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Greg Davis, 'New Primes'

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Published August 24, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


(greyfade, digital, vinyl)

Greg Davis has been obsessed with electronic tones for more than 20 years. The Burlington-based composer established himself first in the Chicago area in the late '90s as a leading light of experimental music. He would go on to work with artists such as Vermont's Chris Weisman, Akron/Family and Harmonizer's Toby Aronson. He's toured the world and released more than 15 records, most recently 2019's Throughline.

Davis, who opened Winooski's Autumn Records in 2017, is back with another heady tome of an album, New Primes. The six-track record is a deep dive into what Davis describes on his Bandcamp page as "the compositional properties of prime numbers."

What does that mean, you ask?

Well, it means Davis used a custom-written piece of software that employs a network of pure sine tones. It's a composition technique he first tried in 2008 for a track called "Star Primes (for James Tenney)." Basically, the software translates numbers — in this case, prime number sequences — into sine waves of pure tone.

"I start by choosing a fundamental frequency for each piece and multiplying that frequency by each of the prime numbers in a given sequence to determine the overtones above the base frequency," Davis wrote in an email. He went on to explain that the sine tones follow their own beat cycles by moving through multiple octaves and silent pauses, which in turn creates the overlapping prime number patterns.

If you're less interested in the technical details of Davis' work than in what you'll find when you put New Primes on the turntable, expect a study in mood and color. The first track, "sophie germain," establishes the drone that lies across everything like a blanket. As we listen, though, little harmonic movements begin to spool out.

Those hints and cameos of ethereal harmonies poke from the drone like sound waves from the depths of space. The sounds Davis conjures from his software seem more akin to the ancient, universal secrets that a researcher at SETI Institute might find than to the music that emerges from a rock star's keyboard.

Amazingly, New Primes is essentially a live record. The founder of the greyfade label, Joseph Branciforte, invited Davis to New York City in 2019 to perform his Primes project at Fridman Gallery. There, Davis tweaked the rhythmic functions of the software, working in octave cross-fades and selecting a new group of prime numbers to base the music on. He then distilled the performance into a stereo version for home listening and mixed it live to two-track tape. He named each song after the prime number set used, such as "pierpont" and "euclid."

The result is fascinating as an experiment and surprisingly engaging as a musical piece. Strip away any of the math or technical concerns, and New Primes plays like the sound of universal creation, of stars colliding, of time and space and music occupying a single platform at once.

Give it a listen at greyfade-label.bandcamp.com, where you can also order the gorgeous-sounding vinyl.

Speaking of Greg Davis, New Primes