Catherine Lamb: divisio spiralis
Performed by JACK Quartet
Catherine Lamb, a native of Olympia, Washington but long-based in Berlin, Germany, is one of the most fascinating composers to emerge in the 21st century. After studying Hindustani music in India, she earned her BFA in 2006 at CalArts under James Tenney and Michael Pisaro-Liu. Also important in her development was forging close relationships, focusing on vocal music, with other Los Angeles musicians like Laura Steenberge and Julia Holter. In Berlin she’s fortified a dynamic community of composers and performers built largely around her work in just intonation, the ancient tuning system where all intervals are whole number ratios—she prefers to call it rational intonation, relating to the ratios at the core of the system.
Explaining the psychoacoustic phenomenon at play in her music, and how the tuning system alters our perception of sound, is far more abstract and difficult than it is to simply bask within its spectral beauty. The harmonies in Lamb’s music shimmer and pulsate, taking on a life of their own, and filling the room with striations that can seem almost physical. Lamb’s music can take listeners on a heady, internal journey if they adjust their expectations and simply deal with pure sound on its own terms. For years Lamb’s work has largely been performed by a close-knit group of colleagues who’ve immersed themselves in listening so carefully that tuning serves as a truly communal exercise. Playing the music feels less like a performance than a way to connect through sound on the essential level. Still, performing her music with the ear-tuning precision it requires is incredibly difficult, even among seasoned players who fully understand what she’s trying to do.
New York’s JACK Quartet are that exceedingly rare ensemble that is not only enthusiastic to perform music in just intonation, but even more uncommon in their ability to nail the microscopic tuning demands. It was a marriage made in heaven when Lamb wrote divisio spiralis for JACK in 2019. It’s only her second string quartet, but it opened up new possibilities for her. The title refers to the spiral structure that’s at the core of the composer’s visualization of the piece, an hour-plus microtonal descent based on the overtone series of a 10 Hz fundamental. As Lamb has said of the composition, “The first time I discovered Erv Wilson’s 1965 organization of the overtone series as a logarithmic spiral, the image immediately resonated with me as a lucid means to describe harmonic space as numbers in repetition and interaction, generating/blooming outwards with each new prime and composite.”