About this project
The Nautilauta is an experimental new musical instrument designed with the intention of making it easy to play several different kinds of music whose intonation systems are close but not identical, for instance: Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Levantine, and Persian classical musics, as well as certain kinds of Greek, Sephardic, Mizrahi and Armenian musics, and for that matter all the traditional types of music of the Mediterranean Basin (when they’re not accompanied by tempered instruments). It’s also a good instrument for microtonal musicians wanting to explore Just Intonation (up to 13 limit), or, really, for any plucked string player who would actually like to play in tune.
When I say that it’s “in tune” but, for instance, normal guitars are not, I’m talking about the difference between Just Intonation and the 12-Tone Equal Temperament system used in the West. Most Western musicians are not even aware that their music is not in tune! And the length of the neck on standard guitars, mandolins, etc., is too short to get all the frets you’d need to play the types of music mentioned above, anyway — basically, if the frets are too close together you can’t get your fingers between them. Conversely, if the neck is very long (like on Near Eastern instruments such as the tanbur, buzuq, saz, etc.) then it’s hard to stretch your hand to make chords. The Nautilauta, whose vibrating string length is 68 cm (26.8 inches), is uniquely designed for both.
I’m hoping that by recording with this Nautilauta prototype and by sharing it with interested musicians I’ll be able to raise and spread interest in all of these kinds of music traditions, as well as in the instrument itself; if it’s successful we could start producing Nautilautas in quantity, or at least make the plans available to independent luthiers. (Wouldn’t you like to have one, too?)
Although I have designed and built instruments myself, I am leaving the craftsmanship for this project in the capable hands of luthier Josh Humphrey, who estimates that the first Nautilauta (including a pick-up and custom-fitted hard shell case) can be ready to play on May 15, 2012 — but only if we reach this Kickstarter goal together! So please give something if you can and also help me spread the news of this project - THANKS, THANKS, THANKS!
(Just a note: designing instruments is fun but it doesn't get much attention; while the Nautilauta is indeed a unique creation, I would be remiss not to mention my Turkish colleagues Tolgahan Çoğulu, whose microtonal guitar takes a technically different approach to the problem, and Ozan Yarman for his 79-tone kanun — I hope we will get to play together someday! I also want to mention Erkan Oğur’s 1976 invention of the fretless guitar. All of these deserve much credit as different approaches to a similar goal.)
If the original acoustic-electric Nautilauta is successfully funded here, my next plan would be make this "baritone electric guitar" version of the instrument. (See it larger here.)
The fretting on this version — the Electro-Nautilauta — is the same as the Nautilauta in the first octave; the second octave (that is, above what would be "the 12th fret" on a normal guitar) is fretted for partials 16 through 32 of the Harmonic Series. The scale length is longer than on the acoustic version — 72.7 cm (28.6 inches), and the current plan is for two humbucking pick-ups and two knobs: one for volume and one to blend the pick-ups.
What do you think? Let me know in the "comments" section at the top of this page!
The graphic above shows two things — the first is just a few decorative variations for the Nautilauta body — different woods, inlay patterns etc. These need not correspond to the geographic areas given below each variant; those different "culture zones" are meant to point us to the frets, to demonstrate the different ways in which these cultures arrange the tones of their music — remember, the Nautilauta's frets are an attempt to merge all these systems in one instrument! See this graphic larger here.
The white frets are those that are normative to each system, while red frets represent tones that are so rarely used that, even though they are taught in theory books, they often don't appear on any instrument (they won't appear on the Nautilauta, either). The Persian system (on the right side) is the only one that doesn't require tones outside of the ones you'd find in a Persian theory book; the others all have tones that are needed to express the music fully, but that for whatever reason are not taught in the theory books (that is, they have to be learned in the realm of an oral tradition). Each of these is slightly different from the others, but all are represented by colored bars on the fingerboards:
The Egyptian/Levantine system (the white frets) is in theory a 24-tone equal temperament system, meaning that you could take out every other fret and it would be the same as a guitar. But every competent musician would insist on having at least some of those turquoise-colored frets also, to be able to really play the music.
The Syrian/Iraqi system is sometimes also described in terms of a 24-tone equal temperament, meaning that the white frets could have been represented the same as the Egyptian/Levantine ones (though the turquoise frets would be in slightly different places); I prefer to think of it the other way — as it being in Just Intonation already, so here we see the white frets as the "theory" frets, and the pinkish bars as zones — ranges of possible pitches — in which you would normally place another fret in order to really "get it right."
This is also the case with the Turkish system (which also covers certain Greek, Armenian, and Sephardic Jewish musics) — except that both the "standard" white frets and the "zones" are in slightly different positions.
You can see the challenge of fitting them all together on one instrument!
But by carefully choosing from each culture's total possibilities for acceptable tones I find that there are enough frets overall to pretty closely approximate something that everyone can find right for their own music. Of course there are a few compromises, but I'm pretty sure they will work out.
On with the experiment!
Oops! I left the flat sign out of the guitar chord depiction for E flat 7 in the video - my bad!
It's intended for steel and phosphor bronze strings — it would be worth experimenting with nylon strings at some point, but they might not offer enough tension to drive the soundboard. The strings are in unison, as in the mandolin family.
I am leaning toward a mixture of perfect fifths and perfect fourths: CGDGC for Arab-level playing (the low C being that of the 'cello) or the whole thing a whole step higher for Turkish-level playing: DAEAD. This puts the low string at the tone "kaba/qarar rast" - a convenient open drone string - and gives the instrument the same range as the ud/oud even though it has only 5 courses instead of 6. The perfect fifths give a good range and good open strings, while the perfect fourths facilitate string crossing, and the whole tuning makes chords very easy to play.
That's an idea well worth experimenting with, but this version will probably have an open plan inside. Still, one of our project's backers is a physics professor at UCSB and we're hoping to analyze how the top behaves with a spectrum analyzer to see if there is any acoustic advantage over "normal" instrument soundboards - note that the lack of a soundhole means that the whole soundboard gets to vibrate without interruption, like a drum head; moreover, I hope that the larger area on the bass side will give it a nicer than usual bass response. It's an experiment, alright! Definitely I would like to see how the "chambered" idea would work, especially in a version with a rounded back, like the creature itself.
It's a piece of mine that's now just called "Curcuna" (pronounced "jurjuna" — it's a generic name for the rhythm it's in: 3 + 2 + 2 + 3) — I played ud, octave mandolin, and bowed tanbur on it, and my friend Daniel Cossu (also the producer and engineer) played bass and percussion — mostly frame drum with brushes. It'll be on the album mentioned in "rewards" $15 and up!
To clarify, Dr. Ozan Yarman had by 2006-7 created firstly a conceptualization of tones suitable for encompassing all of the musics mentioned here, as well as an instrument upon which to realize it — the 79-tone kanun (see the link above). Programmable keyboards, not to mention fretless instruments, have of course provided such possibilities for much longer, for those with the patience and/or specialized performance dexterity to make good use of them. In my excitement to bring such a system to fretted-plucked-string instrument enthusiasts I may have wrongly implied that the Nautilauta would be the first ever such musical instrument; to be precise, I should simply say that I know of no other fretted-plucked-string "lute"-type instrument that accommodates reasonable interpretations of the intonational preferences of all the music cultures listed without re-tuning, reprogramming, switching levers, adjustable-, partial-, or bent frets, fervent prayer, screaming into the wind, learning higher math, tying tiny knots or other extraordinary actions to which the player is not already accustomed from playing "ordinary" instruments of its type. In other words I think it may be unique among this family of instruments in that a player of fretted-plucked-string "lute"-type instruments generally may pick it up, tune it, play the five or ten minutes it takes to ascertain which tones are useful for the music one wishes to play, and then simply play. I should mention that although I have read Dr. Yarman's dissertation concerning the tuning on his kanun, I consulted neither the text nor its author when determining the ratios for frets on the Nautilauta (as should be evident from a comparison of the works). Apologies for any confusion.
A more detailed representation of the Nautilauta's frets can be seen in "Update 1" — just click the Update tab at the top of this page!
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