Math Meets Artwork in Greg Davis’ “New Primes”

Math Meets Artwork in Greg Davis’ “New Primes”


Matthew Blackwell

September 20, 2022

Since Euclid proved the infinitude of prime numbers in 300 BCE, mathematicians have gained fame by figuring out sequences of them. There are Pierpont primes, Cullen primes, Proth primes, and Sophie Germain primes, every named after their discoverer. New Primes, the brand new album by Greg Davis, makes use of these teams of numbers to create large, dissonant, slowly evolving expanses of sound. Utilizing the music programming software program Max/MSP, Davis creates pure sine tones whose frequency, rhythm, and spatialization are decided by the mathematical relationships between numbers in these units.

The precision and rigor of mathematical composition all the time held a sure enchantment for Davis. “I’m not like a number of composers who’re into simply intonation,” he explains through Zoom name from his house in Vermont. “They’ve rigorous programs that they set as much as compose all of their music. I’ve by no means been that form of musician, however I’m very taken with simply intonation and alternate tuning programs.” “Simply intonation” refers to any system utilizing whole-number ratios of frequencies as musical intervals, comparatively uncommon in Western music however adopted by sure trendy composers and experimental musicians.

Davis is a longtime fan of composers who use simply intonation, together with Charles Ives, La Monte Younger, Terry Riley, and Ellen Fullman, however he solely designed his personal tuning system when he was invited by Duane Pitre to contribute a observe to Vital Data’ Harmonic Collection compilation in 2008. Sharing area on a disc that includes achieved composers like Fullman, Pauline Oliveros, and Charles Curtis pressured Davis to discover a novel method. “I wished to discover a method that felt distinctive and private to me as a option to work with simply intonation. I settled on utilizing prime quantity units to assemble a complete software program system and have the prime quantity units being mapped to nearly each side of the music.” The end result was “Star Primes (For James Tenney),” 11 minutes of gravity-defying dissonant drone.

Davis launched a full album of this materials, Primes, on his personal Autumn Data label the next yr. The venture remained within the rearview for Davis till 2016, when he obtained an e mail “out of the blue” from Joseph Branciforte, who was planning to begin his Greyfade label. Branciforte had stumbled throughout Davis’ observe on the Harmonic Collection compilation and wished to know if he would revisit the Primes period. That led to years of labor revamping his software program setup, “tinkering with my previous [Max/MSP] patches, updating them, altering them, including some new wrinkles to them, and placing in some new and totally different prime quantity units.” After a profitable live performance on the Friedman Gallery in New York Metropolis in 2019, Davis was satisfied that the brand new materials had developed sufficient to decide to tape.

However how do you make music out of a sequence of prime numbers? “We’ll begin with a decrease frequency, like 100 hertz, which is fairly simple,” Davis explains. “Then you’ve gotten a first-rate quantity set, let’s say one thing actually easy like 5, seven, et cetera. So you are taking the bottom frequency of 100 and multiply that instances every of the prime numbers, and you then get a set of frequencies going from low to excessive.” Easy sufficient, till you get to prime quantity units that attain into the tens of millions. “In a number of the prime quantity units, the prime numbers are actually giant. If I multiply these instances the frequency, the frequency is tremendous excessive, exterior of the vary of listening to.”

That is the place math meets artwork, as Davis needed to divide or multiply the frequency values in order that they created an enticing sonic area whereas sustaining their tuning relationships. “That allowed me to place the entire frequencies into a snug harmonic area, one thing that I favored the sound of,” he says. After deciding on sufficient frequencies to attain a dramatic density of sound, Davis then decided their rhythm and spatialization by tying each to metronomes and panning results in Max/MSP based mostly on their related prime numbers. The result’s a generative piece that might, hypothetically, play endlessly. “The concept is that with prime numbers when you have them taking part in in opposition to one another, they’re not going to repeat. They’re by no means going to line up on the identical time, in order that they’re all the time going to be shifting and shifting in numerous methods.”

After recording fifteen to twenty minutes of every prime quantity set, Davis and Branciforte pared them down based mostly on compelling arcs or developments inside them. The six tracks on New Primes, every named after a first-rate quantity set, reveal the vary of musical results that may be created from these mathematical relationships. For instance, “Sophie Germain” contains a dominant hum that slowly fades out and in over various rhythmic pulses. “Proth,” in the meantime, shimmers within the higher registers whereas an ominous bass tone develops beneath. “The one factor about New Primes is that there’s a dissonance to it; there’s nearly like a darkness to the album,” Davis says. “It’s very deep and subdued.”

This darkish and dissonant tone could make New Primes seem to be an outlier in Davis’ bigger physique of labor. After being skilled in composition on the New England Conservatory, Davis emerged into the burgeoning “folktronica” scene along with his first album Arbor on Carpark Data in 2002. All through the next decade, he created a sprawling discography of improvised and experimental music in collaborations with out-music luminaries like Jeph Jerman, Ben Vida, and Keith Fullerton Whitman. Throughout this period, he additionally grew to become related to New Age music by way of his weblog, Crystal Vibrations, on which he posted uncommon and out-of-print albums he encountered within the file shops he frequented on tour. That is all summary music, definitely, however in a distinct sense from the summary arithmetic that underlies New Primes.

However Davis, as a voracious listener, sees connections between these disparate genres. “There positively are threads that run by way of my discography of various issues that I’m taken with. However I believe the factor that may join laptop music and New Age music is ambient music basically,” he posits. “Laptop computer music or laptop music tends to appear extra critical or tutorial. It’s in regards to the software program or the instruments or the processing that you just’re utilizing. After which New Age music is imbued with spiritualism or overlaid with some kind of mysticism. It’s not as a lot in regards to the technical course of, so they appear fairly distant in that regard. However I believe the place a few of it approaches one another is simply sonically, the way it sounds.” These similarities are sometimes obscured, nonetheless, as a result of our notion of music relies upon considerably on “the language and phrases that we use to speak about this music or describe it.”

Consequently, Davis doesn’t fear an excessive amount of in regards to the style distinctions that different folks use to categorize his work. “I see it as multi function pot, you understand: ‘That is music that Greg Davis makes.’” True to kind, the brand new album has kickstarted his creativity in all kinds of different instructions as nicely. Davis is at present producing extra music than he has since that hectic first decade of his profession: a minimum of three albums as we communicate, all in numerous genres. “Joe [Branciforte] actually pushing me to do that file has began the wheels turning for me. I’ve been attempting tougher to get myself within the studio when I’ve time,” he says. “So that is fairly cool for me. I’m excited.”

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