Catherine Lamb – Point/Wave
Los Angeles-based Populist Records has released a new digital recording by Catherine Lamb titled Point/Wave. Performed by Italian guitarist Giacomo Fiore, Point/Wave features a single 55 minute track that combines Fiore’s guitar playing with environmental sounds processed by an electronic synthesizer jointly developed by Lamb and Bryan Eubanks. The guitar tuning and electronic processing are both in just intonation.
Point/Wave is written for acoustic guitar in just intonation where the tuning of the strings is based on whole number harmonic ratios instead of equal divisions of the octave that comprise our conventional temperament. As the liner notes indicate, the acoustic guitar was chosen for this piece because guitars “… are easy to retune, as strings and soundbox alike are generally more resilient to scordatura than bowed instruments. Thus one can implement ad hoc tuning systems by tuning the open strings in whole-number ratios, and by limiting the performance of notes only to those frets that approximate just intervals (such as major seconds, perfect fourths, and perfect fifths).” Additionally, the tuning specified by Lamb has the highest harmonic of the series tuned on the lowest string (transposed down two octaves). This might be analogous to freeing the melody from the bass line in a conventional piece, allowing “…one to explore the movements within each modal segment of the piece without necessarily relating it to a common ground.”
The electronic component of Point/Wave is similarly crafted with care. This is built around the Secondary Rainbow Synthesizer, a device that processes environmental sounds through a series of filtering stages into a gentle wash – in just intonation. The ambient sounds for this performance were field recordings of the people and traffic just outside of Fiore’s home in the Sunset district of San Francisco. This track of ambient sounds was processed by the Secondary Rainbow Synthesizer and then played in the recording studio along with the live guitar. The challenge, as described in the liner notes, was that “Changes in harmony occur based on a combination of external sound excitation and internal timers in a manner that is unpredictable for the performer aside from a subtle cross-fading. As the guitar part is itself cyclical, the resulting texture is a constantly changing alignment of harmonic fields, sometimes reinforcing one another, other times slightly at odds.”
So what does all this sound like? The electronic track opens the piece with warm, sustained pitches that hover in the air with a slight ringing sound. It creeps in stealthily, like the fog on a San Francisco evening, enveloping the listener in a smooth, continuous wash. The filtering process by the Secondary Rainbow Synthesizer recalls the classic Alvin Lucier piece I am Sitting in a Room, wherein spoken words are repeatedly recorded and played back in a room such that the sounds are reduced to their component resonant tones and pitches for that space. There is a sense here that the original street sounds have been distilled to their ultimate essence, adding a luminous patina to the overall electronic texture. This music requires close listening to perceive the subtle harmonic shifts and soft changes that are always occurring. There is no beat or pulse to form a rhythmic structure in the electronics; Point/Wave is propelled entirely by its harmonic possibilities.
After an introduction, the entry of the guitar at 2:35 provides a sharp contrast with a series of single notes that stand out vividly against the gentle sounds of the electronics. The tuning of the guitar allows its notes and subsequent overtones to ring out and interact with the electronic tones underneath. The guitar notes are solitary and stately, always leaving space for the sounds to intertwine. It is as if the guitar is in dialog with the extracted musical quintessence of the ambient natural world. Point/Wave is an extended conversation, taking some 55 minutes to complete, and it stays within a consistent construction. The liner notes state: “In this piece, however, nothing follows the introduction; rather we are invited to explore its harmonic spaces as they develop through the interactions of its sonorous parts…”
It is easy to admire the technical achievements here, and the excellent performance by Giacomo Fiore. The real significance of this piece, however, goes further. The processing of ambient street sounds into expressions of their essential tones allows the musician to interact with the environment on equal terms, using a common language. This makes the harmonic dialog that much richer and alters the traditional perspective of music as commentary. Point/Wave is expanding musical communication into a new and exciting place.
Point/Wave can be streamed in its entirety at Bandcamp:
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