ALBUM REVIEW: Stuart McLeod’s ‘Tetraktys – All Is Number’

by Michael Schell

Back in 1996 Seattle composer/percussionist Stuart McLeod initiated a project called Tetraktys (pronounced “teh-TRAK-tis”) and named after a Pythagorean shape with ten points arranged in a pyramid. Considered by some to hold mystic significance, this shape is also a font of mathematical relationships, which in McLeod’s hands evoke musical structures that are varied but unified. Logic dictates having ten Tetraktys pieces in all, one for each point, and having produced a recording of four of them in 2015, McLeod chose this past December 19 (his 53rd birthday) to release the remaining six.

What makes this new album successful isn’t so much the individual tracks as the unexpected relations created through their juxtaposition and summation. Tetraktys 1 (“the origin of the universe”) uses layers of single-note electric guitar chimes, while Tetraktys 2 is appropriately obsessed with major seconds. Much of McLeod’s music is influenced by minimalism—in particular the kind of process-oriented 1960s minimalism epitomized by Terry Riley’s In C, in which multiple musicians gradually play their way through 53 repeating beat-driven patterns. Tetraktys 2, with its emphasis on vibes and single-reed woodwinds, seems to hearken back to the sound world of In C’s first recording.

Tetraktys 3 is fixated on augmented triads: two stacked major thirds that comprise a symmetrical, tonally ambiguous chord any of whose three pitches can function as the root. McLeod amplifies the vagueness by using a detuned piano and adding a generous dose of reverb and simulated tape hiss that suggests the sound of a 1960s era field recording.

Later pieces are less direct in their numerical correspondences. The gamelan-like Tetraktys 8 isn’t a study in octaves as you might expect, but more of a monophonic version of In C where the melodic snippets subtly transform themselves sequentially rather than overlapping by chance. Tetraktys 9 features synthesized clangs and “MIDI orchestra” sounds that remind me of the late Hardy Fox’s “contraptions” released under his Residents nom de plume Charles Bobuck.

For McLeod, whose other musical interests include brainwaves and loud, aleatoric rock, Tetraktys now stands whole, the fulfillment of countless explorations concluded then reopened, “writing and rewriting these 10 pieces over a period of 22 years.” The drawn-out, revolving birthing process has its analog in the final piece, Tetraktys 10, which is designed as a summary of the previous nine followed by a coda that’s a summary of the summary. This is music that, like its gestation, seems to perpetuate itself in cycles.