Tuesday, November 02, 2010

As I've written before, the music of Michael Pisaro has been my single favorite "discovery" (late though it was) of the last few years. So I think it's interesting, good even, that each of these three recent releases of his work causes me problems of one sort or another. We don't need complacency!

"ricefall (2)" is one of two recordings inaugurating the Gravity Wave label which will be dedicated to Pisaro's work. It's an elaboration on and an expansion of "ricefall (1)", which was scored for 16 musicians with an 18 minutes duration (16 one-minute events bracketed by single minutes of silence). Percussionist Greg Stuart asked for, and received, a quadrupling of the score--64 events over the course of 72 minutes (with a minute of silence before and after each 16-minute section). The score is fairly transparent, indicating the surface upon which to drop the rice grains and the approximate intensity/volume to be used. Stepping back, there's an overall arc that rises then eventually evens out.

Upon simply hearing the title of the work, I was expecting a very quiet piece; part of me was doubtless recalling seeing Sean Meehan dropping individual grains of rice on his snare some years back. I was unprepared for the sheer intensity of the attack in the very first section, a deluge of sharp, tinging strikes, as though a violent, if small-grained, hailstorm suddenly began pelting my window. More often than not, the minute to minute transitions are subtle but detectable. Indeed, it's a great deal of fun to sit and watch the CD timer change and attempt to pick out what combination of surfaces and intensity was now being heard. While the general soundscape remains self-similar, there's a helluva lot of other stuff happening. Sometimes, as in minute 13, I swear I heard pianos somewhere back beyond the curtain of falling rice. I might guess that the grains were, in that minute, falling on some especially resonant metal, but I'm not at all sure. I also have to commend Stuart for maintaining an astonishing evenness in each subsection; you know he's taking handfuls of grain and dropping or hurling them downward but, even in the densest portions, there's a remarkable consistency of texture (within which, of course, there's much variation).

That being said, all these fascinating attributes aside, I have some trouble wrapping my ears around "rainfall (2)" as a whole. Unlike, say, a late Feldman work where one can simultaneously appreciate the beauty of adjacent chords, recollect more distant neighbors and, almost by osmosis, come to sense and appreciate the large scale structure, here I could never get beyond the immediacy of the attacks and the transitions from one to another, hearing it as four sets of sixteen distinct, if slightly overlapping events. I found myself enjoying it as acoustic phenomena but wanting to hear more of an integration into the whole than I was able to perceive. That extra dimension present in so much of Pisaro's work was imperceptible to me. I entirely allow that this could be just me and that, some time from now, I'll smack myself in the forehead and exclaim, "Of course, you idiot!"

Whatever, the case, it's entirely worth hearing.

With "july mountain (three versions)", my problem is more subtle, perhaps even trivial. The original release, issued several months ago on Jez riley French's Engraved Glass label, is my favorite disc of the year thus far, an extraordinarily beautiful piece of music. That same recording leads things off here and it hasn't lost a bit of its power and beauty. Incidentally, that extra dimension I mentioned above is present, for me, in spades on this piece; the whole thing has a marvelous trajectory, something that, after it's over, you can sit back an really grasp the enormity of. The second track is something of a revelation--it's simply the percussion portion of the original, sans the field recordings. The revelatory aspect of it, to me and I daresay to many, is how much of "july mountain" is percussion. I know that I, to the extent I analyzed it, thought that far more of the sounds were generated in the field, by wind, faraway engines, water, what-have-you. It's a testament to Greg Stuart's immense ability on all things percussive that he was able to blend so seamlessly, so chameleon-like. It's also a pleasure just to listen to on its own, very fascinating, many rubbed surfaces, deep hums from some unknown source, tons more.

The third track is a realization using a mix of field recordings by Pisaro, Stuart, French, Greg Headley and Travis Weller. It's lovely, somewhat different than the first rendition--more birds, dog barks, maybe more insistent engines--but totally in sync with the idea and a joy to hear.

So what's my problem? Only this: The Engraved Glass edition had, for me, a special, stand-alone, jewel-like quality to it. It was a perfect little gem, really flawless and something I liked to think of "in isolation". Combined with two other tracks, as fine as those are, I feel that something ineffable has been lost, or at least that the luster of the piece grows dimmer. It's a quibble, no matter really. Everyone in hearing distance should get this disc (and the previous one) to further experience Pisaro's unique and wonderful sound world. I'm very anxious to hear more from Gravity Wave and am very enthused that the label exists.

Gravity Wave
Distributed by erst dist

My experience, by and large, with Pisaro's music has led me to expect a certain clarity and pristine quality. It also seems to me that it feels more natural with acoustic instruments or very "pure" electric ones like sine waves or, at most, e-bowed guitar. Such preconceptions, of course, are nonsense and, given his growing popularity (at least in this small corner of the world) one can expect musicians to have at his compositions from many an angle. Miguel Prado, out of A Caruña in Galicia, Spain, takes on a piece previously known as "within (3)" and indeed makes it his own. enough so that Pisaro now refers to two separate but related works, "within"'s 3.1 and 3.2. The original was written for classical guitar and consisted of lightly struck single tones that were held for 10 seconds, repeated a varying number of times. I haven't heard that work (I don't think?) but can pretty clearly imagine it.

Prado uses held tones but imbues them with a healthy dose of fuzz, eschewing tidiness for a certain amount of grit 'n' grease. I realize I make this comparison all too often, but there's something of Fripp from the period circa "Evening Star" in the sound. As the electric guitar allows for much longer periods of aural decay, it was decided to layer the tones rather than letting one dissipate before initiating the next. Between these two elements--the fuzzy guitar and the lack of silences (or near-silences; there are extended silent breaks between sections) the work, to my ears, loses some essential Pisaro-ness. It's fine, and enjoyable to hear, with plenty of luscious moments, but lacks the kind of specialness I've come to expect. One listens to the tones fluctuate and interact with one another and derives some pleasure from that, but the subtle sense of structure one expects isn't quite perceivable--you get the sense of pleasant meandering as opposed to ecstatic rigor. Now, to be sure, I may well be over-pigeonholing Pisaro's music and he may have welcomed this expansion into a more drone-like sphere. But one of the qualities I've come most to enjoy in Pisaro's work is a kind of edge-of-one's-seat suspense in an odd sense: each moment is often so beautiful, you are almost afraid to hear the next one, fretting that the spell might be broken. That it's often not is to the credit of both composer and interpreter and it's quite thrilling to experience. That rare sense is missing, for me, here.

Limited edition of 100 and, caveats aside,decidedly worth hearing for admirers of Pisaro's work



jkudler said...

kill yr idols! glad to see you finding some chinks in the armor. in that spirit, i have to say i got the original version of july mountain partially because of your RAVES, and i've never found it as unimpeachable. i think it largely stems from the piano chord(s? - can't recall now), which are mixed too loud for my taste and always take me right out of the mood of the piece. hmm. but pretty curious to hear ricefall plus sundry other pisaro discs i need to catch up on. and a wave and waves has proven pretty resilient upon a lot of listens.

as long as i'm at, the linguistic prescriptivist in me might take issue with your usage of the word "enormity," though google seems to say it can be synonymous with "enormousness." i only mention this because i feel like you can maybe appreciate, brian.

Brian Olewnick said...

heh, I actually don't recall ever having known of the original meaning of the word! (just looked it up). One does often hear it used in the phrase "the enormity of the crime" so, I'd guess, the combo of that along with its affinity to "enormous" was more than enough for the meaning to slide.

jkudler said...

it's just one of those things i remember very vividly being corrected on in high school. it probably stuck in my craw at the time, because who uses "enormity" only in that sense? but now it always jumps out at me. oh well.

ryan said...

i slept on the point engraved ed. of "july mountain," mostly because the description of field recordings + percussion didn't grab me. however, your review and your revelation that much more of the piece is percussion than originally thought, interests me. plus, i am intrigued by the ability to examine the isolated percussion elements. i can see how this release might dilute "july mountain" for those that know and love it, but to one (perhaps more?) that has not yet heard it, this release (or is it your review) has made the piece sound rather more interesting than before.

now, does anyone know why mono, rather than stereo field recordings were used?