three days in South Carolina

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort…. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting.” As I drove from Charlotte to Charleston for the first set of events in Michael Pisaro: 2000-2010, a conspectus, I heard that line on the radio from a 2005 graduation speech given by David Foster Wallace, and knew it would be relevant to the events to come. (The speech is reprinted in The Guardian, and it’s well worth reading.) The music I was to hear and think about over the coming days in turn suggests, proposes, and demands new ways of listening, a willingness to listen in new ways, a willingness to not know, to wonder, to actively engage, and to change one’s listening process. There is an open-eyed, open-eared approach to the surrounding environment, whatever it may be.

At one of the events in Charleston, Michael Pisaro posed a number of questions that he considers as a composer.

What is my relationship to the sounding environment?
What, in musical terms, could be gained from a different relationship?
How can you create musical situations that challenge a person to hear in new ways?
What can I do at the limit of what is perceivable?
What would it be like to go to just beyond that point?

Pisaro’s persistently asks these questions in his work, and in a new way almost every time. The installation of ricefall (2): the world of the subsets seems at first to be three hours of one thing: rice falling on various materials. Spending some time in the midst of it, it becomes clear that it is tens if not hundreds of thousands of things in complex relation to one another. A grain of rice impacts a surface. Other grains impact the same surface. Other grains of rice impact other surfaces (including other grains of rice). In the Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, with its rounded ceiling, the combined sounds at times generated very clear, active overtones. The same installation at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art in Columbia sounded so crisp that at times I felt almost terrified that the rice was pouring from the ceiling at one corner of the room. Depending on how the sounds are layered, and also depending on where they are played, the grains of rice seem to take on alternate roles of outcomes of a larger motion, elements, or agents of the entire action. Rhythm and density become one and the same, and take the foreground along with timbre. Another section reminded me of an immense stack of paint splatters. I knew that they were separate layers, but I couldn’t see one layer behind the others. But I knew one had been removed when the stack seemed to be come shallower. Those are just a few examples of my own evolving relationship to this installation as a listener, which I’m sure is distinct from any other listener’s experience of it.

With one exception, there are no specified pitches in the pieces of harmony series. Pisaro described it as “a piece about harmony that does not specify any harmonies…. Harmony is the object, but is left empty.” Harmony becomes, more broadly, relationship, and I found myself hearing shifting patterns of relationship, in aspects like tone, timbre, presence. It was illuminating for me to participate in one of the pieces, no longer wild, at the final concert in Pickens. Though I had spent some time with the score before the rehearsal, I didn’t realize just how crucial one instruction was. One small shift, from “p (clearly audible)” to “pp (barely audible)” staggers among five of the six players and changes the sounding landscape, allowing the barely audible, sustained tone to emerge, gradually and almost imperceptibly. It is this play at the limits where perception becomes the central concern.

fields have ears (7), which was written for this set of events, invites awareness of additional dimensions and possibilities through the construction of a 5×5 sounding grid in the performing space. The players move between the spaces so that each location sounds at some point. The speakers, placed on the outer corners of the grid, pointed upwards and reflected sound off the ceiling, further adding to the dimensions of the sound. My own experience of this piece had much to do with the sense of space that it offered. The spatial and temporal boundaries somehow, in my experience, allowed for all sorts of things to emerge in between—more air, more thought, more pockets of silence. I found ample room to think, discover, recognize, breathe. Those opportunities are precious, in whatever way they are delivered.

The people involved in this series of events made it really special. Greg Stuart and Pisaro have worked together for years now, and they were both involved in the performances. (Ricefall was recorded over the course of many months by Stuart alone. The forthcoming recording is of a 72-minute version, and will be released in mid-October on Pisaro’s new label, Gravity Wave.) The players in the New Music Collective understand this work. It resonates with them, and there is a naturalness and simplicity and unobtrusiveness in their performance of it that to me is an unmistakeable sign of experience and skill. It’s not about “performing” as such, so much as being ready to do something together, to listen, to participate.

As a result of these performances, the discussions, and the works themselves, I got thinking a lot more about harmony and relationships, and how under circumstances like these they become almost one and the same thing. Pisaro told about Ben Johnston saying that there is only harmony when the tones have a clear, numerical relationship to each other. Johnston has pursued tunings that create those proportional relationships. Pisaro takes a different approach. An individual work sets up the potential for a relationship, or harmony, of place, performers, audience, sounds. The listener is invited to be an active participant in the creation of that harmony, through active listening. (It seems to me that this approach is a further extension of the grid proposed in fields have ears (7) into the rows of the audience.) A shared experience that explores these relationships is quite rare and wonderful.

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