Greg Davis is a Vermont based musician and record store owner who has released music in all manner of weird and wonderful configurations. A renowned improvisor, he has collaborated with the likes of Keith Fullerton Whitman, Jeph Jerman, and Ben Vida amongst numerous others, and is the founder of Autumn records. We first heard his music via his 2005 album with French artist Sebastien Roux Paquet Surprise, where we were struck by the ridiculous array of instrumentation, but mostly the exuberant freedom with which they played their freak folk. (You can read our review here.) His most recent work, New Primes couldn’t be more different. Comprised solely of sine tones, he’s used custom-written software that allows various prime number sets to be imported and used to control aspects of the musical composition, from its harmonic relationships and rhythm to its form and spatialization. What exactly does all this mean? Well we took the opportunity to find out, as well as reminisce about a key recording from 16 years ago.
Cyclic Defrost: It’s hard to get much purer than sine tones. What made you use them for this project? Is it a way to shift the focus from the timbre to the process?
Greg Davis: Yeah that’s part of the idea. I wanted each of the tones / pitches & their tuning relationships, determined by the prime number sets, to speak for themselves, thats a huge part of what these pieces are about, listening to each prime number harmonic space unfold. There are 14 sine tones in each of these pieces and it creates a fairly dense harmonic space. I didn’t want overtones / timbre / harmonics to cloud up the space further or detract.
Cyclic Defrost: Following on from this, is setting parameters or developing experiments or setting limitations on how you work – a strategy to combat option fatigue? Or just a mechanism to find inspiration?
Greg Davis: In this case, I came up with the idea / concept first and then set about building it in MaxMSP and then listening to the resulting music and tweaking further and further to get it to a point that I liked. I do enjoy working with limitations or more rigid concepts / systems. it helps to focus what im doing and make music that has a very specific quality or sound or character. however, the recent project I am working on right now is completely open and improvised and I am thrilled with the music we are making, so many surprises and taking chances and doing things I’ve never done before. So it really depends on the project I suppose!
Cyclic Defrost: I understand for New Primes you’re using prime number sets to set the parameters for all aspects of this music. Why did you choose prime numbers – is there any meaning behind this for you? Hearing this I wonder about decision fatigue, If in a way you get to make one decision at the outset that then provides a framework to approach all of the tiny decisions along the way? Also it’s pretty interesting making decisions based on more than just your ears.
Greg Davis: I settled on using prime number sets for these pieces because it was a way for me to work with Just Intonation tuning and develop my own unique take on it. By using prime number sets to build the harmonic and tuning relationships, you automatically rule out any duplicate overtones / harmonics.
Cyclic Defrost: What comes first the process or the musical idea? Why do you think this is?
Greg Davis: Depends on the piece, project or the type of music im making! sometimes listening is the starting point and then I let my ear guide me. sometimes I set up a system or process and let that play out to see what the results are, sometimes its purely free improvisation or experimentation. In the end, I construct all of my pieces using my ear and heart and intuition as a guide to create a final piece of music, track or album.
Cyclic Defrost: What attracts you to generative music? And how do you know when the pieces should end?
Greg Davis: I’ve always loved generative music and long form pieces. I think I like it because its always new but always the same if that makes any sense. It unfolds using its own internal logic and system and as a listener you can come in and out at any point and enjoy it for awhile, come back to it and it will be different than before. There is a continuous refreshing or renewing thats happening. It kind of erases musical memory & structure & time in a way and pushes you to listen in the present moment. generative pieces should never end! The pieces on New Primes are just 5-7 minute snapshots taken of endlessly unfolding pieces, just as a matter of getting some of this music captured and to fit onto the LP format.
Cyclic Defrost: For me Max MSP has always been this quasi mystical program that I feel is a bridge too far in terms of my digital skills. I understand you’ve been using it for 20 years or so. I’ve always wondered/ assumed that the building of patches and then the performative aspect of utilising them to create music require you to tap into different parts of your brain. Though I suppose if you’re creating generative music then this isn’t an issue. I’m sure there’s a question in here somewhere.
Greg Davis: MaxMSP is a wonderful, open ended program. you start with a blank page (maybe that makes it feel mystical?) and create patches using basic building blocks and go from there. I’ve always loved using it because, after I gained some faculty with it, I can have a specific musical idea and then just go and build it in MaxMSP so I can hear it. and then during the process of building it and listening to it, I will then keep refining and tweaking it so things evolve as well as I use it more or to shape it into a piece of music that I’m working on.
Cyclic Defrost: Sine tones, generative music, the use of prime numbers for decisions. I’m interested in the notion of authorship, or your own personal stamp on the music. In a way it feels like you’re attempting to remove the self or personal in this music. Is this true?
Greg Davis: In some way, yes this is true! But its not possible to remove yourself completely from your own music because decisions have to be made and questions have to be answered. I suppose this is the influence of John Cage on my work, who has been a very important composer, thinker, & person throughout my life. I find that if you can try to remove yourself from your own music, it can help you get away from creative repetition & doing similar things over and over again, take your ego & prejudices out of the picture somewhat and perhaps open you up to new ideas, new sounds & new ways of working. At least it has been helpful for me & my music in this way.
Cyclic Defrost: As I write this I’m listening to your 2005 album with Sebastien Roux, Paquet Surprise, and you’re playing about 16 instruments, things shift abruptly and there’s a really folky and idiosyncratic sense of chaos. I can’t help but be struck by how polar opposite it feels compared to New Primes. Do you feel like there is a progression, or something you had to work through over the years to get to a point so many years later where you could create such a formal work as New Primes that strips things back so much?
Greg Davis: Well as you may or may not know, New Primes is a continuation & evolution of my Primes CD which i released on Autumn Records in 2009 (not too long after Paquet Surprise) and if you look at my musical output from the last 20 years you’ll see some different threads of music emerge: drone / ambient, experimental / abstract, minimalism / process / systems, folktronica / songs / instruments / processed sounds, field recordings / free improvisation, etc. So I’ve been doing all of this music all along and im always exploring various paths and aspects of all of my musical interests. So it’s not really new or a progression per se, but its more like stepping out into an open field and choosing which direction to go next.
Cyclic Defrost: Since I’m being nostalgic I’ve also pulled out your 2006 collaboration with Jeph Jerman, Ku. I remember at the time being really intrigued by it – and quite confused. I’ve only waited 16 years to ask this, but I was wondering about this notion of a shared language you were trying to create. If you remember can you tell me a little bit about it, and your subsequent work with Jeph?
Greg Davis: It’s funny because I was just emailing with Jeph (and Lawrence English of Room40) over the last few days & I haven’t talked with either of them in years. I sent them a link to New Primes to check out. Basically how Ku came about was that my parents used to have a second home near Payson AZ and Jeph lives not too far away in Cottonwood AZ, so I got in touch with him at some point and asked if he wanted to get together and play / record when I would be down visiting my parents there. So I used to see Jeph during holidays and such and we would get together and play and record. Jeph has a vast array of sound making objects, devices and natural materials. And I would bring stuff as well and we would set up and improvise with all of this stuff. Then I took the recordings and mixed and layered them into the pieces that you hear on Ku. As you may remember, we toured & played shows in Australia / New Zealand around 2006 after this CD came out. Jeph and I made some more recordings and releases after Ku came out but we haven’t worked together since around 2010, mostly because of life and whatnot but I’d love to work more with Jeph again in the future. I still consider him to be one of the great, under-appreciated, unsung improvisors/composers/musicians of the last 40 years. His body of work & dedication to listening and creating is inspiring to me.
Cyclic Defrost: I understand you own a record store, how does this constant source of new sounds interact with your own creative approaches? Do you see a link?
Greg Davis: Yes I do! I opened a record store here in Vermont about 5 years ago called Autumn Records. it has been a ton of work but I love doing it and I am always trying to keep up with all of the latest vinyl releases and surrounded by music and records every day which is something I’ve always loved. I’m not sure if its shaping my creative approaches or anything. More than anything its actually taken up more time that I would’ve probably otherwise devoted to making more of my own music but I think I’ve settled into a nice balance of work, family, creative life in the past few years. So all of the music is always inspiring to me! and I’m finding a little more time every year to work on music again even if all of my projects move at a snail’s pace nowadays but thats fine with me.
New Primes is available via Greyfade on the 23rd of September 2022. You can find it here.