Well I have been putting off writing about Michael Pisaro’s newest release on his Gravity Wave label for a few weeks now, having listened to it a lot when it first arrived, and then on and off since, trying to get my head around it. I still don’t know that I have fully worked out how I feel about it, but certainly my thoughts are positive for one reason or another. Fields have ears (6) is, as the added numeral suggests, the sixth work in a series that has now reached its eight part. There have been earlier releases of some of the earlier scores, but this is the first CD release of the sixth composition, and its something quite different to the earlier works.
As Pisaro’s liner notes point out, the Field have Ears series began as a work that combined a single classical guitar with a four channel mix of sinetones and some field recordings. The score is based on a grid structure, chosen to represent “a field” into which different guitar parts are placed. By the time the work had evolved to this sixth incarnation, the classical guitar has given way to electric, which is played here by Pisaro, but has been combined with a dense mass of tones and field recordings as Pisaro increased the dimensions of the score’s grid, and brought in a lot of additional elements. The new version sets the composer’s guitar against location recordings from various places that the score had previously been performed, plus some from various places Pisaro has travelled while working on the piece (California, Neufelden, Austria, London) and other elements, such as recordings of turntable samples and radio broadcasts.
Now, Michael Pisaro’s first six releases on Gravity Wave (this is the seventh) have seen his music move towards a very recognisable, thoroughly beautiful form of music. His pieces have been assembled using a mass of small elements, so coming together to create works that are intricately structured from many small parts and yet when heard from afar all sing together like the various instruments in a large orchestra to create achingly gorgeous swoops of sound. A generalisation of course, but one thing that has remained present across those releases is a sense of majestic beauty- clear graceful lines and a well defined structure. This new release is extremely interesting because while it is built using similar layering and massing techniques, what is deliberately absent is the same sense of flow towards a simple overarching form. In a good way, Fields have Ears (6) is all over the place.
The album opens slowly, with sounds eventually emerging from silence as you might expect them to on a Pisaro release, with thin, soft sidetones mixing with barely identifiable grey blurs of field recordings, including some traffic and a slowly picked, early-Pisaroesque series of guitar notes laid in top. The first real sign that things might not continue in the expected vein comes a little after the four minute mark though, when rising quite suddenly out of this now quite thick veil of dense, but mostly featureless field of sound comes a few seconds of what i can only really describe as Chinese traditional music of the kind one might expect to hear on a TV advert for noodles or something equally generic. This element really takes you aback when it first appears, a bit like wandering through London’s streets on a cold rainy night and stumbling across Chinatown unexpectedly. (Its always possible of course that this is what Pisaro did) Further sounds similar to this one then arise at various spots across the CD, each time as surprising as the last. There are then also glimpses of conversation in foreign tongues that stand out from the rest of the composition as out of place, blasts of what sounds like industrial machinery, birdsong, sudden crashes, rushing water, aircraft, and traffic, lots of traffic. There is an awful lot mixed up in there, sometimes all peeling back to reveal the fragility of the guitar alone, and at the centre of the album defending into a long silence, as is common with Pisaro’s scores, but what really makes this album stand out from his other recent work is the way the various elements sit proud from the flow, often quite jarring in their appearance and denying the album any obvious overarching sense of structure. This is the most confusing Michael Pisaro album I have ever heard, but beneath everything sits a really quite elementally simple guitar part, which shifts from Taku Sugimoto to a rougher, bluesier set of chords from section to section but always remains obviously guitar-like.
All of this makes for a very interesting album to me. Clearly a huge amount of thought and work has gone into the creation of this piece, as the intricate charts shown at the Gravity Wave website reveal, over many years, and with a huge amount of experience and amassed playing informing both the process and the content woven together. What makes it interesting beyond the usual admiration I have for Pisaro’s beautifully constructed layers of detail is the way it bucks the trend of his recent releases by continually surprising the listener by upsetting any perceived sense of flow. If we expect the usual grand arcs and tidal swoops we are continually thrown by the particles of grit deliberately dropped in to the well oiled machine. Pisaro really pushed things on with this release, as if determined to disrupt his own sense of a comfort zone by taking his own score and complicating it to the point of it becoming something no longer controllable, so the many amassed parts fight with each other as much as they usually harmonise. The danger after six albums on the label that were, very generally speaking quite similar in tone was that Pisaro’s music could get stuck in a rut, albeit a highly talented, exceptionally beautiful one, but Fields have Ears (6) is laudable simply because it breaks free from what we expect while never losing its grip on that beautifully detailed control of sound that we have come to love. A really quite fascinating, if still quite confusing album then.