Can I get an A?: On the Tuning Fork

by Christie Finn

Techniques I have yet to master:

  1. Eating with chopsticks: I’m a continual embarrassment to myself with this.  Last time I was in Chinatown, I gave up and got myself a fork halfway through my meal.  In my defense, the noodles, which were delicious, were stuck in a giant hunk, and something had to be done.
  2. Talking to small children: ‘Nuff said.
  3. Using a tuning fork.

My relationship with the fork is still somewhat new (and is currently on the rocks after this weekend).

I only bought my first tuning fork last fall.  This would indicate that I have some version of what people affectionately label “perfect pitch,” though luckily most of the musicians in my life simply call it “pitch” and mine errs more on the imperfect side.

The history of my “pitch” is as follows: when I was very young, my great aunt, who was a music teacher, apparently told my parents that I had perfect pitch because always sing church hymns acapella in the same key.  (My parents never told me this for some reason.)  When I started singing more seriously in high school, I started to recognize my developed perception of pitch, but didn’t really understand what it was and certainly didn’t feel like I was “smart” enough to have something like “perfect pitch.”  Finally, my voice teacher in Texas during my first graduate degree forced me to come to grips with it—for the sake of my singing.  Many people don’t know this, but singers with a heightened sense of pitch with frequently sing out of tune because they are tuning to an internal sense of the pitch instead of listening to the musicians around them.

So, in any case: I never had a need to buy a tuning fork.

Enter the world of tuning systems outside of equal temperament—and that of microtonal singing.

In January 2011, I performed a piece with ekmeles by Martin Iddon called “Hamadryads,” which is in just intonation.  The piece is trippy in other ways, too: you have your own part playing in your ear as you sing, to stay “in tune,” and you have to play a series of wine glasses throughout the piece.  In a way, singing that piece was the closest that I’ve ever been to experiencing vertigo.  However, this vertigo lasted throughout the whole rehearsal period and even after the performance.  My internal perception of pitch was annoyed and probably went out and got a lip piercing to prove it was in a state of rebellion.

In other words: it was the first time that I realized that I’m going to have to (REALLY) look more outside of myself for pitch in pieces of that nature.  But, it still didn’t prompt me to buy a tuning fork.

When and why did I buy it?  I bought it in the Netherlands last fall to fit in and because I didn’t want to tell anyone that I had “pitch.”  Yes, the 16-year-old girl in me is still apparently alive and well.

My colleagues in the Netherlands soon realized that it was an act, though, because I always forgot to use the fork.  In fact, it turned into a sort of toy for me.  One time, I had it sitting out at MonteverdISH rehearsal and was playing around with it.  During a break, the dancers were asking me what it was and became fascinated, unable to believe that the fork was actually producing that sound.

Side note: while I am spilling my story on the Internet for the entire world to read  (OK, by “entire world,” I mean all five of you…), I don’t like to tell people that I have “pitch” because then they expect me to be “perfect.”  I’m not a robot.  Sorry.

Alright, so onwards to microtonal singing and using the fork for real.  Singer friends, correct me if I’m wrong, but microtonal singing is always accompanied with a certain degree of panic, even to singers who largely perform new music.  And the piece that we were rehearsing all weekend for ekmeles, Luigi Nono’s Quando Stanno Morendo (May 9! Italian Academy! U.S. PREMIERE), has no dearth of microtonal singing or any other terror-inducing elements (i.e. singing high, long, and soft tones, hearing electronics that confuse your aural perception, sounds coming from instruments which further distort your sense of pitch and of your own voice, etc. etc.)  A fantastic piece of music.  Absolutely terrifying to sing.

On Saturday, during a rehearsal of the second movement, I panicked upon hearing all of the elements of the piece in place for the first time and kept consulting my tuning fork in a way that I never had before.  Afterwards, I realized that I had seriously bruised my left hand from hitting the fork on it.  A battle wound, if you will.

Luckily, my hand has a little time to recover before our next rehearsal, and I have time to try out some new techniques.  The knee?  Too far away.  The skull?  Well, after what I did to my hand…probably not a good choice.  I should take a poll.

Or maybe I’ll just abandon the whole thing altogether, trust my inner ear, and use the fork as some sort of utensil in between a fork and chopsticks.  Two problems solved at once.  Kind of.