Working outside tradition: An interview with Peder Simonsen from Microtub

There’s a moment where the world slips away around System Reboot on Microtub’s 2019 LP Chronic Shift. The composition absorbs every element around it in a minimalist tapestry of sound constituting the unusual sonic atmosphere. Chronic Shift compares to very little else in the recorded format; it’s unobtrusive design moving through the air in an abating reflection. There’s an uncanny sonic quality that evokes a primordial instinct buried deep within the collective psyche, with layers revealing intricate and delicate movements in an undulating sonic topography.

As it fades out and the last resonances flicker against the minimalist ambient backdrop, a seamless transition between the music and the physical world ensues, and in the void, Peder Simonsen’s voice enters; ”I wanted to make an album where the music has room for something to happen around it, instead of it taking up all frequencies you could possibly hear. There are so many beautiful sounds around us, if you let them be that.” 

Peder occupies a chair in the microtonal tuba trio, Microtub alongside Robin Hayward and Martin Taxt in a project that has been redefining the brass instrument for the last ten years. Chronic Shift is the latest in a series of recorded works and performances that have been exploring the curious landscape of microtonal music from the sonic palette of the tuba. “The ensemble works surprisingly well, even though it shouldn’t,” according to Peder and the Tuba, it seems is the perfect instrument for exploring the limitless borders of microtonal music today.

Peder grew up in the brass traditions of Norway’s school corps bands, and was encouraged to join from an early age. “I was fairly simple minded” says Peder and chose the tuba on the grounds that it was simply the “biggest instrument.“ The pragmatic choice proved the right one, because in Norway where the tuba was certainly not the “coolest” choice, “whenever an adult sees a kid trying an instrument like that, they try to give them an insane amount of positive reinforcement.” The instructors at Peder’s school moonlighted in Norway’s conservatories and national orchestras and his tutors were some of Norway’s best tuba players. “It’s like having a national team player as your coach at the age of six,” says Peder using a football analogy. Prominent tuba players like Lars Andreas Haug and David Gald taught young Peder and encouraged him to explore the instrument beyond the stereotypical Phillip Sousa marches, with Blues and Jazz waiting in the wings for him as he grew into a teenager.

Around the same time Peder was beginning his musical education, Robin Hayward was conceiving the concept for a microtonal tuba.

Before the time of Bach, music had favoured a just intonation scale and tuning system. That is to say instruments would produce a tonal range based on the harmonic series – the resonant frequencies that are consonant with a fundamental frequency, as they would appear in the physical, natural world. By the time keyboard instruments arrived in music history this presented a problem; while the instrument might be in tune in one key it would quickly go out of tune when modulating to another. Composers like Bach developed the well-tempered and meantone tuning system to overcome the anomaly, which would alleviate the problem by finding a median tuning that would work between all keys. It was eventually developed into the equal temperament system, which is the universal tuning and scale system in use today and even valve instruments like the tuba use this tuning as the acceptable, traditional method, although technically it is inherently out of tune (albeit in a nearly indiscernible manner for most listeners).

Robin Hayward “was considering a tuba that could go back in forth between the traditional (equal temperament system) and his own proposed microtonal valve system” according to Peder. The microtonal system would allow the minute adjustments necessary to get to just intonation, while he could still play alongside a piano, if necessary. Hayward developed the system with instrument manufacturer B&S, and then created Microtub with Martin Taxt and Kristoffer Lo as a way to put his experiments into practice. “The microtonal system should be on every brass instrument in my opinion,” insists Peder, who uses the system exclusively today in his work with Microtub and his solo pieces. He never uses the traditional tuba valve system today, because even if necessary he “can also play the temperate scale more precisely” on a microtonal tuba. 

“In my approach to tuning, I don’t believe that equal temperament is necessarily bad, I just think it’s weird that it’s the only option.” Peder is hesitant about “becoming super-fanatic” about the system, but he feels that “equal temperament is just a small branch of tuning systems,” and there’s an inherent and natural physicality to the just intonation or the harmonic series (as he prefers to call it), that works on a physical level. “That’s why the tuba is such a perfect instrument” for the Microtub project. “If you play just intonation on three tubas, it just locks in so you can physically feel it, because the harmonics are lining up.” 

The “physical phenomenon” is something that has always resonated with Peder and continues to reinforce his dedication for the tuba.“The instrument is basically a column of air that oscillates” he explains and “you have to make that air yourself, so you become a clear part of it.” Playing within the harmonic series that corporeal sensation is amplified as the vibrations of Peder’s instrument harmonises with the natural frequencies at which his body and the world around him resonates.

“The tuba is a tube that you overblow and by doing that you basically get the harmonic series,” explains Peder.  While the “valves add more tubing” to allow other pitches than just the harmonic series of the original tube length, “when you blow upward in the harmonic series you get the harmonic major third and not the temperate major third. The tuba is inherently a just intonation instrument.” But Peder would only discover that later in his studies at the conservatory.

Even during his studies, Peder had “never felt confined to what the tuba could do” and like so many creative tuba players in Norway, he always “approached it in an open manner.” The “freedom” he had learnt from Jazz opened up a world in which “music became something you can discover on your own, so deep you can dive into it forever.” He had “never been that interested in the tuba as a resource in how to play the tuba” and had been “inspired by jazz saxophone players” and the “beautiful way” that artists like Chet Baker would “flow through notes.” With “so many good bass players at the school” however “the tuba’s role became a bit unclear,” for Peder, who couldn’t quite find his “own way” in the traditional Jazz structure. He started exploring music outside of the Jazz canon.

It was a lecture by an Australian didgeridoo player at the conservatory that had led him on to path to just intonation and the microtonal tuba. Admittedly, Peder “didn’t understand” much of what the didgeridoo player was talking about at first, but he knew almost instantly, “that there’s something here.” It took him down a rabbit hole where he would eventually meet Robin Hayward, study under his tutelage and find a lifelong dedication in music.

Through Hayward, Peder had realised “just because it’s mechanical, doesn’t mean there isn’t any room for experimentation,” and discovered a whole new sonic palette available to him. “This is what separates Hayward from a lot of other people,” explains Peder. “Most people (myself included) would limit our experimentation to adding electronics, or using extended techniques on our instrument as they currently exist. What’s interesting about Robin, is that he changed the fundamental workings of an old instrument in a way that actually improves the design.”

Peder believes Hayward is remarkable in this regard. In the realms of the modern orchestra, where “you are working within traditions” and those can lead to complacency even amongst great musicians, Hayward, has been leading a charge in the development of the rudimentary aspects of his instrument. “Just because it’s an old instrument with a long tradition, doesn’t mean it can’t be re-imagined in a cool way,” suggests Peder and in Hayward he has found an encouraging tutor and kindred spirit.

As Kristoffer Lo left the group in 2015, Peder slipped into the empty chair, first as a substitution and then as a “permanent member” of the trio. It was the “perfect group to be part of” for Peder, who was studying under Hayward in Berlin at the time. It is “very close” to Peder’s own work and also continues the research on microtonal tuning systems with Hayward incorporating new developments like half valves and an “interface for exploring just intonation intuitively in the Microtub performances and recordings.”

While they’ll all collaborate on the compositions and arrangements under Hayward’s direction, each member brings their “own expertise” to the project with Peder contributing his knowledge of synthesisers to Microtub and albums like Chronic Shift.

“For this particular album, I’m basically sampling Microtub and adding electronics on top of that,“ explains Peder. While the title tracks have been assembled like a collage from one previous performance, System Reboot is an earlier piece called Star System,re-imagined in the atmospheric wash of synthetic tones of Peder’s synthesisers.  

Chronic Shift pt.1 opens with a sustained note, floating effortlessly on a string of harmonics, suspended on the natural rhythms of the vibrating pitch. It sounds artificial, but it’s not. The “first thing you hear is just two tubas, but it sounds like five notes,” explains Peder. “That’s because it was played in a water reservoir with a 20 second reverb situation.” It was originally captured as a live performance during a festival in Berlin, and Peder “just loved how this one harmonic sounded fantastic in that room.” While he thought that they “didn’t play the pieces well enough” to release it as a record, he was eager to use that harmonic and endeavoured “to add synths that were commenting on that timbre in different ways.” He cut up the original recordings and reconstituted them in a synthetic context, in a way that they would maintain the sustained flow of the group’s sound.

The result is a piece of ambient music with incredible depth that encourages the listener to return to the minute of the group’s sounds. “I want music to be pleasing at the first encounter, but that’s not as important to me as the music depth that you can discover as you get into it,” insists Peder. A record like Chronic Shift is more than just a piece of music for Peder and in the same way he discovered that depth in music at a young age, it presents a new way of listening to music. It had always been Peder’s intention to make an ambient record, and in the most altruistic interpretation of the style, Chronic Shift occupies a broad spectrum of frequencies, spreading out over the air, to leave enough room for everyday life to exist. 

There’s a synchronicity that occurs between the music and the listener with the harmonic nature of the music is beating in time with the natural world. Those fine subtleties come to the fore in pieces evolving in stasis, like a star hanging in various positions in the night sky. “If you listen to the harmonic you can hear sometimes it’s vibrating and sometimes it’s not,” says Peder by way of example. “These vibrations make different tempos that you can hear if you pay attention,” and that’s the music’s reward, something new to discover for the patient listener. It’s Peder and Microtub’s goal to make music that “demands something of the listener,” and they do it without imposing on the listener.

Through their work in Microtub, Hayward, Taxt and Peder Simonsen have designed a musical language that resonates with something elemental in us all. They’ve created something unique at the fringes of the modern vanguard in music based on an ambient dialect, but moving beyond the strict confines of that music.

There is never any real end or beginning to the record as it dissipates into thin air in much the same way it arrived. There’s an immediate sense of emptiness however as the last few frequencies of System Reboot fade out, like a refrigerator that was buzzing all this time, finally cut out. And as the last resonances give way, clinging to the highest branches of the harmonic series, Peder’s voice chimes against the new empty sonic backdrop:

“I don’t feel like I need to talk more about these pieces, because people can listen to them and find their own way through.“