CD Reviews

Friday 9th April

April 9, 2010

2010-04-02Californian composer Michael Pisaro’s music has long been a favourite of mine, and so just recently its been great to see his work garner a lot of positive attention, none more so than Yuko Zama’s remarkably in depth explorations of his recent music as can be read here. Given all that she and others have written about the recent 3″ disc July Mountain released in a small edition, and by now I imagine out of print on the Engraved Glass label I struggle to wonder what I might add. The fact that Michael, alongside his collaborator on this release Greg Stuart has a full length disc ready for release on my Cathnor label just make sit even more difficult for me.

That the music that forms July Mountain is really very beautiful will be no surprise to anyone that has heard Pisaro’s compositions before, so in many ways I can move on from that fact and perhaps try and work out why. The piece is a twenty-one minute composition for field recordings and percussion, but as with all of Pisaro’s work the score in itself is a work of art, a carefully arranged set of timed placements of the various elements, meticulously plotted over several pages of charts and finely detailed instruction. It also helps that Greg Stuart, the percussionist and close collaborator of Pisaro is extremely talented and very much in tune with the composer’s ways of working. The score for July Mountain can be downloaded here, and I encourage you to study it carefully so I won’t list everything it includes again. There are twenty field recordings spread methodically through the piece though, with ten of them sounding at any one time and their appearance and disappearance staggered, so as one ends another begins. The recordings are all to have been made in mountain or valley areas, and we hear birds twittering, cars and aircraft passing, distant voices chattering, the wind etc…  Alongside this there are 143 separate recordings of persussion sounds divided into ten different groups of classification ranging from brushed drum sounds to falling rice grains to sinetones projected onto resonant surfaces and then recorded, through to a standard piano. Each of these sounds is placed carefully into the music by Pisaro. Even the piano sounds, which are split into 32 chord strikes, each one recorded separately and then panned through different stereo channels are arranged with precision timing, the first appearing at the eight minute mark, each further one occurring at twenty-two and a half second intervals thereafter.

So, Pisaro wrote all of these elements onto paper, or maybe into a word processor. He couldn’t have been able to have heard the music in his head in the same way as perhaps Beethoven might have done so many years ago, not precisely anyway. Although he may have had a good idea about the overall sound of the piece how did he know that 143 percussion parts and 20 field recordings would balance this nicely? Were there earlier versions that had sounded too loud? too heavy? too empty? and then the quantities and durations of each element were adjusted in later scores until the right balance was struck? Somehow I doubt this was the case. Exactly how the score was refined and adjusted to arrive at such a perfect final form I am not sure. Pisaro’s writing then reminds me of a form of architecture. So the designer might see a space, and envisage something to go into it, but until it is built, or at least until the scale models are created the vision remains in his head. So he will work through the elements from scratch, starting with the central structure, working outwards, adding embellishments and aesthetic fine tuning until the blueprint is finished and handed over to the builder. So I wonder how close Greg Stuart’s realisation comes to what was initially in Michael Pisaro’s head, how close the final skyscraper might look compared to the scale model, or the artist’s drawings. I suspect very close indeed, but then I am left to marvel even further at how such a work can be envisaged on paper, how a musical form virtually bereft of traditional musical pitch and dynamic notation can be scored so acutely. Maybe there never was a scale model in Michael’s head, maybe the parameters are defined in such a way that the space would be filled but the exact form would result from chance. I doubt that this was the case either.

So yes the music is beautiful. It is also very dramatic, with the sounds building and intensifying slowly, beginning mostly with just the field recordings and slowly absorbing the percussion sounds until for the last two minutes we only hear the rushing flow of percussion. The piano comes out of the blue, altering the music considerably with just very simple contributions. When the first chord lands everything seems to suddenly shift in direction around it, though in truth little changes at all. The use of this highly recognisable, comforting sound in the sea of less familiar abstraction is a masterstroke, pinning the music back and focussing the listener just as the music threatens to break out into formless clouds. As is so often the case in his work, Pisaro’s inspiration for the piece came from a poem, this time a work also named July Mountain by Wallace Stevens, and it is as we read these few words that the music comes alive again, so clearly linked to this poem, written more than half a century ago. Fantastic work.

We live in a constellation

Of patches and of pitches,

Not in a single world,

In things said well in music,

On the piano and in speech,

As in the page of poetry—

Thinkers without final thoughts

In an always incipient cosmos.

The way, when we climb a mountain,

Vermont throws itself together.


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