The Free Music Machines of Percy Grainger.
Percy Aldridge Grainger, composer and pianist, was born in Brighton Australia
in 1882 and died in White Plains NY in 1961. A highly eccentric individual with
a broad range of musical and other interests, he is remembered on three
continents for various aspects of his musical achievements. In Europe he is
best remembered for his popular arrangements of English folk tunes such as the
. In America many people will know him as a composer and arranger of brass
band music. In Australia he is remembered chiefly for his musical innovations
and for what he called 'Free Music'.
Despite his populist activities, Grainger was a forward thinking musician who
anticipated many innovations in twentieth century music well before they became
established in the work of other composers. In his early career, like Bartok,
he was an active collector and documenter of folk songs, including those of the
South Pacific region. As early as 1899 he was working with so-called "beatless
music", using metric successions (including such sequences as 2/4, 2½/4, 3/4, 2
½ /4, 3/8 etc) inspired by the irregular rhythmic patterns of speech. His use
of chance procedures in
of 1912 predates John Cage(!), and he composed "unplayable" music onto player
piano rolls while Conlon Nancarrow was still a child.
Grainger first conceived his idea of Free Music as a boy of 11 or 12. It was
suggested to him by the undulating movements of the sea, and by observing the
waves on Albert Park Lake in Melbourne. These experiences eventually led him to
conclude that the future of music lay in freeing up rhythmic procedures and in
the subtle variation of pitch, producing glissando-like movement. These ideas
were to remain with him throughout his life, and he spent a great deal of his
time in later years developing machines to realise his conception.
Grainger explained his concept of Free Music in a letter to critic Olin Downes
In this music, a melody is as free to roam thru tonal space as a painter is
free to draw & paint free lines, free curves, create free shapes... In FREE
MUSIC the various tone-strands (melodic lines) may each have their own rhythmic
pulse (or not), if they like; but one tone strand is not enslaved to the other
(as in current music) by rhythmic same-beatedness. In FREE MUSIC there are no
scales - the melodic lines may glide from & to any depths & heights of
(practical) tonal space, just as they may hover about any 'note' without ever
alighting upon it... In FREE MUSIC harmony will consist of free combinations
(when desired) of all free intervals - not merely concordant or discordant
combinations of set intervals (as in current music), but free combinations of
all the intervals (but in a gliding state, not needfully in an anchored state)
between present intervals...
A Musical Genius from Australia
Ed Teresa Balough, Perth 1982 p141)
Clearly, Free Music is conceived of as melodic (polyphonic), making use of
long, sustained tones capable of continuous changes in pitch. The term
does not adequately describe the movement of these tones, but may give a basic
idea of the type of melodic line Grainger was referring to.
A glissando is most often a performative device - it's exact shape determined
in performance - and no traditional form of notation exists to adequately
describe one in fine detail. Most early scores making use of glissandos
describe them as a straight line between two notes of unequal pitch. Their
direction of movement tends to be either up or down, much more rarely up
down, for instance. More recent scores, especially those consisting mainly of
glissandos, can be more specific.
Grainger's reference to rhythm is an interesting one, since sustained tones are
not usually thought of as having rhythm. It is doubtful that he was referring
to articulation or simple dynamic variation. Grainger's own scores were
originally notated on graph paper, with an individual trace for both the pitch
and dynamic changes of each note. If a conventional rhythm were to be notated
in this way, it would mean bringing the dynamics fairly often down to zero -
turning off a note in order to begin the next, and so articulate a rhythmic
sequence. Yet Grainger's dynamic shapes are aligned more to the phrase than the
individual note. How then is a rhythmic pulse achieved?
One answer lies in the pitch domain. The pitch undulations in a moving line
serve to articulate rhythm by their change of direction or by a change in the
of movement. Nothing in traditional music theory prepares us for this
fundamental relationship between pitch and rhythm, which goes some way toward
explaining why Free Music has remained misunderstood for so long, and perhaps
why other composers have been slow to take up the challenge of Grainger's
Harmonically, too, Free Music questions the tenets of Western musical practice
by assuming a moving tone, precluding any harmonic stability. In this context,
a "stable chord" is perhaps one where all parts are moving in a fixed parallel
relationship to one another. Yet by definition in Western harmony, this is a
"changing chord" because the fundamental is in motion. Working with this
material can be a vexatious undertaking for the composer, since almost every
basic assumption about musical relationships and method is called into question.
Grainger considered Free Music to be his only lasting contribution to music.
Yet what remains after his death is a collection of short score fragments, a
few experimental recordings, and a number of prototype machines built for the
purpose of realising his ideas.
Grainger resorted to the use of machines because it was apparent that human
performers on traditional instruments were not capable of producing what he
required. Although some traditional acoustic instruments are able to produce
"gliding tones" - instruments like the trombone and violin - they do so within
comparatively narrow ranges, and the necessary control over minute fluctuations
of pitch is difficult to achieve.
Nor were the available electronic instruments suitable for his purpose. Many of
those developed before the 1950s tended to be keyboard-based and thus wedded to
the chromatic scale. Others, such as the theremin, lacked a means of subtle and
consistent control. While more complex instruments, such as the RCA synthesiser
developed by Harry Olsen during the 1950s showed more promise, it was also
apparent that Free Music worked against their inherent design principles; that
it would be necessary to force them into something that they were simply not
designed to do.
It should also be understood that Grainger's machines were not intended as
performance devices. Rather, they were composing machines designed to allow
Grainger to hear with his ears those sounds he heard in his head. Grainger was
meticulous on this point. He insisted on hearing his compositions before
allowing them to be published, and often went to extraordinary lengths to
secure the means of having his more experimental work realised.
Grainger's early experiments involved modifying existing instruments, enabling
them to approximate gliding tone characteristics. The "Butterfly Piano" for
example, was tuned in sixth tones so that scalar passages played on it would
give a closer approximation of gliding tones than a traditionally tuned piano.
Grainger was not interested in microtones since his idea meant the abolition of
the scale, his goal was a controlled continuous glide, and microtones were
quite literally just a "step" towards this end.
A number of other experiments were carried out in collaboration with physicist
Burnett Cross. Cross has described, (in a lecture given at La Trobe
University in Melbourne in 1982,) connecting three electronic keyboard
instruments called Solovoxes - tuned a third of a semitone apart - by means of
string to a piano keyboard to achieve similar ends. This experiment, while
demonstrating some feasibility, ultimately proved unsatisfactory since one of
the Solovoxes invariably produced a different tone quality than the other two,
and the instrument constantly played triplets!
Having decided that modifying existing instruments would not lead to
satisfactory results, Grainger and Cross embarked on a project of designing and
building special purpose machines. One of these, the Reed-Box Tone-Tool, might
be described as a giant harmonica tuned in eighth tones. This was a largish
(table-top) instrument constructed of wood, and containing harmonium reeds. It
was "played" by passing a perforated paper roll, similar to a player piano
roll, across the front of the instrument and applying suction from a vacuum
cleaner to the rear. While having the look and character of a home-made
instrument (it is on display at the Grainger Museum in Melbourne) it
nevertheless produced, according to Grainger, the first accurately specified
and accurately produced gliding chords in the history of music.
Another machine, the Oscillator-Playing Tone-Tool built in 1951
, is based on a
morse code practice oscillator, called a Codemaster, which was available at the
time. This oscillator had a continuously variable pitch range of some three
octaves, adjusted by a control on the front panel. Grainger's sketch of
November 1951 shows a hand drill mounted on a Singer sewing machine, connected
in such a way that the piston of the sewing machine was able to turn the handle
of the drill. The shaft of the drill was fixed onto the codemaster's pitch
control. In this way, turning the wheel of the sewing machine altered the pitch
of the oscillator.
figure 1. The top section of the kangaroo pouch machine as it stands in the
Grainger Musuem, showing the transport rolls and paper cutouts. (photo R Linz).
Perhaps the most famous of Grainger's Free Music machines is the so-called
"Hills and Dales" machine, described in a sketch of 1952 as the "Kangaroo Pouch
method of synchronising and playing eight oscillators". This machine, which is
exhibited in the Grainger Museum, consists of a large wooden frame
approximately eight feet tall, housing upright rotating turrets left and right
(the "feeder' and "eater" turrets) and between which a large paper roll is
wound. This roll consists of three layers: a main paper roll 80 inches high,
across which eight smaller horizontal strips of paper (or subsidiary rolls)
are attached front and back. The top edges of these subsidiary rolls are cut
into curvilinear shapes ("hills and dales") and attached to the main roll at
their bottom edges, each forming a type of "pouch". As the turrets are rotated
clockwise, the undulating shapes cut into the rolls move from right to left.
Eight valve oscillators are mounted onto the wooden frame, four at the front
and four at the back, as are eight amplifiers. The pitch controls of the
oscillators are attached to levers, connected at the other ends to circular
runners, or spools, which "ride" moving rolls. The volume controls of the
amplifiers are operated in the same way. Thus, the pitch of the oscillators,
and the volume of the amplifiers, can be accurately controlled by carefully
cutting shapes into the paper rolls.
figure 2. Detail view of one of the valve oscillators (photo R.Linz)
The large dimensions of this machine were necessary to maintain accuracy of
pitch control - an error of one eighth of an inch in the height of the paper
roll's curve did not significantly affect the pitch of the oscillator. Yet the
machine was not without it's problems. As the valves in the oscillators aged
they changed their characteristics, and the machine needed careful
recalibration after as little as three hours of use.
The final machine, uncompleted at the time of Grainger's death in 1961, was
perhaps the most sophisticated. It too worked on the principle of a moving
roll, but this time made of clear plastic. Here, a row of spotlights projected
light beams through the plastic roll and onto an array of photocells, which in
turn controlled the pitch of the oscillators. The familiar undulating shapes,
so carefully cut into the paper rolls of the Kangaroo Pouch machine, could
simply be painted onto the plastic roll with black ink. Moreover the circuitry
for this machine was transistorised, lending a stability which could not be
achieved with the use of valves.
Unfortunately, the machine was lost in transit between Grainger's home in White
Plains and the Grainger Museum in Melbourne during the 1970s. Nor did Grainger
have the chance to compose with this machine, so we can only speculate about
the music he would have created on it.
This leaves us with something of an enigma. Although we can form a reasonably
clear conception of Grainger's intentions, Free Music remains essentially an
abstract, unrealised idea. Yet the implications of this idea point to nothing
less than a total renovation of Western music; to far more radical concepts
than Schoenberg's 12-tone method, for example.
Grainger's search for a means to realise Free Music was frustrated by a lack of
substantial resources and by the limitations of available technology. Despite
the recent advances in electronic instrument design, the question posed by
Burnett Cross still bears some careful consideration: are the means of
realising Free Music available today?
see Cross, Burnett
Collaborating with Percy Grainger
magazine, Melbourne 1989 pp3-4.
can be heard on the CD accompanying
Leonardo Music Journal
vol 6 MIT Press 1996
a sketch is reproduced on the LMJ cover, op.cit.
A recording of this
machine can be found on the CD above.
First published in
Experimental Music Instruments
vol12 #4, Nicasio CA 1997 pp 10 - 12. This version includes links and
photographs that did not appear in the original.
© 2003 Rainer Linz
to index page.