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).