Sunday 24th AprilApril 24, 2011
I’ve been listening to Michael Pisaro’s Close constellations and a drum on the ground for several weeks now, enjoying every spin of the disc and yet avoiding writing about it. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the CD, its as beautiful a piece of music as I’ve heard in a while, but… I just don’t know what, or how to write about it. The obvious approach is that I just try and describe the composition’s shape and form, guess at the precise arrangement of sounds and then say how beautiful it all is. That is ultimately probably all I can do, but this album really requires more. It needs something to be said about why it gets under the skin, why such simple structures seem to be so beautiful, what lies at the heart of this music that makes it so perfect to my ears? My problem then, is I don’t know the answers to these questions.
I’ve written before about the link to Pisaro’s music and the poetic, and by this I mean not just poetry, though there are many links to be found with written verse, but that sense of carefully arranged beauty, arranged rather than chanced upon, that is found in art works across many media, from the repeated subtle lines of an Agnes Martin painting to a Wallace Stevens poem. There is something in these works, something distilled within their structure and simplicity that I find in Michael Pisaro’s music, and as his compositions have recently begun to evolve into more richly layered, more gestural territory it feels more present than ever. My apologies if this doesn’t make a lot of sense. As I have said, I can’t really find the words to describe what I am talking about here, but there is something in the overall shape and feel of Michael Pisaro’s recent music that also seems present in some of my favourite artistic works of all time.
With Close constellations Pisaro has continued his ongoing concern with layering longer sounds of varying types, blending tonal instrumental sounds and sinewaves with more earthy grainy percussive sounds. The magic of this music comes from the contrast between these sounds as they are placed together and held apart. Like the majority of his recent releases there is very little silence to be heard in Close constellations. The music isn’t particularly quiet either, though it retains that sense of calm softness associated with the Wandelweiser collective of composers. There are four elements to the music, two of which, bowed crotales by Greg Stuart and eBowed guitar by Barry Chabala form the bulk of the sound, but also we hear the dry, often broodingly subdued recordings of percussive texture, all sense of attack washed away so just grey clouds remain, and Pisaro’s familiar use of sine tones, which are placed frequently, but often imperceptibly into the music, woven into the mass of sounds formed from the other converged sources.
I haven’t seen the score, and I have no doubt that there are precise patterns being followed by the musicians, with the placement of sounds at least roughly dictated by Pisaro. How much flexibility was offered to the musicians regarding choice of pitch or duration I don’t know. One interesting question regarding Pisaro’s work of this kind, music that has had its various parts recorded by musicians using the score, but then the final piece assembled on a computer by Pisaro himself, is to what degree do the musicians shape the sound of the work, and how much is down to Pisaro’s arrangement and editing skills? Though I’m not certain of the detail, the music seems to move through sections of increasingly building density, with periods of lulled inactivity between them. I’m not sure how many as I haven’t counted, but there are definite movements to the composition, and as some feel more intensely packed, more richly coloured than others the sensation of listening to the various parts of a symphonic work spring to mind, though throughout the work everything maintains a steadily slow, stately pace.
In fact, this piece, as with other recent compositions feels like Pisaro’s orchestral phase. If his smaller, more retrained, minimal previous works could be considered as chamber music, here, even though essentially few elements have been used there seems to be a sense of grandeur to the music, a sensation of bold gestures ahead of discrete intimacy. Perhaps following Ricefall, An unrhymed chord, A wave and waves and Asleep, street, pipes, tones this could be heard as Pisaro’s fifthth symphony, or rather his fifth large, expressive statement, compared to the concerto-like studies of July Mountain and the chamber works of the Harmony Series. But while such a generalisation might seem lumpily obvious, there is a feeling of Pisaro really finding his voice through this continuation of four of five large compositions, and as they have each been released they exude a growing sense of confident expression that seems to move away from the austerity of the earlier Wandelweiser pieces towards the glowing swells of Close constellations.
The questions I asked myself after the first releases on Pisaro’s Gravity Wave label were about where he would take his music next. The answer is here, further onwards into bigger, more vibrantly gestural composition that literally drips in beauty. The question now is where to go from here. Many consider Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to be his greatest, though I would argue for the Ninth. Nine seems to be the magic number for so many of the great composers, Beethoven, Mahler, Bruckner, and so maybe Pisaro will hit his peak in four more releases time. For now though, for me at least, this is quite stunningly gorgeous, virtually perfect music.