with;

“Can I use your tuner?” and “oh let me tune it for you”

A common pre-rehearsal declaration has also been 

“Can I have a moment of quite please I am tuning” 

Or one musician drawing the attention of other musicians:

“Wait a moment he is tuning […] tell us when you finish tuning”

Before I commence rehearsal, I always ask.

“Has everyone tuned up?”

Because of tuning difficulties with the Kora some Kora players prefer a modification on the traditional tuning made with twenty-one guitar string tuning pegs to replace the twenty-one rings of pleated hide to which each of the twenty-one strings is tethered. I saw a beautifully made Kora in Paris that takes this modification further and incorporates harp tuning pegs to achieve the possibility of playing chromatic scales on the Kora. When musicians come together they come across new modification they can incorporate on their own musical instruments. Omar for example after coping with having to retune frequently on his Gembri, decided to change the tuning mechanism on his Gembri from the leather ring similar to the Kora, to the bass guitar peg.  

Changing Codes Communication Interaction in Music Through Spectacle

To conclude, I consider how music making can be perceived as a way of constructing and influencing how we appear, are perceived, and interacted with in our music making. In other words, how we effect and affect the way musical interaction is conducted through how and where we appear and present our music aurally and visually with our instruments and what we wear – the gait, posture, stance and colours of the music and how we use that to interact with others.  To a large extent, how we appear also shapes ways in which we are interacted with during the processes of music making. Positioning on stage and how that is in collaboration with audio and lighting technicians and stage managers and other events personnel is always a cause for attention, worry and sometimes considerable stress to both musicians and events producers and directors. 

This calls for complex interactions and sharing information between technicians and artists and producers. Whenever this interaction is not adequate, it generates anxieties and can result in a poor quality musical experience for musicians, audiences and the technical teams. And so, just as there is the is that all important need to attend to tuning instruments, there is an equal important need for various teams to ‘tune in’ to multiple criss crossing needs of everyone involved ion creating a successful musical experience. The floor plan is usually the document around which these interactions between teams are centred. This means a good and detailed floor plan though it is important to note that things may not always go according to plan. The floor plan is not always realised. Sometimes, the stage space is compromised by the fact that there are a number of acts and a lot of equipment. This calls for quick negotiations on the spot close to sound check and performance, rearrange the position of musicians, their instruments and production equipment. All these aspects of interaction actively shape and reshape the spectacle of the musical experience for the musician and the audience.  

Communicating with Costume  

Ha Orchestra costume was designed and made by Naa Densua Tordzro, and made-to-fit for each musician’s stature and complexion using a combination of African and western textiles. The idea of African musicians appearing on stage playing ‘strange’ musical instruments alongside more familiar ones like the flute and xylophones creates an appealing and inviting spectacle for people of all ages. The novelty of the appearance itself adds to such curiosities and appeal as novelty always creates the tendency of creating curiosity in most people. Thus, parents have been convinced by their children to approach the musicians after shows to bring them close enough to ask if they could touch one instrument or the other. These occasions are also opportunities for common questions like;

“What is the name if your instrument?”

“Did you make this by yourself?”

“How long have you been playing it?”

“Can I touch it?”

And comments like

“It is such an amazing music!”

“Your clothes are very beautiful!”

“Where can I get one for my friend’s birthday”

“This is very refreshing!”

Normally these interactions are brief, but very important and indicate how well those who view us are comfortable enough to approach and interact. In Copenhagen in every showcase event, audience members were always keen to approach us and chat for long periods. A comment was repeatedly made in all the venues with an urgency and importance attached to it. Those who came to us with those comments insisted that we should know about in the audience they felt a playfulness cordiality and obvious friendship between the musicians on stage during the performance. When we make music, we have a keen sense of awareness of how what we wear and how we appear in what we wear is an important part of our music making. 

This is also related to creation and negotiating the identities we carry, how to express and reinvent those identities by act of doing music. It is also directly linked to the aesthetic values of our musical instruments; their shape, colours how they are carried or placed on stage in relation to who plays them and in relation to other instruments. Thus, we come off the stage acquiring various identities linked to the instruments we play or the costume we wear on stage. For example, we present ourselves and are identified and referenced by what we play such as:

The composer, (instead Gameli); The Kora Player (instead of Basiru); The master drummer, (instead of Sam Takyi); Gimbre player (Instead of Omar) and so on.

Regarding what we wear, aside the functional necessities of how we consider protecting our bodies from the elements, (and this cannot be taken lightly when performing outdoors in Scotland where it cold or in Ghana where it is very warm), we also create and express the physicality and emotionality of our selves within the contexts of the different, cultural, racial, political, beliefs and understanding within which we exist and make the music we make by how we adorn our bodies to express. 

Stage presence is a combination of attitude, posture, colour, textile and fashion style, movement in the manner in which it sculpts a mixture of images that accompany the aural experience of a particular form of musical event. In other words, the visual aspect of live music making is just as important as the aural experience of the storied musical engagement especially when we are sharing with others. 

Ha Orchestra as Action to Create Interaction

I have spoken about the experience of Ha Orchestra as an ‘action to create interaction’; to be viewed as the integral aspect of the creative process and so important in artistic reflection. I compose taking the action of interacting with musical instruments, musicians and with technology (my recording devices) into serious consideration. The action to create music by interacting with others as in not only generative of many layers of the musical experience in line with symbolic interactionism and pragmatist view, it is also a process of personal professional development as a creative arts director composer and producer. Equally it is generative of a new archive of emerging resource of continuously accessible digitally on social media for example. 

In response to my increased sensitivity to the need for alternative narratives to discourses on migration, Ha Orchestra has been successful in anchoring activities that reshape our understanding of how to create a positive musical platform for sharing the musical treasure that is normally missing in the discourses aimed at addressing issues around the difficulty of talking about migrant experiences. The idea of ‘tuning’ in the context of bringing instruments together into Ha Orchestra for instance, can be seen as a metaphor of and become the pathway to understanding what is normally discussed and promoted as ‘integration’ and ‘cohesion’. Whereas integration presupposes the coming into and adjusting to a fixed and passive permanence, tuning in this sense allows and demands mutual interactive adjustment and embracing of multiple forms and traditions.  

With the interaction between musicians a further interaction with the larger public has become possible. Normally these interactions are brief, but very important in creating comfortable spaces for new and closer personal interaction that is needed to surmount the fears and suspicions that are responsible for some of negative perception, experiences and understanding around migrats, migration and cultural differences. Music making can be perceived as a way of constructing and influencing how we appear, are perceived, and interacted with. In other words, we effect and affect musically through action and interaction by how and where we appear and present music visually with our instruments and what we wear – the gait, posture, stance and colours of the music as much as the sonic perceptions and appreciation we create and how that is used to interact with others.

I would say to conclude, that a new musical voice of artistic excellence has been created and  is developing a growing international profile and advocacy for migrant musicians. As an artistic practice, it has explored the depth of experiences of other migrants like myself, making relevant contributions that before were difficult to recognise and acknowledge. It created a process of storying through action with music and musical interaction. The result we created innovative encounters with each other and our different musical instrument, creating new aural and visual memories of those moments and encounters