There’s something pleasing and aspirational in the idea of making music out of nothing but pure sine waves; even moreso when employing principles of the mathematics of tuning as purely as possible. (Disclaimer/shamless self-promotion: I myself have made just such a piece.) Joseph Branciforte’s greyfade label was set up just for such pieces of conceptual purity, whether in tuning (see Christopher Otto’s rag′sma) or other systems-based procedures. The new greyfade release is New Primes, an LP of six pieces by composer Greg Davis using nothing but sine tones tuned to prime-numbered harmonics of the harmonic series. Okay, he cheats a little bit by transposing down the intervals which inevitably bunch up in the higher octaves, creating a kind of filtered just-intonation scale favouring exotic intervals.
Before going further, there’s an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed when critiquing microtonal compositions. Too often, the purity of the mathematics and the elegance of the underlying system take precedence at the expense of the music, displaying a primary need to function as a proof of concept over consideration of showing the listener why the intellectual effort was warranted in the first place. In New Primes, Davis admirably takes up the messier consequences of his apparently simple methods and follows them in new directions, but doesn’t seem to fully get a handle on the difficulties of form. The purity of the concept gets muddier when encountered by human ears: as you prolong the range of intervals in the series, the harmonies become strange as they move outside the usual 12-tone scales we’re used to, but then move into something that’s close to familiar but not quite right. With each successive interval getting smaller, even once only prime factors are considered, the ear habitually interprets them as approximations of what is expected. Davis uses this to his advantage, making small differences emerge and fade to temper and colour otherwise static harmonies with a subtlety that softens the stark sine waves. More importantly, each piece works by becoming a study in timbre, even moreso than in harmonies. Aside from the usual beatings and psychoacoustic phenonmena, Davis lets different pitches overlap in complex ways that produce smoothly-shaped textures with a depth that makes you forget the building blocks from which they were created.
That said, there’s not much to distinguish one piece from another. This is hardly a problem, but it reveals that while Davis had a clear method to his process when selecting and combining his materials, form was less of a consideration. “The pieces you hear on the finished record are snapshots of an endless generative music that could last for hours, days, or even longer,” he writes, confirming what can be guessed from listening to each piece fade in and out. It’s a technical point, but one which highlights the problems in making pieces from open-ended processes, raising the question of what differentiates a work of music from a passing moment of interest in an acoustic phemonenon.