CD Reviews

Saturday 4th July

July 4, 2009

A break from improvisation today after a bit of an overload recently, I had a lovely day today, walking in the country and sitting in the garden with a sketchpad mainly, and not listening to too much music at all, but when I was listening, it was to composed music, either Schubert’s late chamber works or Michael Pisaro’s compositions realised by Greg Stuart and their new Wandelweiser release Hearing Metal 1 in particular.

Just to be upfront right from the start here, there is a Pisaro/Stuart release forthcoming soon on Cathnor, and the sketchbook today contained drawings that will hopefully lead to the sleeve design for that CD, so yes I am probably biased towards the music of this composer / musician pairing and you should bear that in mind when you read on, though I will only be honest.

Also, whenever I have spent time with Pisaro’s composition before, be it to respond in writing as I did here, or artistically for the forthcoming disc, I have spent a lot of time with the music and also spent considerable hours with the written scores, understanding how the music works, its inspirations etc…. In the case of Hearing Metals 1 I have chosen to share a few words detailing my gut reaction to the music, a day after it arrived in the post (Many many thanks Antoine) without seeing the score, and after just one brief email from Michael early this morning.

The album is made up of three compositions written for a 60-inch tam tam. The three works were developed following close collaboration between Pisaro and the percussionist Stuart late 2008 and early this year. The album carries the attribution after Brancusi, one of my favourite sculptors who worked often in bronze, the same metal used to form the tam tam. The three pieces are all given the name of a Brancusi work as well, perhaps (though I am not sure) with the particular sculpture in mind when the music was written and performed. The first track is a twenty-five minute long work titled (quite beautifully) Sleeping Muse, and is constructed from bowed tam tam sounds with sine tones buried deep in the sound of the percussion. The piece is described in the brief liner notes as a four-part chorale, but listening through I am not certain where the four parts come from, maybe at any one time four sounds can be heard, but the piece exists as one long work with manyl gentle changes in tone and texture, not just four.

Multi-track layering of sounds is a mechanism common to all of Pisaro and Stuart’s previous works, and all three pieces here seem to be constructed in this way, though very much to their credit you might not guess this on a blind hearing. Sleeping Muse is a slowly drifting, constantly changing and richly detailed swarm of warm, glowing sound that keeps changing colour slowly, but the golden tones of Brancusi stay in my head, light reflecting off of a revolving piece of bronze, or maybe images of a sea of lava very slowly creeping down the side of a volcano, constantly changing but continually present. I am obviously reminded of Mark Wastell’s work here, though Michael informs me that when he and Stuart began their work on these pieces they were not familiar with it. Where this music differs from Wastell’s tam tam drones though is with the inclusion of the sine tones, which in this piece are constantly there but almost entirely undetectable throughout. They are buried deep within the swells of ringing percussion, blending with it seamlessly, altering the overall effect of the music considerably, but doing so in such a manner that, if I were not told in the liner notes I would not have guessed of their presence.

The second piece, weighing in at nearly half an hour is named The Endless Column and is constructed using sixty recordings of individual light, close recorded strikes on the tam tam which have been ordered here randomly, each strike allowed to decay gently before the next arrives just before silence is allowed to settle. Mixed in very carefully throughout is a rising scale of sine tones, again so carefully done that it takes very very careful listening (and a decent method of playback I would imagine) to hear anything of them at all. Certainly, on my first play through, before I had read the liner notes I was unaware of their presence until nearer the end of the piece, and I am left wondering how much they change the sounds of the tam tamwe hear. If the tones were not added would the music sound dramatically different? If so, why is the presence of the tones so hard to detect in the music? Perhaps like the way subtle lighting affects how we see a bronze sculpture we do not realise its impact until it is taken away. The overall piece is again very beautiful and strangely hypnotic, its almost ritualistic structure swaying around the room as you listen, tricking your head into thinking it is hearing more than is actually there.

The final piece, Sculpture for the blind is a wonderfully playful title for the ten minute recording. Eight tracks of bowed tam tam are overlayed and combined with three further sine tones which are again tightly woven into the streams of decaying sound. This piece is much more urgent, the sounds tumbling faster and louder with much more depth provided by the many layers, which react with each other to form heavy beating tones and imaginary blocks of sound that seem to move through the music at a different pace to everything else. As the piece moves on the sounds used extend in length and the work stretches out into a slower, flatter sound with the sine tones rising through the percussion again as time passes. The image of a volcano again occurs to me, with the initial violence of the eruption providing the opening drama, but with a sense of calm prevailing as the lava rolls away down the mountain before coming to a gradual stop and its glow fading away.

As you may be able to tell I am very taken with this work and I have played it back to back this evening over and over. Pisaro and Stuart’s working partnership is a richly fruitful one that I hope continues to grow and evolve to the mutual benefit of both parties just as it continues to enrich my listening time. Hearing Metal 1 is also another disc to contradict the widely held (but untrue) belief that Wandelweiser releases are all very quiet or sparse releases.

Mark and Graham, if you haven’t already heard this you both should, it will be right up your streets.

Comments (9)

  • michael pisaro

    July 5, 2009 at 6:13 am

    Richard, thanks for the nice words and the excellent Brancusi pics!

    Regarding the sine tones: the strategy is similar to that of ‘Transparent City’ — sometimes one is aware of them, sometimes not, but they always affect the overall sound in some significant if (often) mysterious way. Sometimes, as you rightly guessed, their presence would only become obvious when you would compare a tam-tam sound with a sine tone to that same sound without.

  • JrF

    July 5, 2009 at 10:01 am

    looking forward to getting a copy of this one – exciting.

  • graham halliwell

    July 5, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    “Mark and Graham, if you haven’t already heard this you both should, it will be right up your streets”.

    I’ve never heard Michael’s work, and I’m looking forward to the forthcoming Cathnor release. From your description, and Michael’s comment above, “Sculpture for the Blind” does sound frighteningly similar (in intent and result) to “Vibra” and “Beat” from Recorded Delivery, and some of the experiments we did in +minus with Bernard Gunter. (And does “The Essence of Things” ring any bells Richard?). But then Mark and I have always considered ourselves to be well ahead of our time 😉 (and seriously big :-) )

    I’m now looking forward to listening to last night’s Cut and Splice BBC R3 broadcast featuring Alvin Lucier (sine tone work) and Jason Lescalleet.

    I promised myself I wasn’t going to post here for a while, I feel I keep derailing your wonderful blog. But its hard not to respond to someone you know and respect who is so dedicated to the cause. I’m also looking forward to you becoming a musician and taking up amplified Marmite containers.

  • Richard Pinnell

    July 5, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Graham your presence here is very much welcomed and treasured by me at least. Please keep derailing things (not that you do)

    I’m also interested to hear that Cut n Splice programme. Its here for anyone able to access the BBC iPlayer, maybe the UK only? Not sure.

    I like the idea of a work for a thousand empty Marmite jars. Could be fun, especially the work involved in the preparation 😉

  • JrF

    July 5, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    probably not my place to say so but I enjoy reading Graham’s posts too.

    I reckon if you name the 1000 marmite jar project something like ‘reaction & interaction with the remaining dark matter’ & whip up a 1000 words about the relationship between consumer processes & the active disintegration of European public health, then there’s at least a £10,000 arts council grant in it for you 😉

  • michael pisaro

    July 5, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    Graham, thanks now to Richard, and a few months ago, to Adam Sonderberg, I recently got to know Mark Wastell’s truly wonderful “Vibra” pieces (#1 and #2). The similarities _and_ the differences in approach are really interesting. I’m going to have to check out your CD with Mark, Rhodri and Steve, on Confront (that goes on my list). As luck would have it, I just ordered your Cathnor release from Richard and am really looking forward to hearing it.

    Marmite? I wonder how many of us in the US (or California at least), have encountered this magical substance … I looked it up and still have a hard time imagining how it might taste.

  • JrF

    July 5, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    ‘still have a hard time imagining how it might taste’

    & once you have tasted it plenty of people have a hard time imagining why ? i’m partial to a bit of freshly baked marmite bread myself but Bovril is the thing for spreading !

  • graham halliwell

    July 6, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    Michael, if you have difficulty finding a copy of Recorded Delivery please let me know.

    DL’d the Jason Lescalleet excerpt from the Cut and Splice festival as broadcast on R3. Listened to it 3 times and loved every second of it. Interestingly, in a brief interview, Jason mentioned how he’d observed that slowing down tapes appeared to increase the scale of the sound. This is certainly something I’d noticed on The Breadwinner. It then got me thinking that if a tape is reduced to half its speed then a signal at 24 Khz, just outside our hearing range, is then brought into our hearing range at 12Khz. And likewise a low frequency signal at 24 hz will become subsonic; i.e. felt rather than heard (which would explain why the drive units on my speakers flap around on parts of The Breadwinner). Unintentional sounds enter the framework. Reducing tape speed to quarter speed would probably include even more unheard information, intentional or not. This would explain why the scale of sounds appears enlarged.

    Fairly simple, obvious stuff, I guess, but interesting and with wonderful sonic results – at least to my ears; the sound of magnetism. Its also interesting to note that Eliane Radigue’s early experiments were with tape manipulation, (reducing tape speed, tape feedback, etc.), before she took delivery of her first synthesiser. I’m really looking forward to hearing some of those CD’s of early material about to be released. I hope you review them, Richard.

    The Alvin Lucier clarinet/sine tone piece from Cut and Splice (a Hommage piece) was also sublime and beautiful.

    Would have posted this on Richard’s Cut and Splice review from a few weeks ago, but found it locked.

  • jon abbey

    July 6, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    one other note about that set since you bring it up again: jason was amused at Richard’s description since he said he didn’t use a single loop that night.

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