Some thoughts on electronic multiphonics…

When I recently tried to introduce some additions to the English Wikipedia-page on Multiphonic I was told:

“The fact remains that reliable secondary sources do not appear to apply the term here, so again, it’s OR [Original Research] to extrapolate otherwise, even in passing reference. If, down the line, mainstream literature comes to apply the term to such instruments we can add it then. There is no deadline.” [Discussion]

So, here are my thoughts in the hope that someone will point me to quotable research–or use this opportunity to publish a paper 🙂

“Multiphonics are of course possible on musical instruments producing sound by electronic means. This way e.g. the traditionally monophonic theremin can be augmented and it’s restricted range of timbres supplemented significantly.
For electronically produced multiphonics there are several Eurorack VCO modules enabling the creation and manipulation of overtones, e.g. (in order of the date of announcement on modulargrid) the tELHARMONIC by Make Noise Music (2015), Xaoc Devices Odessa (2018), Generate 3 by Joranalogue (2019), the Harmonic Shift Oscillator by New System Instruments (2020) and the Ensemble Oscillator by 4ms (2020).” [Andrew Levine, 2023]

Walker Farrell from Make Noise had some interesting comments:

“The techniques described for wind instruments sound acoustically similar to ring modulation, with a carrier and modulator represented by the instrument’s note and the performer’s own voice. […]
Elsewhere, the Wikipedia article mostly seems to refer explicitly to sounds that are not part of the harmonic series of the “main” note that is being produced. Almost every VCO and VCO-adjacent synth module like tELHARMONIC is going to operate primarily in its own harmonics unless modulated by a second source that is tuned differently. […]
One thing I’m not totally clear on is where the line resides between timbre shifts and multiphonic playing, if it is not primarily about creating non-harmonic overtones. Just about every traditional tonal acoustic instrument will have a change in harmonic content across and between notes, and this is a primary component of what’s experienced as the timbre of the instrument. […]
Audio rate FM, RM, AM or audio rate modulation of any timbral parameter on any VCO is probably going to be similar in its overtone structure to extended wind techniques.“ [eMail correspondence; published with permission]

Even Buswell from New System Instruments had these comments:

Increasingly, especially in the case of drone music, the term “timbre” is not adequate for our instruments and what we’re making them do. At the heart of Western music theory is the idea that music consists of notes, with a non-overlapping category of entirely atonal sounds (percussion, sounds, noise). These notes are then measured according to different characteristics (pitch, timbre, overtones, harmonics, envelopes, etc.). Multiple notes theoretically blend in a characterless purely additive space, where each note retains its individuality and interacts with other notes only pathologically (unwanted beat frequencies, or “phase issues” in mixing). But this theoretical basis is not actually how a lot of modular or drone music works, where you might have an entire piece in which no musical event changes what “notes” are playing, but the overall tonal mix does profoundly change. “multiphonics” is of course a counterexample within Western music, but the term seems to be structured to recover the notes theory rather than to accept its destabilization. Maybe “pathophonics” would be better; how many notes are there? We can’t always answer and that is part of the music.

This destabilization is one of the core drivers of my musical instrument creation and my music. Adjusting the HSO‘s stride parameter can sometimes be more a matter of adjusting the rhythmic structure of different parts of the harmonics than forming some kind of a priori overtone series of a “note.” Also, the root tone and the overtones of the HSO will perceptually cohere and decohere into a single whole depending on how they are moved. The Triphase is partly interesting for its ability to cancel and then recall the root harmonic, seeming to exist in an unstable register. Even more so, playing different notes into Babel creates a *singular* harmonic structure that, well, it’s not *not* polyphonic, right? (e.g. To me, that litotes captures the essence of this kind of music. We can’t put it into the supposedly opposite categories of monophonic or polyphonic or tonal or atonal, because those categories are being broken by the music. But at the same time, these categories aren’t irrelevant, as they might be in some harsh noise music, for example. So you might say something like “pathophonic,” not really poly- or monophonic, “orthogotonal,” not really tonal or atonal, etc. [eMail correspondence; published with permission]