Mathematics Without Tears

Sebastiano de Gennaro
Musica Razionale
UK 19m40s 17 CD (2022)
Here’s this Italian “mathematics” record composed and played by this Italian composer and percussionist, with some help from guest players on one track.

Well, it’s based on mathematical principles and ordered by mathematical rules for sure, but Seb has certainly taken a rather arbitrary approach to the project, making decisions seemingly based on his own personal tastes. The starting point was him reading about Tom Johnson, famed US minimalist, and his graphic scores based on number series. This sent de Gennaro scuttling off to read a book on maths phenomena, and he “selected six of them” in his own intuitive way. It seems Luciano Berio gave him the confidence to call this endeavour “Rational Music”, or at any rate to use a particular phrase attributed to Berio. Additionally, a maths professor in Milan seems to endorse the underlying notion of it, making the link between maths and music.

Wonderful process I’m reading about so far, and I may be completely wrong in supposing that his selection of the phenomena was some sort of whimsical spur of the moment choice, though I’m still not yet clear how we ended up with the music we have on the disc. One of the exercises (‘Lo Shu’) may be a way of interpreting fractions (everyone’s favourite subject at secondary school). It’s interesting and unusual work, though oddly enough it doesn’t seem especially “rational” really; what I hear is bitty, mosaic-like notes, played with great precision, but as we listen the big picture of mathematical phenomena doesn’t quite sharpen into focus. The voiceover material at the start of each track doesn’t really help the case, even though it’s supposed to act as a useful annotation, and makes the record seem more like a playful game than a conceptual statement. Indeed, now I say that I realise that parts of Musica Razionale are quite bizarre, zany almost. Imagine if your beloved maths teacher from your school days suddenly stood up on a chair and started clowning about with a salami.

Like a lot of quasi-scientific releases we’ve heard over time, this record makes very little effort to convince us of anything, and the creator assumes that the value of the experiment is self-evident, with no further need to explain. In spite of all these disparaging remarks dribbling out like so much bile, I did enjoy the record and wonder if it’s time to investigate his other percussion works, such as The Teeth Of The Cow where he pays tribute to an unsung Disney studio musician, George Hamilton Green. Sebastiano de Gennaro has also scored film music; I sense a pattern emerging here somewhere. From 27 May 2022.