The Harmonic Series Volume 2
Emerging during the early years of the new millennium, over the last two decades Important Records has slowly grown into one of the most important imprints in the landscape of experimental sound; a vehicle for historically important works by artists like Arnold Dreyblatt, Christina Kubisch, Ellen Fullman, Eliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros, Catherine Christer Hennix, Phill Niblock, and numerous others, as much as a platform for a constantly evolving cast of emerging artists at the forefront of the contemporary scene. Their latest, The Harmonic Series Volume 2, is a crystalline vision of the monumental ambition and artistry that lays at the label’s heart. Curated by Duane Pitre and stretching across an astounding 3 LPs, it looks toward the future of just intonation - the ancient tuning system that lays at the foundation for numerous Indian, Persian, and East Asian traditions - collecting long-form compositions by six of the most important voices in contemporary experimental music: Kali Malone, Catherine Lamb, Tashi Wada, Byron Westbrook, Caterina Barbieri, and Pitre. Vast in scope, immersive, and overwhelmingly beautiful from start to finish, if there’s a compilation to grab this year, this is the one. Words fail to describe how good it is.
Dating back millennia, since its reintroduction into Western music by composers like Harry Partch, Ben Johnston, Lou Harrison, James Tenney, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young, just intonation has maintained a devoted following within the context of experimental music. Utilizing intervals of whole number ratios to determine tonal positions, chosen by a composer, its origins rest in an attempt to mirror the natural behavior of sound within music. Often resulting in highly individualized modal scales with nuanced relationships and striking, sympathetic resonances, just intonation offers the potential for a radically expanded range of creative possibilities that are largely unavailable within equal temperament, the tuning system most commonly encountered within music today.
Back in 2009, this led the composer, Duane Pitre, to curate the first Harmonic Series compilation, presenting a multi-generational suite of works by Ellen Fullman & Theresa Wong, Michael Harrison, Pauline Oliveros, Charles Curtis, and numerous others. Over the years since, interest in the system has continued to swell, witnessing numerous younger artists deploying it in diverse ways, offering Pitre a new chance to explore the subject on even more ambitious terms. The Harmonic Series Volume 2 comprises brand new works by six of the most important emerging voices of contemporary experimental music - Kali Malone, Catherine Lamb, Tashi Wada, Byron Westbrook, Caterina Barbieri, and Pitre - offering each artist a full side of the collection’s 3 LPs, carefully curated to activate intertwining sequences and relationships between the works.
Beginning with Kali Malone’s Pipe Inversions - played by the author on a small pipe organ, joined by Isak Hedtjärn on bass clarinet - blankets of long tones unfold within shimmering harmonics and rich rhythmic and melodic sequence, before settling into Duane Pitre’s sublime Three Simples for Rhodes - a chamber piece for ”unknown instrumentation” - built from deconstructed rhythms and melodic fragments that swell in a dance of harmonic interplay within the work’s engrossing architectural complexity.
From here we depart into the singular world of Catherine Lamb’s Inter Sum, a rare instance of the renowned violist working on synthesizer, that channels its materiality from her own environmental field, filtered by the synth, to highlight the subtle tonalities and harmonics that often lay unnoticed in the natural world, setting the stage for the deep, enveloping tension that unfurls across the length of Tashi Wada’s Midheaven (Alignment Mix), a canon for eight-violins played by Marc Sabat, where two mirroring, overlain realizations of the composition - one moving forward as the other simultaneously moves backward - slowly converge toward a crescendo of dissonance, with striking harmonic interplay and delicate overtones guiding the way.
The final LP in the collection is graced by a work Byron Westbrook, before concluding with a psycho-physiological exploration by Caterina Barbieri. Westbrook’s Memory Phasings, composed and recorded on a combination of computer controlled modular synthesizers and a Yamaha TX802, stunningly deploys harmonic blocks of texture and long-tones within structures of rapid appreciations and carefully balanced punctuations, that culminates as a shimmer vision of abstraction in sound. Barbieri’s Firmamento then brings us full circle, concluding the second instalment of the Harmonic series with graceful subtlety introduced by Kali Malone, with a striking effort of durational drone composed for synth.
Resting on the shoulders of an ancient tradition, Important’s The Harmonic Series Volume 2 - through truly visionary works by Malone, Lamb, Wada, Westbrook, Barbieri, and Pitre - paints a wondrously optimistic image of the future of the approach, not to mention experimental music at large. Issued as a triple LP, cut at Golden and pressed at RTI for maximum fidelity, housed in a heavy duty, single pocket sleeve with printed inner sleeves, it’s impossible to recommend enough. Easily one of the most exciting releases of the year and not to be missed.