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Greg Davis, "New Primes"

New PrimesBack in 2009, Important Records released a landmark compilation entitled The Harmonic Series (A Compilation Of Musical Works In Just Intonation). Significantly, that album featured a Greg Davis piece entitled "Star Primes (For James Tenney)," which was Davis's earliest foray into composing using just intonation. Nearly a decade later, greyfade founder Joseph Branciforte found himself mesmerized by that piece on a long drive back home from Vermont and was inspired to contact Davis to discuss the unusual process behind the piece. As it turns out, Davis's interest in mathematical just intonation experiments ran quite deeply, as it formed the entire basis for his 2009 album Primes. Naturally, the enthusiastic Branciforte encouraged Davis to revisit his work in that vein, which led to an 8-channel performance at NYC's Fridman Gallery in 2019. The aptly titled New Primes is a reworking of that new material repurposed for a stereo home-listening experience. Needless to say, math-driven sine wave drones are not for everyone, but the cold and futuristic alien beauty of these pieces will likely resonate deeply with fans of otherworldly "ghost in the machine" opuses like Nurse With Wound's Soliloquy For Lilith.


My interest in "generative and process-based music" is considerably more casual than Davis's or Branciforte's, but it is not hard to understand the allure, as I imagine every serious musician on earth endlessly struggles to escape familiar patterns and an excellent way to do that is to create some kind of system that either opens new pathways or makes repeating those patterns impossible. Obviously, John Cage's I Ching-driven work is an especially noteworthy touchstone, while Ben Chasny's Hexadic compositions are a more recent prominent example, but there are presumably limitless ways to elude predictable compositional paths (albeit with wildly varying results in listenability). Davis's own system is a bit more complex than my feeble mind can handle, but it can be roughly summarized as "using prime number sets as a way to develop just intonation tuning relationships and intervals" which he realizes through a "custom software system in the Max/MSP environment, using a network of pure sine tones."

According to Davis, the prime number set used determines the overtones and the "panning, fades, metronome speed and other variables of each overtone are related to its frequency." In less abstract and cerebral terms, that basically means that New Primes feels like an album made by sentient feedback, as sine waves endlessly ebb and flow to create shifting patterns of oscillations. Given the hyperminimal nature and purposely characterless sine wave source material of these six drone pieces, they all unavoidably sound quite similar to one another, but they amount to an immersive and eerily lovely whole that is especially rewarding on headphones. To my ears, "Irregular" and "Pierpont" feel like the most compelling variations on the theme, but the entire album is fascinating in a cosmic/"post-human" sense, as it feels like the sort of album the hallucination-spewing ocean in Solaris might've made. This is music distilled to its barest essence of hums and oscillations, calling to mind mysterious deep space transmissions, time-lapsed blooms of otherworldly flora, or the amplified vibrational frequencies of the universe itself.

Listen here.