There are birds, birds of many different songs, scattered widely throughout the auditory field. There’s the snapping of branches and the rustling of leaves, as unseen bodies move through an unseen terrain. Not a lot seems to be happening, yet occasional sudden burstings-into-sound suggest that a lot could be happening. Slowly, gradually, the birdsongs give way to the persistent drone of night insects.
Michael Pisaro’s “Continuum Unbound” contains three parts. There’s “Kingsnake Grey”, a 72-minute continuous field recording, unedited, of a sunset in Congaree National Park. “Congaree Nomads” uses field recordings made while hiking through the park, roughly organised by location from north to south, heard concurrently with a slow sequence of chords performed for this recording by Greg Stuart on bowed percussion. The five voices of “Anabasis” represent sands, winds, tones, waves, and interludes, and are performed by four different musicians (Patrick Farmer, Joe Panzner, Toshiya Tsunoda, and Greg Stuart), each operating without being able to hear what the other performers are doing.
I’ve never been to Congaree National Park, but I find myself trying to relate listening to all this material to experiences I’ve had of wandering through other forests or parks, or to listening to other works of field recording and experimental music. I’m also thinking about the title: ‘continuum’ suggests a line of correspondence running through these three quite different pieces of music; ‘unbound’ points in a number of different directions, not least towards the idea that the three pieces, though related, don’t add up to form a definitive whole. If you go down to the woods today, this is what you might hear, but if you’d gone yesterday, you’d have heard something different… In a slightly contrived way, this resonates with philosopher Quentin Meillassoux’s concept of absolute contingency, referenced by Pisaro in the liner notes. In an absolutely contingent world, nothing is necessary except contingency itself; everything could be seen, heard, felt, and known otherwise.
But contingent music isn’t necessarily one in which none of its components are necessary, where everything could have been other than what and how it happened to be. It could also be a mirror for a contingent world. This requires some sleight-of-hand. For example: the consonances and dissonances between the field recordings and the bowed percussion chords heard in “Conagree Nomads” are contingent in the sense that, given different recordings, or a different choice of instrument, a different set of sonic relations would have almost certainly been produced; yet the musical situation was most certainly set up with the intention and expectation that such interactions between sonic objects would occur in some fashion. Each part to “Continuum Unbound” has a score that is as detailed and precise as it needs to be to obtain the desired result. Yet what I recognise in the music as I listen is a world dripping with a dew of contingency.
Or dense with fog. The liner notes tell us that the chords of “Congaree Nomads” represent fog: a fog of unknowing, a fog that hides nature and with which nature hides. Fog generates uncertainty due to the way it confounds and re-calibrates the senses, and uncertainty is very effective in creating the impression of contingency. But while fog hides the landscape, it is also part of it. When I perceive this fog — when I hear the bowed chords wrap around the trickling stream, or winds blowing harshly across sands, or the brush of an unseen wing — I’m sensing the difference between the nature I know and the things that are, nature-like, in the world.
All of this is very exciting and enjoyable, at least for anyone who listens to music in the hope that it might stimulate the thinking senses and challenge previously-held assumptions with some new perspective on the world. But music isn’t the only way in which contingency and difference become sensible. One way of describing climate change, for example, is as a way in which contingency shatters the expectations of stability and of the necessarily-so held by thinking, sensing beings. (Does the world around you appear to be a given — constant, predictable, and inevitably amenable to life? How about now?) I therefore can’t help but listen to “Continuum Unbound” with half an ear turned towards the ethical, even the political; in this sense, the unnecessity of everything isn’t the end of ethics (or of music), but its beginning.