Jake: I’m curious… Is there a procedure that happens when you’re composing a new solo piece as far as altered tunings go….does the tuning inspire the tune, or the reverse, or both?
Michael: It’s generally both. I don’t have a method for composing. One of the things I love about composing is that it can happen in so many different ways. I have pieces that I’ve composed where every note is worked out and I usually play them pretty much the same. And I have pieces that are hardly compositions at all. They are more or less just guidelines on where I might want to go, and I’m just looking to establish a certain kind of mood. So I don’t have any kind of standard operating procedure. Sometimes, as you mentioned, a piece will come from a tuning, and a lot of times it’s the other way around. I’ll write a piece in my head and try to decide how I would want it to be best realized…. what kind of tuning might be good, or even whether it should be played on bass or another instrument. I simply just don’t have a standard method.
Jake: Let’s see if I can get this question right. If you’re hearing it in your head, is it a tonal center that you work from to decide what kind of tuning, or whatever, to I guess I’ll say realize that particular piece?
Michael: This is a really good question actually. The thing I’m looking for, I guess I’ll say the word I use, is resonance. That’s probably the best word I have for it. The reason I use different tunings is because I’m looking for certain types of resonance. The notes are still the same, and most of the pieces I play I could play in any number of tunings. It’s not the issue of the notes; it’s how the notes are interacting and how the richness and color of the sound are interacting. Actually it’s not always richness I’m looking for…it’s a particular color in the sound. The instrument speaks very differently if it’s tuned high as opposed to being tuned low, and speaks differently depending on the interaction of the notes of the open strings. So what I’m looking for is difficult for me to describe in words, and perhaps that’s the whole point. There’s always a certain resonance for the piece, and it gets to be a matter of trying to find that right color I’m looking for.
Jake: Let me see if this next question will answer my thoughts on how you’ve developed a method to work on these ideas that you’re having trouble putting into words. If you were working on let’s say, improvisation, would you stick to standard tuning or do you challenge yourself to work on improve in altered tunings as well?
Michael: It depends on the kind of improvisation that I’m doing. The reason to work with altered tunings is to be able to access their different resonances. And if I’m working on an improvisation where that isn’t going to be an advantage, then I’m not going to need an altered tuning. I don’t have any particular allegiance to alter tunings besides the fact of the specific advantages they allow. So I’m just looking for the best way to get the job done, and using an altered tuning is sometimes the way to do that, and sometimes not. Altered tunings are sometimes really nice for me for improvisations that aren’t modulating in keys a lot. So if I’m kind of sticking to one key, the possibility of an altered tuning comes into play. If I’m moving keys around a lot, like in a bebop tune, I don’t see any advantage in using an altered tuning.
Jake: So when you’re working with other artists, I would assume that you’re in standard tuning.
Michael: That’s my default place to go. If I’m going to work with somebody new, I’ll go to standard tuning first—I’m a bass player, and I’m here to do the job. Quite often the artist will ask me to branch out into a different role. But I always go to the default place that we all go to, unless I’ve been asked to go someplace else specifically.