Tashi Wada’s greatest asset as a composer is his clarity. His best compositions are almost entirely transparent, so that even if you are unfamiliar with theories of just intonation or the history of experimental music composition, you can often perceive the shape and direction of a Wada piece from its inception. Alignment, Wada’s first LP, is no exception. There is a directness to its form that allows one to apprehend its shape in time almost immediately.
James Tenney—a clear influence on Wada even more than La Monte Young or Tony Conrad—once said that in his own music you knew where it was going even if you didn’t know what it would sound like when you got there. This could be a description of Alignment itself, an 8 violin canon in just intonation whose movements through a dense, descending scale create a clear, compelling shape in time with a full sound that is at once organic and extraordinary. Alignment presents a tonal richness and complexity unlike any available to more traditionally tempered compositions. The scale structures the piece and the structure is the piece itself.
The violins move sequentially through the first 128 pitches of the overtone series, transposed into a single octave. The result is a movement through harmony and dissonance that speaks to the physicality of sound—the music becomes audibly tighter, more tense, as the tiered movements through the scale cause certain frequencies to pull upon one another. It also relies upon and draws attention to the ability of the mind to perceive several planes of information simultaneously, for as the canon progresses, certain tones come into alignment with one another, while others simultaneously phase into dissonance, harmonies and their opposite sounding at the same time, existing in parallel and moving past one another as though on separate tracks.
As an object, the record itself is conceptually neat. The sides of the record, “Direct” and “Retrograde,” are inverse to one another and the act of flipping the record essentially reverses the action of the 8 violins, making them move out of the alignment they had only recently attained. The end of each side suggests the beginning of the next—a musical ouraboros both infinite and already complete. Though the recordings are essentially the same—only their ordering is different—the effect is astonishingly dissimilar, a study in the pyscho-sonic effect of ascending versus descending tones. What’s more, mastered at 45 rpm, it is essentially two records in one: for faithful reproduction it should be played at 45, but 33⅓ offers another, extended and altogether different listening experience.
Any writing on Alignment would be incomplete without ample praise for Marc Sabat’s impeccable performance. Sabat is one of the foremost performers of experimental music in the 21st century; his renditions of Morton Feldman and James Tenney have made him legendary in the experimental music community. His mastery of microtonal violin music is in full evidence on Alignment, where he plays all 8 parts. Sabat’s control, stability and directness are integral to the dry, precise warmth of the recording, the effect of the sound inseparable from his performance.
“Music should be as direct as possible,” Wada once told me. Clarity of composition, fullness of sound and the directness of effect make Alignment as convincing a sonic argument for this dictum as one could ever imagine.