Back in 2009, Duane Pitre curated a CD entitled The Harmonic Series that brought together an array of artists like Pauline Oliveros and Ellen Fullman for a collection of pieces composed for Just Intonation. Roughly a decade later, Pitre has returned with a considerably more ambitious second volume that enlists "six of the most important emerging voices of contemporary experimental music" for a triple LP extravaganza of longform Just Intonation pieces. To his credit, Pitre truly did assemble an impressive lineup for this release, as artists like Caterina Barbieri and Kali Malone are undeniably leading lights of the current vanguard. In fact, everybody here has a history of making great or provocative music, though I am not sure everyone was brimming with great ideas for a bombshell Just Intonation opus, as it seems like a daunting challenge for anyone attempting melodies. Given that, The Harmonic Series II is more of a fascinating mixed bag than a uniform triumph, though roughly half the artists managed to conjure up something that exceeded my expectations. And regardless of how well some pieces do or do not work, this collection has definitely expanded my idea of what is possible with Just Intonation.
Each of the six artists was given a full side of vinyl to work with, so each composition is roughly between 15-20 minutes long. The first side is devoted to Kali Malone's modest "Pipe Inversions," a duet between Malone (playing a "small pipe organ") and Isak Hedtj√§rn on bass clarinet. I was expecting Malone to contribute an album highlight, given how much thought went into the harmonies and frequencies of The Sacrificial Code, but "Pipe Inversions" is mostly just a slowly shifting series of chords with bleary harmonies centered around a more sonorous root. As such, its pleasures are more structural and subtly microtonal than some of the other pieces. Conversely, I was not sure how well Caterina Barbieri's strong melodic sensibility would handle this tuning challenge, but her closing "Firmamento" is one of the collection's strongest and most surprising pieces. Admittedly, Barbieri's melodicism did not come along for this trip, but her tense, neon-lit futurism did, as "Firmamento" is an enjoyably spacey and slow-burning drone epic. My favorite piece is Duane Pitre's own "Three for Rhodes," which combines an erratically heaving, herky-jerky pulse with a shimmering crystalline edge. I was also pleasantly surprised by Catherine Lamb's "Intersum," which goes against the grain to reduce Just Intonation harmonies to something akin to a ghostly supernatural fog drifting through a crackling and hissing backdrop of field recordings. The collection is rounded out by the gnarly, nightmarish strings and buzzing horror of Tashi Wada's "Midheaven (Alignment Mix)" and Byron Westbrook's kosmiche-sounding reverie of stammering, sweeping arpeggios ("Memory Phasings"). Aside from Barbieri's piece, which has a definite dynamic arc, the general theme of the album is extending a single interesting motif for the entire duration of a piece (albeit with plenty of small-scale dynamic and harmonic transformations along the way). As a result, how much I enjoy a piece within its first minute is generally a solid indicator of what I will think by the end. However, what I actually hear is just the tip of an iceberg of deeper compositional and conceptual themes, so listeners who are more invested in the details and mechanics of avant-garde composition will likely enjoy The Harmonic Series II on a deeper level than me. In any case, this is definitely an interesting and one-of-a-kind release. While some pieces are more instantly gratifying than others, each of the six artists involved found their own unique and inventive way to face the challenge and expand Just Intonation's historically constrained stylistic niche.