Introducing: Sonar

King Crimson and Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin have proved that music can be simultaneously mathematical and emotional. Sonar, an instrumental band from Switzerland, whose first record was released on Bärtsch’s Ronin Rhythm Records, prove it once again with their second full-length album Static Motion on Cuneiform records. Stephan Thelen and Bernhard Wagner on guitar, along with bassist Christian Kuntner and drummer Manuel Pasquinelli create their own style of minimal and experimental groove music. The aim of the guitarists was to create a new sound, not by using effects and technology, but by tuning their guitars to tritones (C F# C F# C F#) and by concentrating on the harmonics of that tuning.

Thelen explains the Sonar concept:

“Historically, Pythagoras is considered to be the first person who had the profound insight that hidden behind the apparent variety and complexity of nature and the cosmos there is a pattern and an order that can be expressed by remarkably simple mathematical ideas. He and his followers, the Pythagoreans, were known for saying all things are numbers and essentially believed that our world is rational, i.e. that all important phenomena can be described by ratios of integers. 

Their prime example was a connection they found between music and mathematics, famously carried out on a monochord.”

“They discovered that intervals between notes can be expressed by ratios of integers: the smaller the numbers, the more beautiful and consonant the interval. The most pleasant sounding interval to their ears, a perfect octave, was produced when the ratio of the lengths of two vibrating strings was exactly 2:1. The next simplest ratios were 3:2 (a perfect fifth) and 4:3 (a perfect fourth).
But they were wrong—It soon became obvious that the relationship between numbers and nature was far more complex than they hoped for and could not always be explained by simple integer ratios. It must have been quite a shock to them when they had to admit that even such a basic and fundamental ratio as the one between the diagonal and the side of a square (√2:1) was found to be irrational, i.e. not expressible as a ratio of integers¬–ironically, this can easily be proved using Pythagoras’ own theorem.

Another fact soon became apparent that surely didn’t suit their cherished beliefs: perfect octaves and perfect fifths were not compatible, meaning that seven octaves and twelve fifths do not—as you would expect—produce exactly the same note. Even today, this fact (which led to the Pythagorean comma and equal temperament) is hard to accept and even could be considered a flaw of nature. Heaven might be a place where seven octaves and twelve fifths are the same note—but the real world we live in is a darker and irrational place where compromises and adjustments have to be made.

In Sonar, the electric guitars are tuned in tritones C F# C F# C F# where the bottom C is a major third below the standard E. The bass guitar is also tuned in tritones C F# C F#, where the bottom C is again a major third below the standard E of a bass guitar. 

The tritone is a very interesting interval. In a usual harmonic context, it is considered to be the most dissonant interval and has even earned the nickname diabolus in musica (“the devils interval”).

In 12-tone equal temperament, the tritone is exactly half an octave (which corresponds to the irrational ratio of √2:1, just like the ratio of the diagonal and the side of a square). In many analyses of the works of 20th century composers, the tritone plays an important structural role. Perhaps the most noted is the axis system, proposed by Ernö Lendvai in his fascinating and controversial analysis of the use of tonality in the music of Bela Bartok. 

A very large proportion of Sonar’s music is played using only the first four natural harmonics of the guitar and bass strings: first octave, fifth, second octave and major third. In this way, the perfect, rational harmonics of the major scale clash with the irrational ratios of the tritone tuning to produce a symmetric hexatonic scale C / C# / E /F# / G / A# (a mode of limited transposition in Messiaen’s terminology resulting from the C major and F# major triads), which gives SONAR its distinctive and instantly recognizable sound.

In spirit, Sonar is a very Pythagorean band. Numbers are everywhere in our music—not only in the tuning (an amalgam of rational and irrational worlds) and in the harmonic material, but also in our approach to odd meters and polyrhythms (another sonic representation of integer ratios).

In the wake of Pythagoras, we also believe that a composition is most satisfying if—hidden behind the apparent variety of all the sounds and rhythms—there is a simple idea that organically generates this complexity.”

This is one way of looking at Sonar’s music, albeit one that makes it sound much headier than it comes across. Another way is one I proposed to Thelen in an email:

‘Alternately, you could think of the F# as a sharp IV or Lydian concept as well. According to the book Music of the Spheres, the sharp IV is actually MORE consonant than the natural IV.”

Either way, Sonar’s sound is gorgeous and thoroughly enjoyable.

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