Math and music have always been intertwined. In fact, numbers pervade nearly every aspect of music—form, rhythm, meter, even intervals. But while mathematical studies such as arithmetic and algebra have often been linked with music, few composers have explored the relationship of music to geometry.
New York-based composer and audio engineer Ryan Streber is changing that.
In Streber’s new album, he experiments with a unique geometrical concept as it relates to music: concentricity. The album, titled “Concentric,” explores ideas of shape and symmetry through sound.
“The intimation through musical time of such a non-temporal idea as concentricity is something that fascinates me, as is the way in which a piece can simultaneously tell a linear narrative while still invoking a cyclical or center-oriented continuity,” Streber said. “In their own ways, all of the works on this album engage in this interplay.”
Each piece is inspired in some way by notions of concentricity, whether through symmetrical musical forms, experimentation with visual and spatial orientation (both in performance and in the stereo field), or the permutational patterns of pitch and rhythm structures used.
Streber studied composition with Milton Babbitt at Julliard, as evidenced in the modernist and experimental aspects of his work. However, he avoids characterizing his music as belonging to any particular aesthetic school, instead focusing on exploring his own musical voice by creating compositions which engage the listener in multiple ways.
Streber’s commitment to new and innovative music is further exemplified in his recording studio, Oktaven Audio. He is the engineer and owner of the studio, which specializes in classical, jazz, and acoustic music recording. In fact, Streber recorded, edited, mixed, and mastered “Concentric” himself at Oktaven.
He also enlisted the help of a few local friends in order to bring his musical vision to life. These include his close colleagues and collaborators, the New York-based ensembles counter)induction, Line C3 Percussion Quartet, and musicians of ACME and ICE, all of whom are featured as performers on the album.
The album begins with Streber’s single-movement String Quartet performed by counter)induction. The piece begins with snarling string melodies creating a dramatic and restless musical atmosphere. This tension eventually gives way to a slow and intimate middle section, which features a delicate violin melody flowing sweetly over a variety of quasi-improvised string backdrops. The music then returns to the drama and tension of the beginning, thus framing the middle section and creating a concentric musical form.
Concentricity takes on both a physical and visual form in “Cold Pastoral,” a much more ambient and translucent piece performed by Line C3 Percussion Quartet. The piece is performed with all four musicians oriented symmetrically around a small collection of shared instruments. Each note lingers in the air long after it is played, expanding outward from the concentric circle in a series of widening sound waves.
Streber switches gears in “Compassinges,” where he explores the unique instrumentation of electric guitar, violin, viola, cello, percussion, and voice. The piece features a short song setting of A. R. Ammons’ poem, “Love Song (I).” The vocal part is an ethereal melody drifting in and out of the musical forefront, often hiding just behind the electroacoustic accompaniment. Short melodic motifs from each instrument encircle the delicate vocal part, creating a constantly shifting musical texture.
Streber’s three-movement “Dust Shelter” explores the rich timbral and textural possibilities of flute, viola, and cello. The first and third movements are an enchanting ebb and flow of different musical textures, with angular and aggressive motifs building in intensity and then flowing back to soft and peaceful melodies. The second movement features a gorgeously expressive viola cadenza, thus creating a delicate, intimate central movement framed by two bold and dynamic movements.
Streber’s “Concentric” succeeds in exploring a wide circumference of musical ideas and forms, but at its center, the album showcases his true commitment to following his own creative voice and expanding the boundaries of his musical language.