Dense, diaphanous, changing: An interview with Michael Pisaro

Michael Pisaro performing on electric guitar, photo by Yuko Zama

We camp in the Big Sur area just about every summer. One of the things that you see, either driving up that coastline on the Highway 1 freeway or by visiting the various beaches, is an occasionally intense, but mostly very light, diaphanous fog wafting at the edge of the continent. Something about that environment gives you the sense that it can all disappear: us, our consciousness, the world. Things begin to feel provisional, temporary.

On holiday on the island of Anglesey, as emails between myself and composer Michael Pisaro ping back and forth through the ether, I’m privy to an experience not dissimilar to his encounters with Pacific coast fog: from the window of a rented cottage I watch the Snowdonian mountain range across the strait shift between full appearance and total disappearance, and every gradation in between, over the course of several days. The fog hides the view, partially or fully; at the same time, it is the view. Composers such as Debussy, Satie, and Ravel were masters of transposing this affect into art, Pisaro suggests (“listen to Debussy’s ‘Brouillards’, or the way the fog clears in Ravel’s ‘Soupir’“), as are the poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and the photographer Judy Natal (“Humans become enveloped in fog as they fall out of sync with the old environment”).

It’s also a phenomenon emblematic of much of Pisaro’s own music. “It seemed to me that there was still a lot to work with in this concept, especially in music and sound, which is not hard to relate to the ephemeral conditions of the fog,” he explains. “Acoustically speaking, noise is a kind of fog: it prevents us from hearing our surroundings clearly, but it is at the same time, at least in most environmental circumstances, the substance of our surroundings. For me this is one way of understanding and trying to hear some of my work, starting from ‘Transparent City’, through ‘July Mountain’, ‘asleep, melody, forest, path’, ‘Continuum Unbound’, ‘A mist is a collection of points’, and ‘Grounded Cloud’ (to name just a few of the more significant ventures in this area).”

The fog in Pisaro’s music can take many forms. In ‘Transparent City’ (Edition Wandelweiser, 2007), the sounds of places in and around Los Angeles are gradually overtaken by a translucent mist of sine tones. Sharp stabbing points and thick fog mark the infolding limits of a terrain mapped out by piano, percussion, and sine tones in ‘A mist is a collection of points’ (New World, 2015). Pisaro’s use of the fog concept is always much more than simply translating a visual impression into a musical or sonic one; it might be said that his music doesn’t so much seek to represent the appearance of fog as to reproduce its effects in other registers of consciousness. The music doesn’t resemble or symbolise fog so much as it is foggy.

like neither 1+1 nor 2

Try to pin down any artist’s influences, and things get similarly hard to distinguish; Pisaro’s wide musical interests paint a hazier picture than most. “I started collecting records when I was about 8 or so. We lived near Detroit, and Motown music was everywhere at that time. I can remember Motown and soul records being something like half of the “Top 40” in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and that’s what I liked: The Jackson 5, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Al Green, The Supremes, Dobie Gray, Bill Withers, James Brown, and so on.” Later on came a stint in a rock band, and an encounter with classical guitar music through a recording of the Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida. A move to the Chicago area brought Pisaro into contact with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and artists such as The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Leo Smith, whose music he devoured alongside punk and new wave luminaries such as the Ramones, Talking Heads, Bowie/Eno, Roxy Music, Elvis Costello, The Clash, and Television.

A music degree at DePaul University in Chicago opened Pisaro’s musical world still further, where composition tutors such as George Flynn introduced him to the work of John Cage, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, Richard Maxwell, and Philip Glass. But it was studying with Ben Johnston that Pisaro cites as the key early influence on his future as a composer. “Ben was an odd teacher: very taciturn (we would sit sometimes for several long minutes in total silence), and constitutionally opposed to pushing his methods on his students,” he recalls. “At the same time he was writing this incredible music. I was around during the premières of the 5th and 6th String Quartets and he was in the midst of writing the incredible 7th. It was hard, being around Ben, not to feel that something important was happening, not that Ben himself would ever have made that claim. Ben liked to quote Herbert Brün: “I’m not interested in what I like, but in what I don’t like yet.” That’s the experimental attitude in a nutshell.”

Reflecting back on his time studying with Johnston, Pisaro now credits his teacher’s pragmatic, do-it-yourself approach to music with helping lay the ground for his eventual membership of the Wandelweiser collective, an association he refers to as “clearly the major music event in my life, with repercussions that I feel every day” (he has written extensively about the collective elsewhere). But as defining as his participation in Wandelweiser has been, the vast, diverse cloud of influences cited above probably goes a long way towards explaining the substantial differences in aesthetic that distinguish Pisaro’s music from that of other Wandelweiser composers such as Antoine Beuger and Jürg Frey. As close collaboration begins to blur the lines of origin and inspiration, so too do new distinctions make themselves known.

“When I think about how long I’ve known Antoine, how close we’ve been, and how well I thought I understood him, it was a vivid shock how everything I knew about him had to be re-understood in the process of our collaboration,” says Pisaro, recalling the work with Beuger that led to their 2013 Erstwhile recording “this place / is love”. The piece combines Beuger’s hushed vocals and Pisaro’s droning guitar to mysterious, softly luminous effect. “This process gave me an even deeper appreciation for the way he works. The work produced still touches me in a way that goes well beyond listening. What “we” did feels like neither 1+1 nor 2 – maybe there’s some other number for it.”

 

 

Collaboration is another way of blurring the lines, of thickening the haze that surrounds an individual artist’s practice. It’s something that Pisaro engages in extensively, and no more so than with percussionist Greg Stuart. “Greg Stuart has been central to my compositional outlook of the last ten years,” Pisaro confirms. “There is a whole set of circumstances, more or less random, that led to us working together so closely, but I’m extremely thankful for those circumstances and for Greg’s patience with me as we continue to develop new work. I feel that through the music made with Greg I came to discover a whole range of sounds that derive from and serve to call up dense environmental experiences.”

inexhaustible environments

Pisaro’s landmark three-disc recording “Continuum Unbound” (Gravity Wave, 2014) in fact began with an invitation from Stuart to visit Congaree National Park in South Carolina. The composer cites ‘Congaree Nomads’, a piece that forms one of the album’s three parts and in which Stuart plays bowed percussion (crotales, glockenspiel, vibraphone and marimba) over a series of field recordings made in the park, as an example of “just how far a brilliant musician can take indeterminacy”. “As I was creating the harmonic web of the score, I kept asking myself how a musician would deal with the task of adding layer after layer of recorded material,” Pisaro recalls. “Of course this is something that as a composer, you can just write, the way one learns to orchestrate. But I had a deep curiosity about the decision making process when in the hands of someone who knows their instruments better than I ever could. Greg’s orchestration for bowed percussion (initially a much more limited group of instruments than I might have suggested) led to an evolution of colour over the piece that amazed both of us. These instruments ultimately arrive at an otherworldly organ that I think no one could have foreseen.”

“The experience of making and thinking about [“Continuum Unbound”] was one of greater and greater immersion in the environment, and then in quite general questions of the musical environment,” Pisaro reflects. “It marked a kind of capstone with regard to the use of field recordings in pieces, a realisation that if I continue with it, it will need to explore some new direction. It also raised some serious questions about musical form that I’m still wrestling with: essentially trying to understand the nature of closed vs. open forms. “Continuum Unbound” has a whole series of “openings” (both in terms of the field recording methods themselves and in the indeterminacy of the scores) and closures, or the formal methods by which these things become fixed in a recorded medium. A lot of the music I’ve written since then deals in some ways with these issues.”

 

 

Reading back through Pisaro’s eloquent and generous written responses, I find references to “the environment” cropping up again and again — particularly in places where I would’ve been tempted to use the word ‘landscape’. When questioned on the difference between the two terms, the composer is again insightful. “The two words highlight what is for me a set of fascinating gaps between the void, presentation, perception, and composition,” he acknowledges. When I suggest that that landscape is always a landscape for a perceiving subject, he notes how this “implies that the listener/composer has already arranged the sounds into some kind of pattern, that consciousness is already involved in shaping what’s heard. The artist painting a landscape is adding yet another layer of composition (a whole set of colouristic and formal gradations and judgements) to that which she’s already framed as a landscape.

“‘Environment’ for me means the pre-perceptual stage of the situation — or that which is potentially presented to perception,” he continues. “I believe that this includes a kind of infinite potential; that is, there are an infinite number of landscapes one can form from any environment. This is why it seems to me that the environment is inexhaustible, but also quite dependent upon what any of us bring to the work with it; i.e, the conceptual, formal and technical means we invent to see or hear it and to turn it into some kind of art. It’s clear to me that, given the very real threat of global environmental catastrophe, we are in a time when our sense of the world environment is radically changing. (I hope of course, by making this as much a part of my conception as possible, to shed some light on that situation.) So I use this word “environment” mainly to remind myself of the fact that there is only “a” landscape (i.e., one of many).”

The notion that the environment is an inexhaustible source of infinite potential points to the work of two philosophers whom Pisaro has cited as influences in numerous interviews and liner notes, namely Alain Badiou and Quentin Meillassoux. Badiou’s work forms “a model of how radical thought can be formalized in a way that draws as much or more from mathematics as it does from more discursive means,” Pisaro explains. “[This] helps me to think through some of the challenging problems involved in making new work, because in Badiou’s philosophy the resources for formalization, for turning something like an idea into a structure (which is something every composer does), are so rich.”

The ideas of Badiou’s former student Meillassoux are perhaps even more radical and complex, but nevertheless caught the attention of a composer who was “beginning to feel the Cagean concepts of chance and indeterminacy were not quite up to the task of what was happening” in his music and in that of related musicians. In his book After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (Continuum 2009), Meillassoux speculates that the one thing we can say for certain about any object or phenomenon, beyond all subjectivity, is that it could always become otherwise than how we currently understand it to be. “The suggestion that the universe might not obey the fundamental laws of our logic and that what happens might be contingent; that humans won’t have direct sensory access to this, but rather something like an awareness of it through various methods of probing (one of which might be art): this is extremely powerful in its ramifications,” Pisaro asserts.

Meillassoux’s notion of an absolute, radical contingency at the heart of the Universe places us back in the midst of a fog, or rather places that fog at the core of every thing. The idea that all we can fundamentally know about something is that there are no limits to what it could become is as counterintuitive as it is vertiginous. But Pisaro is quick to stress the pleasures of being lost in the fog. “Well, being lost in a fog is a pleasurable thing aesthetically, isn’t it — as long as one isn’t trying to get anywhere in it? Its shapes and varying densities, its formless form, its coolness — all offer so much to the senses. When my son was little we’d take him to the local science museum where they had one of the miniature fog displays: a black funnel in which steam was created and would form slow-moving clouds of continually beautiful shapes, always different. We could watch it for long periods of time (and we watched it every time we went there).”

the fact that things change

Michael Pisaro - excerpt from green hour, grey future score

The rough squawk of a pheasant in the garden outside brings me suddenly back to my senses. How long had I been sat watching the fog slowly drift across the mountain range, now hidden by cloud? And how familiar this sensation of elongated time, as much from listening to Pisaro’s music as from any contemplation of nature. The composer’s frequent use of extended duration, periods of silence, and slow, gradual change work together to induce an altered state of perception: listen to the small taps and thumps that here and there indent the silent surface of ‘Grounded Cloud’, from the album “Resting In A Fold In The Fog” (Potlatch 2017), for instance; or the gradual emergence and then dispersion of clarity, like the crest of a hill forming and then evaporating on the edge of a fog, in ‘green hour, grey future’ from “the earth and the sky” (Erstwhile 2016).

Perhaps the strangest implication of Meillassoux’s theory of contingency is that it applies just as much to that which we call ‘time’ as it does to anything else. “Some scientists (such as Julian Barbour) think that [time] doesn’t even exist as a physical thing — it might be more like a human adaptational mechanism to deal with the fact that things change,” Pisaro muses. “This throws the temporal nature of music into question. What do all of our measurements have to do with the experience of time? I find this extremely mysterious, worth endless experimentation, yielding continually surprising results. When I work on a new piece it often feels to me like I’m trying to sharpen a pin size probe into the vast, mostly unseen/unheard and unknowable cloud of temporal experience. The results are not science, but something more like their opposite: perhaps we know even less than when we started, but enjoy the sensation of being lost yet again, in a slightly different way than last time.”

What seems most valuable about such results is “not the large surprise or shock, but the low-level disturbance.” Contemporary experimental music may not be a science, but it progresses in much the way contemporary science does: in small increments, through the contributions of people from all over the world. “I feel my sensibilities are constantly in a state of erosion and dissolution, rather than revolution,” Pisaro states when asked what music is surprising him now. “But I do love immersion. Right now I’m spending a lot of time with music from late 16th and early 17th centuries. It’s more or less the early Baroque: Claudio Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli, Marin Marais, Louis Couperin, Heinrich Biber, J. J. Froberger and Henry Purcell.

“It’s one of those truly revolutionary periods in Western music, where it seemed like the very meaning and function of music was changing. Music is judged capable of representing nature in an extraordinarily visceral way. (Nature itself was becoming something much different than it had been, through the means of scientific probing that had re-started a century earlier.) You can hear this in the music in a good performance, encapsulated in the roughness and variety of the Baroque sound world.”

For ‘time’, think ‘change’: this is what I tell myself as I watch the layers of fog slowly lift over Snowdonia, here and there parting to allow some rays of sunlight to fall on a slope. “It is the difference between the viola da gamba and the violoncello.”

Michael Pisaro

Photo of Michael Pisaro by Yuko Zama

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