Graded on a Curve: VA, The Harmonic Series II

In 2009, Important Records released The Harmonic Series (A Compilation of Musical Works in Just Intonation), a Duane Pitre-curated compact disc with a thematic purpose related with precision inside the parenthesis of its title. In a superb development, on July 30, the label is offering The Harmonic Series II, with this installment’s contents also selected by Pitre, but this time offered as a triple vinyl set with one work per side by Kali Malone, Pitre, Catherine Lamb, Tashi Wada, Byron Westbrook, and Caterina Barbieri. Through a confluence of format and pure compositional brilliance, the results are both intellectually stimulating and emotionally stirring.

Unlike equal temperament, where a musical interval is divided into equal parts, most commonly a group of 12 (i.e., the 12-tone system of tuning utilized by most Western Classical music), just intonation employs whole numbers in the formation of its tonal system, a practice which results in pure (or just) intervals. Unsurprisingly, this presents a textural landscape that is audibly distinct from music that’s built on the principles of equal temperament, and yet it’s no less foundationally sturdy, as just intonation is rooted in traditions (Indian, Persian, East Asian) that span back thousands of years.

Therefore, rather than formidable, just intonation is a doorway swung open onto myriad possibilities for the listener, past, present and future, and with numerous roads leading into the realms of the Drone. And yet for many listeners, the initial exposure to drone music comes through the work of prominent 20th century avant-garde Westerners such as Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and Harry Partch, all of whom composed works in just intonation, though not exclusively.

The list of composers utilizing just intonation includes Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ben Johnston, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, Catherine Christer Hennix, and Kraig Grady. Spanning into the 21st century through the first volume of The Harmonic Series, there is Ellen Fullman, Theresa Wong, Greg Davis, Michael Harrison, R. Keenan Lawler, Pauline Oliveros, Zachary James Watkins, Charles Curtis, and Pitre, who’s also that set’s curator, making him the only return contributor on The Harmonic Series II.

Along with the pleasing level of input from women composers, the first installment of The Harmonic Series did a wonderful job of eluding expectations, particularly in regard to duration, with the longest track lasting just shy of 11 minutes and with five of the selections culminating in under ten (though to be forthright, three of the pieces are excerpts).

That volume two offers one track per side portends that Pitre has chosen contributions that stretch out a little more. While true, this reality isn’t as prominent in the scheme as one might suppose, as compositions in just intonation can span for hours. The longest piece here, Catherine Lamb’s “Intersum,” lasts 18 and a half minutes.

All the pieces do exceed ten minutes (most hover around 14), lengths that while ample aren’t so long that the sound quality suffers, which is important, as this isn’t lo-fi music. Notably, to ensure strong sound, it’s advised to not groove more than 22 minutes onto a side of vinyl. The Harmonic Series II follows this recommendation, and furthermore, the set is mastered by Stephan Mathieu and cut at Golden, with the manufacturing done at RTI “for maximum fidelity.”

With one complete piece per side, Series II encourages deep engagement with the works of each individual composer. A listener can soak up a composition as often as is desired before moving on to the next, and with as much time for contemplation between plays as the listener requires. One can also jump into the set at any point.

However, Kali Malone’s “Pipe Inversions” is designated as side A, which establishes that experiencing Pitre’s curatorial hand through sequential listening is advisable, at least once, and probably more than that, the better to pick up on the subtleties within each piece and connectively, and also to absorb the maximum effect of the endeavor’s whole, impressively scaled but never unwieldy.

“Pipe Inversions” features Malone playing a small pipe organ as she’s joined by Isak Hedtjärn on bass clarinet. The layering of the two instruments establishes a familiarity that borders on the cyclical (while never slipping into the mechanical), and indeed is mildly reminiscent of the associated genre of Minimalism.

There is a distinctly human warmth that arises across “Pipe Inversions” as the atmosphere can be relaxing without faltering into the sedate. Due to the ability to sustain notes, pipe organs are well-suited for extended drone and just intonation scenarios, so in turn, Malone’s dual emphasis on extendedness and segmented repetition coheres into a fresh approach that’s historically rooted.

In “Three for Rhodes,” Pitre also sets out for new territory, though the piece’s three pauses did bring to mind the same momentary silences that occur during Charles Curtis’ “Stanzas Set Before a Blank Surface,” which closed the inaugural volume of this series. But Pitre’s sound thrust is still strikingly different, even as his entry is described as a chamber piece, and for “Stanzas Set Before a Blank Surface” Curtis played the cello, an instrument that’s been heard in chambers innumerable times over the centuries.

Pitre’s piece is composed for “unknown instrumentation,” which presents an appealing mysteriousness that is eventually overtaken by the agreeable glisten and gleam of the resonances, which insinuate electronic devices soaring upward for the spheres with the high tones and simultaneously reaching for the reverberations of “classic” bowed string contraptions in the lower end of the spectrum.

There’s no way to be sure what Pitre’s instruments are of course, which is a sweet predicament to be in, especially as it contrasts with “Intersum,” where Catherine Lamb is definitely working with a synthesizer. This is noteworthy, as Lamb’s main axe, for which she is highly distinguished (having been awarded the Ernst von Siemens Composers Prize in 2020), is the viola.

But Lamb’s use of synthesizer deftly eschews any of the instrument’s long-entrenched sonic qualities. Instead, she strives for the atmospheric, or better said, the environmental, as the piece draws upon her surroundings (i.e. field recordings) and then filters this captured sound through the synth. Ambient? Yes. Nature sounds? Also yes, as it seems like Lamb was in close proximity to a beach. But echoing Pitre’s unknown instrumentation, there’s really no way to be sure. Ambiguity can be a wonderful thing.

Of the compositions here, “Intersum” gets the farthest afield of what most might expect a piece in just intonation to sound like, so it registers as strategic on the part of Pitre that Tashi Wada’s “Midheaven (Alignment Mix)” comes next, swinging back toward bowed instruments with authority, as it incorporates eight violins. But as all eight fiddles are finessed by Marc Sabat, and as the overlaid recordings of Wada’s composition move in opposing directions, the program quickly moves from the expected resonances toward an unceasing ascension that’s both gripping and methodic.

For “Memory Phasings,” it’s stated that Byron Westbrook composed and recorded on computer controlled modular synthesizers and a Yamaha TX802, though it sure sounds as if string instruments were additionally part of the equation. After an initial crescendo, Westbrook’s piece progresses through sci-fi angles and gauzy classical motifs (as the tension of the sustained tones gathers an almost cinematic foreboding) only to redirect into a celestial passage that inspired thoughts of the Portland, OR duo Golden Retriever. A beautiful twist.

Next is Caterina Barbieri’s “Firmamento,” another track composed for synthesizer, though it’s no less distinct within the compilation’s assemblage, specially as her use of just intonation draws upon the well-established sustained aspects of the drone and then adds a futuristic veneer coupled with levels of reverberation that’re destined to rattle windows, as the low end is potent.

With Barbieri’s inspired piece, The Harmonic Series II ends, the journey fulfilling but with a lingering temptation to circle back and begin the whole process again. Six sides of vinyl might read as a grueling undertaking, but this survey of contemporary works in just intonation is a thoroughly invigorating ride.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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