Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear’s “Melody, Silence” is a realisation of the eponymous composition by Michael Pisaro, a member of the Wandelweiser collective. It’s performed on solo acoustic guitar, though there are some sustained tones placed among the more traditional plucked string timbres, perhaps achieved using an e-bow or somesuch. As one would expect from Pisaro, the notes are well spaced out, with longer silences marking out transitions between plucked and sustained sections, or two different clusters of plucked notes. At 46 minutes it feels relatively short for a Wandelweiser album, many of which seem designed to fill an entire CD.
At first, most of the plucked notes (single, or in chords of two or three) seemed to me to ring out in isolation, a series of unrelated snaps in a slideshow. After a few listens through, however, they began to form faint, tenuous lines, and something approaching a contour, sometimes branching into multiple contours, made its presence felt. This seems as much to do with Alvear’s performance as with the composition: since Pisaro chooses to leave the timing of the piece very much open, it’s down to the performer to decide how to pace the notes, how much air to leave between them, and hence how precariously to position the events of the piece between melodic phrase and singular occurrence. Too much precariousness, and the events seem detached, unrelated and wholly arbitrary; the question, “why should I listen to these sounds in this order, rather than any other?” becomes difficult to answer. Too much surety, on the other hand, and the melodic shapes appear clichéd and rote.
I think Alvear’s judgement of this precariousness makes for a very compelling performance, though undoubtedly other equally valid judgements are imaginable (along with a whole bunch of invalid, disastrous ones). What I find remarkable about this recording is the way in which the notes, having formed a line, which then forms a contour, don’t stop there: they continue to gain substance and voluptuousness in what I can only describe as a sort of becoming topology. They stop just short of landscape, with the associated heavy baggage; for me, they haven’t yet tipped over into symbols.
It could be argued that this tendency towards symbolism, with its direct fixed equivalences between symbol and meaning and the attendant all-encompassing dominance of the one-who-interprets, has contributed, consciously or unconsciously, to a downplaying of melody in much recent music. We are used to, and perhaps tired of, hearing particular melodic shapes and knowing immediately what they ‘mean’; we get the vague sense that we, the listeners, are being afforded too much privilege, as if the whole point of the musical exercise was to reassure us that we do indeed ‘get it’. If, however, the aim is to remain faithful to an event of melody (and of silence), rather than paying lip-service to its symbolising simulacrum, then to my ears “Melody, Silence” is a strong success: something very beautiful emerges through repeated followings of the paths marked out by Alvear, without necessarily offering an exact sense of where, on the great map of tones and relationships between tones, one might be.