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Michael Pisaro - Close Constellations and a Drum on the Ground / Asleep, Street, Pipes, Tones

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Artist: Michael Pisaro

Album: Close Constellations and a Drum on the Ground / Asleep, Street, Pipes, Tones

Label: Gravity Wave

Review date: Jun. 1, 2011

The American composer Michael Pisaro is part of the post-John Cage/musique concrète/AMM generation of music makers for whom silence is as important as sound and non-played sounds are as valid material as those generated by instruments. For a composer, he’s a pretty good prose writer. I like the way this piece from 1998 links baseball, The Temptations, and the lineage of 20th century American experimental composition together in a discussion of the composer’s and listener’s roles in the transmission and reception of music, and how he makes the case that music creates rather than recalls emotions. Pisaro’s writing, like his music, is mercifully free of distracting clutter; like Bernhard Günter or Eliane Radigue, he presents music that’s been reduced to essentials.

But it’s the peculiar burden of artists who address their material in measured and straightforward fashion that their work is often discussed in hyperbolic terms. Unfilled spaces invite all manner of projections, as though it’s not enough to simply experience the power of something unadorned. On first listen or 50th listen, it’s awfully tempting to rave about Radigue’s music in terms far less temperate than her ultra-parsimonious tonal arrangements. Pisaro’s music, like Radigue’s, seems simple despite being the result of intensely focused consideration. She has labored at times for weeks to make a small sound perfect, and there’s something similarly specific in the way he’ll put a couple guitar notes or a sine tone together with some environmental field recordings. But while it is quiet, it is also demanding. They challenge a listener’s stamina; Close Constellations and a Drum on the Ground and Asleep, Street, Pipes, Tones are single tracks, the former lasting 40:30, the latter 63:40. He doesn’t hand you grand or repeated gestures, so it takes some concentration to hold the shape of a piece in your head. And while he prefers beautiful sounds instead of harsh ones, you won’t get their full measure by basking in their prettiness.

“Asleep, Street, Pipes, Tones (excerpt)”

Asleep, Street, Pipes, Tones alternates between two ongoing musical processes. In one, guitarist Barry Chabala and bass clarinetist Katie Porter work their way from one held note to a descending melody, while the other is an assembly of electronic sine tones, organ and street recordings, and excerpts from recordings by some of Pisaro’s mates in the Wandelweiser composer’s collective. The musicians’ progress is more deliberate, their music quite bare and simple, while the samples are more dense. Sometimes the transitions between them are silent, other times an e-bow hum converges with a sine tone. But what makes this music so affecting is the way each sound seems to bring a set of associations with it. The church organ that first appears around the 24th minute isn’t just an organ, but a representative of organs through history; the rumble of a truck on the street evokes both the use of such sounds divorced from context in early musique concrete and the context-creation of Hollywood sound design. Going back to baseball, Pisaro is the pitcher and the listener the batter; whether you connect, and how far you go with this music, is up to you. It’s finished and realized when you swing at it.

The title Close Constellations and a Drum on the Ground is explanatory without giving away the game. The constellations are the rich, if circumscribed and similar, sonic zones occupied by Chabala’s e-bow guitar, Pisaro’s sine tones, and Greg Stuart’s bowed crotales (small cymbals); the drum on the ground represents a host of slowed-down percussion sounds supplied by Stuart and deployed by Pisaro. Its spectrum is immense, from lolling, globular shapes to slicing tonalities so sharp you could cut sashimi with them. But the changes between elements manage to play up contrasts without being at all showy about it. Pisaro overlays sounds, so that one moves in as another departs. The way the music passes from one contributor to another feels like a play of light, with shades creeping in and receding and blending gradually enough that you tend to notice the changes after they get past you. What stands out is how he alternates the length of each section, so that even when ensuing elements are quite similar they feel different.

While Asleep, Street, Pipes, Tones trades on the associations that accompany each sound, the focus here is more on the sounds themselves. They’re authoritative without being dominating, in keeping with Pisaro’s willingness to let each batter have his or her own swing.

By Bill Meyer

Other Reviews of Michael Pisaro

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The Middle of Life / The Punishment of the Tribe By Its Elders

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