The notes that accompany this new release by Berlin-residing Canadian composer and string player Marc Sabat epitomize one of the greatest difficulties around composing in Just Intonation (tuning systems derived from the harmonic series). Though his notes are precise and succinct, it is all too easy for some listeners to be deterred by the description’s apparent scientific outlook—all theoretical constructs and ratios. Sabat assures his readers that he “seek[s] to experience and unfold” these principles “in a sounding world.” While others who rely on elaborate systems don’t always follow through on such promises, Sabat makes these notions of tuning tangible and audible, which is one of the main reasons that Gioseffo Zarlino’s seventy-two minutes are so beguilingly exquisite.
Sabat’s approach is minimalist. The material he employs is simple, transparent, and iterative, and it unfurls patiently enough for one to absorb and inhabit its nuances. The piece opens with a Renaissance-tinged viola-and-cello figure which serves as the basis of the piece. Its warm, open consonances exert a sort of hypnotic inward pull. Once sufficiently transfixed, listeners glean that lurking within this unostentatious refrain are three distinct shadings of the same interval: the third.
As Sabat begins to envelope this woven, cyclical core in other instrumentation—voices, violin, harp, guitar, organ, bass flute—the work gracefully advances outward toward successive harmonic auras, revealing further microtonal complexities. While these relationships become more detailed and intricate, the piece retains its soft, stately, and fundamentally euphonious flow. Delicate frictions—notably the bass flute’s entry—emerge from this rich world of pitch, yet never seem to cross the threshold into dissonance.
Gioseffo Zarlino is an understated and thoroughly satisfying disc, but its musical discourse also serves to convey a pertinent message. While it’s easy to let numbers and terminology get in the way, intonation is just as much a question of perception as of measurable objective truths. Fully surrendering to Sabat’s majestic drift will completely retune you.