A Day at the Fair

On this page I will give "liner notes", as it were, about each of the short pieces in A Day at the Fair and the ideas behind them.

A Day at the Fair for Keyboards (Electronic)

A Day at the Fair for Keyboards


A treat for you! This set of works is performable only by computer. I plan to somehow release the sheet music so that anyone can attempt to perform it, but that's after I'm done writing it. (: So far I wrote only the movements you see here; I'll add more as I write them. My goal is about an hour's worth of short pieces, with maybe a long one or two, but nothing too complicated. Each movement is set for a different synthesized instrument or sets of instruments; Intrada is for Hammond organ, Serenade is for vibraphone, Carnaval is for music box, Primera Danza is for an electric piano sound, Temple is for sitar and bass, Club Groove is for a synth "orchestra", Picnic is for woodwind quintet, Squares is for square waves, Canon in Pyramid Form is for 16 pianos, The Wallflower is for a synth group, By the Lake is for piano and vibes, and Tefillah is for solo flute. I write this partly to celebrate the memory of the composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who passed away June 2006. His music was my first true introduction to modern music, and the first piece I heard — Ramifications — that made me really like minimalism. That piece was for 12 strings, 6 tuned a quarter step sharp.

A Day at the Fair is in that spirit — it uses two sets of staves, one tuned a quarter step higher, to create micronotal music by MIDI. (: However, I don't treat them as separate voices in any way: melodies, harmonies, and everything all use quarter tones whenever I can fit them in. I'm writing this for two main reasons: the first is to learn to sing and become familiar with quarter steps, which have intrigued me for a while, and the second and more important is to find out what new harmonic and melodic possibilities exist with an expanded scale. One thing you will surely notice is that much sounds "out of tune". You can only really tell in chords, since the chord members don't have the expected relationships with each other. I often use the note between the major and the minor third for triads, which has an interesting neutral sound, and I flat the minor seventh of a dominant chord an additional quarter step (which brings it closer to, albeit on the other side of, the "natural" overtone seventh). Leading tones should be raised a quarter step to make them closer to the tonic. So a dominant 7th chord in C can be spelled (where d means half flat and t means half sharp) G Bt D Fd or G Bd D Fd. In the first case, the interval between the 3rd and 7th is a perfect 4th; in the second, a tritone. The normal 12-tone scale has a good solution for this that sounds fine, but in the 24-tone scale, these changes make it a bit odd. So I'm experimenting. One of the big problems is that the most important relationship, the fifth relationship, doesn't generate any quarter tones, so it doesn't bother anyone that these are normally missing — to show you what I mean, 12 stacked fifths will take you from C to C, but if these are natural fifths, the final C will be 23 cents — a quarter of a semitone, so an eighth tone — sharp. That's not much. That interval (called a comma) will spoil unisons, but that's about it. Thirds will give you a quarter tone quite quickly, but our system of tonality is based almost entirely on the fifth, so that leaves little room for quarter tones. Therefore, fundamentally quarter-tonal melodies and harmonies are less intelligible to the ear. Hopefully this experiment will discover some pretty ones. (: Try the Serenade, for instance!

I – Intrada

Hammond Organ

The first and most obvious question that comes to mind when dealing with quarter tones is this: what is the sound of a triad where the third is halfway between major and minor? I wrote the Intrada to find out, and comparing these chords side by side leads somewhat naturally to the organ fanfare format. Some of the motifs even recur in later movements. Ooh, clever! (When you don't know what to write, repeat something you've already written.) The Intrada seems a fitting introduction to the somewhat festive music ahead, with its interesting tonalities and harmonies.

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – I – Intrada

II – Serenade


The second movement is always the slow one, right? The seed idea for this one was a symmetrical scale that can't exist in 12-tone chromaticism: the octave subdivided into 8 equal intervals (8 is the only proper factor of 24 that isn't also a factor of 12). The harmony tends to move on this scale with the special (minor+major)/2 chords, and somehow the pure vibraphone sounds of the soundfont I used (yes, I made this in the days of soundfonts) hide the out-of-tune-ness nearly completely. As a result it sounds really pretty. Unfortunately, a few sounds got left out because they were outside the range of the soundfont I used, but that's hardly noticeable. It also turns out that the major triad is a fairly refreshing sound after all the ambiguous sounds.

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – II – Serenade

III – Carnaval

Music Box

Just a light-hearted, and completely tonal, piece that exploits some of our natural tendencies regarding intonation. I even chose a music box sound to be clear on this. You may also notice that the choice of language in the movement names is a bit schizophrenic; this was on purpose until I stopped caring about it. Isn't it wonderful to think about how things are written over time rather than instantaneously? Anyway, there's actually nothing much to say about this one. One thing that's noticeable is that major and minor chords still exist in this system where most triads have an ambiguous third, and it's completely psychological because the triads are actually identical. The chords in the middle section seem minor while the chords in the main section seem major, but they're the same!

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – III – Carnaval

IV – Primera Danza

Electric Piano

I'd LOVE to write some really hypnotic music. It's not my thing, and I kind of really want it to be my thing because it's cool. So I tried to write some, and failed miserably because I decided this piece for electric piano was more interesting. It uses a constant dance rhythm (well, almost) that exploits an equal division of the perfect fourth in the pattern's chords (but not the bass line), and it borrows from the Intrada at times (and is borrowed from in Picnic and vaguely in Canon in Pyramid Form). This is a very simple dance tune, mostly, with a few irregular bars and a lot of jazzy licks. Listen to it a few times and it will stay in your head FOREVER.

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – IV – Primera Danza

V – Temple

Sitar, Bass

Temple is the first of these works to use a microtonal scale — in this case, a dorian scale with a half-flatted 2 and 6. Using the terminology above (d for half flat — it looks like a backwards flat symbol b, preferred by some as the notation for this — and t for half sharp — it looks like half of a sharp symbol #), the scale is E Ft G A B Ct D E. It's also the first of these works to employ multiple instruments, in this case, sitar sounds and an electric bass, because I felt like it needed the bottom. The harmonic scale sitar runs are not actually in this scale, by the way. The overall result is a tonal, harmonious, mysterious tune that doesn't always even sound like it doesn't use the normal scale, even though the "out of tune" notes are highlighted.

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – V – Temple

VI – Club Groove


Another attempt to write really hypnotic music. But I threw in too many different spices that don't go together and this ridiculously insane piece came out. The basic beat is four pairs of eighth notes. On top of that are patterns of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and some irregular things, ALL AT THE SAME TIME. If you listen to this enough you'll be able to walk 4, tap 5, and sing 7 at the same time. And then there's the melody, which is actually quarter-tonal and mostly in quintuplets or some really weird time subdivisions that don't make any sense, in a harsh synth brass sound where the ambiguous triads sound minor despite the background having two patterns that alternate the natural 3 with the half flat 3 — actually this is probably why the half flat 3 sounds minor: it's compared to major. The rhythms are great. Individually. Heheheheheh.

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – VI – Club Groove

VII – Picnic

Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon

Picnic belongs to a real genre: it's a woodwind quintet. Of course the music isn't actually playable by one, but... you know! It's very light, like a picnic, and plays around with some essentially quarter-tonal melodies and harmonies where the function of the notes is clear but the intervals between them are "wrong". It borrows quite a bit from the Intrada and the Primera Danza, both in character and motifs. While writing this, I discovered that dissonances can be significantly softened in chords by using consonant intervals. As an example, consider the CM7 chord, C E G B. The C and B clash strongly, but when the other notes are added, which harmonize with the C, the B, and each other, the dissonance goes away! A similar case can be made in quarter-tone chords, where the horrible unpleasantness of notes not in the same scale can be mitigated by the addition of fifths to both sides.

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – VII – Picnic

VIII – Squares

4 Square Waves

This music is experimental in more than one way, as is hopefully obvious by now. Squares, for square waves, is such a piece. If I had infinite time, patience, and computer memory, I could continue writing this piece forever and it would still be two minutes long. The tempo for each note increases quadratically so that the infinite sum is two minutes. I forget the formula I used, but it's a telescoping series. WARNING: the first note is 15 seconds long. Yes, my initial tempo is 4. But that's MUCH better than my original plan, which was to use n^2 as the tempo, which would have made the first note a whole minute long (and the piece would be over in almost 100 seconds). The interesting thing is that the tempos make the total duration converge, so I technically could have fit twice as many notes as are already in the piece between where I stopped and a second or two after. So not worth it. The scoring here is somewhat unique: four square waves, and each note is a quarter note with two of the square waves on the 12-tone scale and the other two off it.

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – VIII – Squares

IX – Canon in Pyramid Form

16 Pianos

16 pianos. This one is in the shape of a pyramid. A 32-bar line is the 16th voice, which is then played backwards to make 64 bars. Above this is the 15th voice, which starts and ends two bars later and earlier, respectively. It has exactly the same material, except the note durations are 15/16 of the 16th voice, and the frequencies have been multiplied by 16/15 like what you'd have if you literally played the recording faster. Actually I just transposed it so that the piano sounds continued to sound like piano sounds. The 14th voice, above this, is the same: note durations are 14/16 = 7/8, and frequencies are 16/14 = 8/7. And so on, up to the first voice which is just four bars long and four octaves higher. This was annoying as hell because the shorter voices have just as many notes, but at least it doesn't have theoretically infinite complexity like the previous movement! (Well, it does if you add levels at the bottom, but that would make the piece unboundedly longer so it doesn't count.) This is interesting as well because I had no idea how it would come out before I wrote it. I had some ideas, some of which didn't work — I planned to have various points of coming together between the voices, but it turns out that they don't really come out because there's so much going on. Some of them did work — at the apex of the pyramid, the voices all go up then down somewhat majestically like a wave, since the last note before the middle occurs at one point for the 16th voice, a little bit closer to the middle for the 15th voice, twice that for the 14th, and so on, linearly. You could imagine building a pyramid (well, a triangle) out of blocks where each level has the same pattern of blocks of different colors, mirrored at the middle, except that the blocks get proportionally smaller as you get higher. The piece sounds like a mess, which is OK, because there are patterns in this mess that can be discerned!

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – IX – Canon in Pyramid Form

X – The Wallflower


The Wallflower is a bit of a genre shift, but since A Day at the Fair is a catch-all set of experimental pieces, a bit of new-age-ish music isn't too out of place! I experimented with mostly static harmonies, as well as often avoiding the third by using the second and fourth instead. However, the second and fourth have the advantage in 12-tone music of forming open intervals with the root and fifth — C D G and C F G are very similar and very open chords, and in fact, C F G inverted becomes F G C, which transposed becomes C D G. A half-flat fourth and half-sharp second don't have these properties, which makes for interesting sounds — such a second and fourth are a whole step apart, however, which makes them sound good together.

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – X – The Wallflower

XI – By the Lake

Vibraphone, Piano

By the Lake is a serene piece exploring fifths. It features a vibraphone, and it moves along slowly and and flowingly. One interesting detail is the half-flat #4-3 suspension; one of the most beautiful sounds in traditional harmony, in my opinion, the #4-3 melodic progression is just bursting with joy, much more than #4-5, which one would more often expect. When the target 3rd is half-flatted for the characteristic quarter-tone triad, the #4 can also be half-flatted to keep the motion smooth. The result is a unique sound, heard towards the end in the vibes when there are sixteenth notes in the bass.

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – XI – By the Lake

XII – Tefillah

Solo Flute

Tefillah means "prayer" in Hebrew, and it's a Jewish-inspired piece for solo flute, a slow, heartfelt blessing, beginning and ending with the traditional imprecations. As a solo piece, it lacks any harmony that isn't implied, and given the nature of the 24-tone temperament, there is not much implied harmony, either! The piece uses a modified Ahavah Rabbah scale at times — a minor scale with a raised 3rd and lowered 2nd — though by no means consistently, and with a few different modifications pertaining to the quarter-step idea in the suite.

Listen to A Day at the Fair for Keyboards – XII – Tefillah
Mauro Cutz Braunstein 2012. Contact: webmaster@offtonic.com (Return home)