Various Artists: The Harmonic Series

A music nerd’s dream project on paper, The Harmonic Series is an experiment in just intonation, a tuning system popular in the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe as well as in Asia and other cultures. Essentially, it relies on the Pythagorean methodology of defining notes based on fractions rather than roots as is currently practiced in equal temperament.

In practice, The Harmonic Series covers a wide range of traditional and invented instrumentation—accordion, resonator, piano and zither are present as well as purely synthesized tones, prepared guitar and various bowed contraptions. This compilation features eight pieces, one from each composer, and trends heavily toward droning, particularly Charles Curtis’ “Stanzas Set Before A Blank Surface,” Greg Davis’ “Star Primes (for James Tenney)” and R Keenan Lawler’s “Bow Shock,” as if to further emphasize the resonance of the harmonic temperament chosen.

Depending on instrumental affinity and tolerance for music that seems “out of tune” or “wrong” harmonically, perhaps the easiest track to consume is Michael Harrison’s “Tone Cloud II” with its rolling piano arpeggios and the piano’s long history as a tone clustering instrument. It’s still a bit off-putting as the actual tuning of the piano has changed, but it’s there. “Country Western (excerpt)” from Zachary James Watkins is another relatively consonant introduction given its larger ensemble (many of these pieces are for one instrument). “Bow Shock” and “Stanzas Set Before A Blank Surface” will test the mettle of the most dedicated harmonic enthusiast with their higher pitches, overtones and near-unions, which are not nearly as accommodating as they may sound.

It’s a compilation—curated by Duane Pitre who contributes “Comprovisation For Justly Tuned Ukelin No. 1”—that is approached in a fiercely intellectual way by some and in a rather open, organic way by others. It’s a record that is meant to broaden the tonal palette of listeners beyond what is deemed acceptable in the 12-tone equal temperament that Western music has rallied around for hundreds of years. While no one expects its dominance to fade anytime soon, The Harmonic Series is an authentic and exhaustive examination of the temperament’s capabilities in modern music.

In A Word: Academic