Some mechanical wristwatches have clear faces which allow the owner to observe the inner workings of the marvelous object. It is a wonder just how the timepiece utilizes its mainspring and gear train to drive the harmonic oscillator which keeps near perfect time. The same can be said of composer, saxophonist and flautist Anna Webber's investigation into unique tunings using the overtone series known as Just Intonation (JI). It is an ancient system based on the natural vibration of physical objects. Modern practitioners range from Harry Partch to the experimental rock quartet Horse Lords. It might take an advanced degree to explain the inner workings of pitch, rhythm, multi-phonic frequencies, intervallic ratios, and the subdivision of octaves. This music just works, and works perfectly on many levels.
For many years Webber's focus has straddled the worlds of composed and improvised music, jazz and chamber music, heard in small and large ensembles. Her instruments are featured in bands led by John Hollenbeck, Dan Weiss, Geof Bradfield, Dave Douglas, and Matt Mitchell. Most of those names also perform her compositions in Webber's Simple Trio, Large Ensemble, or Percussive Mechanics.
With this investigation of Just Intonation, she wrote music for particular resonating instruments and the specific quintet of trumpeter Adam O'Farrill, cellist Mariel Roberts, drummer Lesley Mok, and pianist Elias Stemeseder, who sticks to synthesizer here. Setting aside the technical and esoteric aspects of JI, Webber balances the music between composed and improvised, insuring the tunings never detract from the pleasure of sound. The droning "Swell" opens the disc with its instruments applying wave upon wave of tones and washes until Mok's pulse takes command and the brass flickers with on-off patterns. Webber has a knack for making the unconventional sound popular. Even the mechanical sounds of "Periodicity I" and "Periodicity II" coalesce into an unorthodox harmony. "Shimmer" overlays tones as the instruments build momentum, Roberts' cello quietly solos as do Mok and Stemeseder. As with the entirety of this recording, Webber and company make compelling music from the constraints of the JI parameters.
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