Sunday, April 18, 2010
Michael Pisaro - a wave and waves (Cathnor)
A simple structure made up of incredibly complex molecules, much like the natural phenomenon it seeks to emulate, consequently, in many ways as difficult to write about as it is to accurately replicate a stone. A wave (the first piece) and a series of waves (the second), inspired by sea waves, water molecules replaced by percussive figures (played with extraordinary grace and touch by Greg Stuart), "percussion" allowed a very wide definition.
Two pieces, each 35 minutes in length, each beginning with a minute of silence, the pair separated by an additional four silent minutes on disc, each scored for 100 instances of percussion.
As with much of Pisaro's work, it's quite possible to hear them as single, breathing entities and to be entirely unaware as to the intricacy of their construction. Like his inspiration, the scores are both complicated and disarmingly simple--essentially matrices of percussive elements (numbered) with their durations (often allowing the performer leeway in this regard), whether the given section has a crescendo or not and more or less how the element is to be deployed (for example, dropped items such as grains of rice or pebbles should be able to be heard singly). For the recording--one can only imagine a live performance--Stuart recorded all parts and assembled them.
Part I, "a world is an integer", is a single, cresting wave, comprised of 100 20-second modules, starting with ten percussive units (to give an example of the range, these ten happen to be: piano with scraper, seeds falling on glass plate, bowed temple block, two stones clicking, bowed vibraphone, bowed brake drum, bowed gong, seeds falling into a wooden bowl, dry leaves in a metal bowl and seeds falling on a metal plate. Here, as elsewhere, one can see that Pisaro groups sets of sounds in a non-random manner). Each unit is assigned a number of 20-second phases in which to sound, ranging from 1 to 6, by virtue of which overlapping Pisaro can mold the waveform; at its densest there are 50 sounds heard simultaneously. The performer's intuition on exact duration makes for a quasi-random element and imparts, I think, a certain shimmer to the piece. No crescendos are used here, as they are on the second work, so instead one hears a gradual, phased massing of sounds--there's a kind of self-similarity on the whole despite the constant variation of actual elements. This is one of the most fascinating things about the piece to me, one that truly replicates a core aspect of nature vis a vis, at least, the conceptual extent of humans' pattern recognition: it takes extreme concentration and probing to discern the amazing differences that make up something that we insist on mentally simplifying as a wave, a rock, a leaf. The music lends itself to either approach (ideally at the same time but, dammit, that's hard!)--being listened to as a gorgeous, rich whole, or parsed as an enormous collection of tightly woven bits, each different from the other, yet cohering. I imagine sitting in some large space, hearing a live performance, feeling the tide surge over me.
Part II, "a haven of serenity and unreachable", was inspired by Pisaro's observance of the waves at Big Sur, that they arrived with a periodicity of 15-20 seconds and that "every seventh wave would be a 'big one'". I think it's easier if I simply quote Pisaro's description of the process:
This section consists of 100 waves of sound. Sounds occur in the indicated groups of 10 (six in a row) and 40 (every seventh "wave") and begin every twenty seconds (according to the times given). Thirty seconds is allotted to each "wave". All (sustained) sounds begin very softly (same level as in Part I), sustain for a period of about fifteen seconds, have a slight crescendo (in any sound which can crescendo) for five seconds (cresting at the 20 second point), and then either fade slowly away or are allowed to ring (for up to ten seconds. Decaying or non-sustained sounds simply begin after 20 seconds of the wave have elapsed.
Here, the pattern, even though occurring over a fairly long stretch of time, becomes readily discernible, sinking into one's consciousness after several listens. Oddly, given the greater detail in the structure, I find it a bit more static in feel than the previous piece, as the seven-stage pattern goes through its iterations. This isn't a criticism at all; in fact, it more or less approximates what one experiences when watching waves, the surface uniformity of the activity. But, as with Part I, the details that go into the structure (and into waves of water) are in a constant state of flux, their elements always shifting. Each cresting, six minors and a major, are individual events, unlike any other if heard with enough care and consideration. Like many a great piece of music, that's in large part what these are about: coaxing the listener to really use his/her ears and mind, to integrate both the large and the small, to hear the patterns within patterns, to hear and see the world a bit differently when next one steps outside.
Two incredible pieces of music, of thought.
(btw, I'm not sure if this is actually available as of today, April 18. But it should be very soon. Keep a sharp eye out.)