Listen to Mike's handiwork - The Pythagorean Comma on BBC Radio 3

Over the last 2 months I have been working on and off on a Radio 3 drama for ‘The Wire’ slot and it has been a really challenging project to work on. The Pythagorean Comma hinges on the fact that the two different names we give for the black note on the piano in between the two white notes, D and E (“Ray” and Mi” in tonic Sol-Fa)- have two names – either D sharp or E flat. However, acoustically, and away from the piano (in the voice, or on a stringed instrument) these are not quite the same. The piano, with its so-called Equal Temperament, is in reality an out-of-tune compromise! and this difference gives the play its name.

Loosely based on Jules Verne’s story “Mr Ray Sharp and Miss Me Flat”, “The Pythagorean Comma” is a music drama with text by Blake Morrison and music by Gavin BryarsVerne’s story takes place in a 19th century Swiss village. This contemporary version is set on a remote fictional Scottish island but the essential story is unchanged. A village organist gets old and deaf and stops playing and the organ falls silent. A mysterious stranger arrives who not only plays the organ beautifully but also declares that he will develop a new organ registration with the voices of the children in the school. Each will have his or her own note that has a special resonance. Though the children are musically untrained, the stranger rehearses them with an iron discipline and prepares them for a Christmas concert. It’s at this concert that he demonstrates his phenomenon of a “human organ”. He tells the children that he will make them famous and that they are a choir like no other choir. A boy and girl who are arch rivals are given their special notes. They’re angry because this strange music maestro seems to have given them the same note. However he explains that there is a tiny beating sound between them - and this difference is the Pythagorean Comma. The two children are relieved that they have their own notes but strangely, once they start to sing, their old rivalry disappears and it is as if a new harmony has come to them and to the village in general. The stranger seems to have a power over the choir and they outperform everyone’s expectations in a Christmas concert for the island community. 

So that is the story, the challenges were many, firstly I recorded the Oakham School Jerwoods Choir in their school chapel, no real problem, recorded multi track into my portable Pro Tools rig with my trusty 002R for the first 4 mics and then my Sound Devices Mic Pre going into inputs 5 & 6.  I recorded the choir performing all the pieces we would need for the play as well as additional lines as we wouldn’t have extra children for the dialog recording session. I also kept recording in the rehearsal and the prep times which gave me valuable additional wild tracks, atmoses etc, including kids giggling and so on. The ‘human organ’ piece was a challenge to sing and the choir did really well to put it off.

As some of you know I have a preference for SE mics and you can see one of my SE220A mics in the right edge of the picture with composer Gavin Bryars and choir director Peter Davis.

Then a couple of weeks later, I met the director for the first time, as she is based in New York and popped over to cover several projects. We went into the radio drama studio in Media City, Salford where we recorded the dialog and narration and the following day back in my own facility we had the only day’s editing with both of us in the same room.

After that it was a case of we working and then at the end of the day sending an mp3 file for her to comment on.

Another of the challenges was matching all the different acoustics as well as the sound design elements of the piece, montages of Scottish Island sounds, the sound of the choir being blown in on the wind and then disappearing, so a lot of automated reverb and EQ parameters, then we had the music performances including the auditions to match into the dialog. Another interesting moment is quite early on when the organ ‘dies’ We recorded one of the specially composed pieces by Gavin Bryars and as the organist was playing we turned off the blowers and allowed the organ to die. The sounds, harmonics etc as the air ran out were spectacular.

Another moment was a dream sequence when one of the children dreams he is inside the organ, for which I had recorded some notes with a mic inside the organ pipes, which gave me the basis of the sound, added to that the appropriate notes from the children and stirred with some heavy flanging and reverb worked really well.

For the actual Pythagorean Comma moment, when the main character explains to the two children they didn’t have the same note, I loaded samples of the notes from several of the children from the choir into Structure and allocated them to the appropriate keys and then used the detune until the 2 notes beat nicely. And I used the ability to be able to ‘play’ the children voices in a number of places throughout the play.

If you do get the chance to listen then it is available on the BBC iPlayer for 5 more days. If you are outside the UK you will need to find a way to hide the fact you aren’t in the UK as the BBC iPlayer service is only available to listeners in the UK.

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