Bay Area pianist and composer Chris Brown turns his attention to just intonation for the new Six Primes | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Bay Area pianist and composer Chris Brown turns his attention to just intonation for the new Six Primes



Pianist and composer Chris Brown, who spent his high school years living in Hyde Park, possesses one of new music’s most curious, restless minds. He’s an inveterate explorer who veers from the strictures of composed music with a hearty improvised music practice: he’s played live computer music in the network band Hub, studied various world music systems, and worked with interactive setups between computers and live instruments. For his latest Chicago visit he’ll play music from his superb Six Primes (New World), a 2016 album of solo piano pieces written in just intonation—a tuning system in which the intervals in a scale are derived not from a constant frequency multiplier but from varying ratios of whole numbers. Brown limited himself by using only the first six prime numbers (2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13) to guide elements of each piece, including form, tuning, harmony, and temporal structure. As much as I’ve tried to fully understand just intonation, I can’t entirely grasp its mathematical foundation, but I’m delighted to report that that’s not necessary to enjoy Brown’s music, which draws on a rich tradition of American maverick composers like Henry Cowell, Conlon Nancarrow, James Tenney, and especially Lou Harrison, whose fascination with Indonesian gamelan music seems to be one of Brown’s most prevalent influences. His buoyant, rhythmically shifting compositions are filled with crisp, precisely phrased counterpoint, and once the listener adapts to the harmonies—which will likely sound dissonant if not “wrong” at first—there’s no missing their elegance and beauty. As if it wasn’t enough for Brown to write and play this stuff, he’ll turn on his early vocation as a professional piano tuner to tune Elastic’s piano in just intonation for the performance, changing it back to equal temperament afterward.   v

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