Biography

Thomas Nicholson is a Canadian composer investigating extended just intonation, a pluralistic practice grounded in untempered frequency relationships, which takes cues from acoustics, perception, and sociology.

He studied composition and traditional Western music theory privately with Martín Kutnowski at Saint Thomas University (Fredericton, Canada). From 2013–2017, he studied composition with Christopher Butterfield at the University of Victoria (BMus), after which he relocated to Berlin, Germany to study with Marc Sabat at the Universität der Künste, where he assisted in Sabat’s courses in intonation theory (MMus, 2017–2021). Nicholson and Sabat have collaborated on several academic and artistic research projects as well as publications revolving around a mutual interest for understanding possible structures of “Harmonic Space” that may lend themselves to exploration in composition. In 2020, they published a revision/extension of Sabat and Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s Helmholz-Ellis JI Pitch Notation, which has become a standard in Europe for notating music in just intonation. Since 2018, Nicholson has been a member of the Berlin-based Harmonic Space Orchestra, a group of 15 composers, performers, and musicians who are searching for new and unique ways to approach precisely tuned sounds in a collective environment using acoustic instruments.

Nicholson’s sources of inspiration stem from a broad range of fields and contexts, ranging from mathematics and physics to graphic design, the Western classical music repertoire, and interdisciplinary artistic collaborations. Fascinated by the inherently microtonal nature of extended just intonation, his compositions since 2014 have engaged with the often-mysterious interactions between counterpoint (melodies) and the perceptual phenomenon of harmonic fusion (the harmonic series). In particular, he is repeatedly drawn to the multidimensional question of the “enharmonic” in just intonation: he often works with various miniscule, yet remarkably expressive connections between tones, which seem at the very limit of – or at times beyond – perception until contextualised by special harmonic treatment. He especially enjoys composing for smaller settings consisting of two to four musicians and is devoted to researching as well as developing tools and methods for navigating the practical challenges of realising microtonal music on acoustic instruments (strings, in particular).

Thomas Nicholson
Photo: Rafal Rawicki (2019)


Compositions

Recent work

Nocturne, #33, 2022
Flute, bass flute, alto saxophone, bass trombone, accordion, electric guitar, harp, violin, cello
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Time falling, #32, 2021
Bass flute, contrabass (20’)

Fancy, #31, 2021
String quartet (12’)

Solos

CHANTER, #28, 2020
Cello (15’)

BERCER, #21, 2019
Cello (11’)
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JUST (Chords, melodies), #18, 2019
Piano (Sabat II well-temperament) (13’)
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Duos

Time falling, #32, 2021
Bass flute, contrabass (20’)

STILL, #17, 2018
Violin, viola (6’)
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AT LEAST, #7, 2016
Violin, piano (equal temperament) (10’)

ATLAS, 2012 (just intonation version), #6b, 2019
Viola, acoustic guitar (14’)

ATLAS, 2012, #6a, 2015
Alto saxophone, electric guitar (14’)
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Trios

Triple resplendence, #29, 2021
Alto flute, viola, alto trombone (7’)
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Fields flowering, #26, 2020
Violin, viola, cello (8’)

WITHIN (98 Chords Catherine Lamb), #23, 2020
Horn, viola, suspended cymbal (10’)
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BRANCH (Plainsound Trio), #13, 2018
Any 3 sustaining instruments and/or voices (8’)
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GRAM, #14, 2018
Alto recorder, viola, keyboard (Pythagorean split-key tuning) (15’)
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number three, #2, 2014
Mandolin, viola, piano (any tuning) (9’)
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Quartets

Fancy, #31, 2021
String quartet (12’)

WENN, #25, 2020
Mezzo-soprano (or alto flute), violin, clarinet (A), bass clarinet (8’)

ANSTATT, #19, 2019
Clarinet (B-flat), accordion, violin, cello (10’)

DRIFT, #16, 2018
Any 4 sustaining instruments and/or voices (3’)
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Ensemble works

Nocturne, #33, 2022
Flute, bass flute, alto saxophone, bass trombone, accordion, electric guitar, harp, violin, cello
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Harmonium glistening, #30, 2021
At least 6 sustaining instruments and/or voices (18’)
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Tenebrae factae sunt, #22b, 1611/2020 intonation of Gesualdo
SSATTB voices (10’)
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Sicut cervus desiderat, #22a, 1604/2020 intonation of Palestrina
SATB voices (3’)
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MOTTE, #11, 2016–2017
Flute (picc.), alto saxophone (cbcl.), bassoon (cbsn), horn, bells, piano (13-limit just intonation), violin, viola (40’)
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ALONG, AROUND, #8, 2014/2016
8 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos, contrabass, percussion (10’)

For Margaret Lingas, #5, 2015
10 voices, harmonium (6’)
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Apparitions, #3, 2014
Flute, clarinet (B-flat), violin, cello, piano (equal temperament) (10’)

Orchestral works

PER, #27, 2018–2020
3.3.3.3/4.3.3.1/bd.timp.harp/strings (12’)
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THAT, WHICH, #10, 2016
2.2.2.2/4.2.2.1/bells/strings (5’)

ABOUT, #9, 2016
3.2.3.3/4.3.3.1/3.harp.organ/strings (17’)
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Tombeau de souvenirs, #4, 2014
2.2.2.2/2.2.0.0/timpani/strings (6’)

Trois pièces d’après Kandinsky, #1, 2012
2.2.2.2/4.3.3.1/timpani.piano/strings (10’)

Electronic works

PORT (Rondo for Marcus Pal), #24, 2020
SuperCollider (27’)

CONE, #20, 2019
Fixed media (12’)

Installations and films

Schwer Abschied nehmen wenn ich Taschentuch sehe, #15, 2018 with Luisa Rüster
Violin, keyboard, SuperCollider, 3 dancers, light and object installation (45’)

servicemaster, #12, 2016–2017 with Kim Farris‑Manning
Film-music-object installation (55’)

Publications

A Compact Enharmonically Viable Subset of Harmonic Space, 2020 with Marc Sabat
While temperament may present some apparent advantages, it necessarily sacrifices the distinct “JI fusion sonority” of intervals that are precisely tuneable by ear. These manifest a vast gradation of consonance and dissonance, as yet largely unexplored and with fascinating potential for new compositions. This article proposes a novel approach, based on a mathematical structure called the Stern-Brocot Tree, allowing a finite set of pitches to be generated in just intonation within which music may modulate freely without relying on temperament.
(Published in Živá hudba 2020/11)


The Helmholtz-Ellis JI Pitch Notation, 2020 with Marc Sabat
Revised symbols for primes up to 47, legend and harmonic/subharmonic series


Farey sequences map playable nodes on a string, 2019 with Marc Sabat
Natural harmonics, i.e. partials and their harmonic series, may be isolated on a vibrating string by lightly touching specific points along its length. In addition to the two endpoints, stationary nodes for a given partial n present themselves at n − 1 locations along the string, dividing it into n parts of equal length. It is not the case, however, that touching any one of these nodes will necessarily isolate the nth partial and its integer multiples. The subset of nodes that will activate the nth partial (termed playable nodes by the authors) may be derived by following a mathematically predictable pattern described by so-called Farey sequences. The authors derive properties of these sequences and connect them to physical phenomena. This article describes various musical applications: locating single natural harmonics, forming melodies of neighbouring harmonics, sounding multiphonic aggregates, as well as predicting the relative tuneability of just intervals.
(Published in TEMPO 74, issue 291 January 2020)


Microtonal playback in Dorico, 2018
Software review with technical examples of Dorico 2’s microtonal just intonation playback capabilities


Fundamental Principles of Just Intonation and Microtonal Composition, 2018 with Marc Sabat

Resources and research

Surprising Connections in Extended Just Intonation, 2021
This essay documents some initial speculations regarding how harmonies (might) evolve in extended just intonation, connecting back to various practices from two perspectives that have been influential to my work. The first perspective, which is the primary investigation, concerns itself with an intervallic conception of just intonation, centring around Harry Partch’s technique of Otonalities and Utonalities interacting through Tonality Flux: close contrapuntal proximities bridging microtonal chordal structures. An analysis of Partch’s 1943 composition Dark Brother, one of his earliest compositions to use this technique extensively, is proposed, contextualised within his 43-tone “Monophonic” system and greater aesthetic interests. This is followed by further approaches to just intonation composition from the perspective of the extended harmonic series and spectral interaction in acoustic sounds. Recent works and practices from composers La Monte Young, Éliane Radigue, Ellen Fullman, and Catherine Lamb are considered, with a focus on the shifting modalities and neighbouring partials in Lamb’s string quartet divisio spiralis (2019). Finally, I connect this discussion to my current compositional interests, which have been exploring a method of microtonal modulation through arbitrarily near enharmonic connections in Harmonic Space called “enharmonic proximities”. (Masters Thesis, Universität der Künste Berlin)


Harmonic Series Spiral Synth
In-broswer synthesiser and interactive visualisation of the harmonic series in the form of a logarithmic spiral, based on Erv Wilson’s 1965 publication and Catherine Lamb’s related creative/pedagogical practice


String instrument physical model
SuperCollider synth – useful for generating a more realistic string timbre (slight inharmonicitiy, bow attack, bow position, etc.) and example mockup with James Tenney’s KOAN for string quartet
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The 'helmholtz-ellis-ji-notation' package, 2020
This package is a simple LaTeX implementation of the Helmholtz-Ellis JI Pitch Notation that allows for in-line typesetting of microtonal accidentals for use within theoretical texts, program notes, symbol legends, etc.


Plainsound Harmonic Space Calculator, 2020
In-browser tool for analysis, composition, and performance preparation of music composed in microtonal just intonation, Version 2.5

Thomas Nicholson
Photo: Mareike Yin-Yee Lee (2019)

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www.plainsound.org

Thomas Nicholson
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Wönnichstraße 3, 10317 Berlin, Germany

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