Michael Pisaro: A Conspiracy Against the Ordinary

Sunday, 22 April 2012 17:09 Lucas Schleicher Opinions and Editorials - Interviews and Features

cover imageExperimental music opens up our ears. Should we become too rigid or inflexible in our thinking, sound can point us toward broader avenues and unexpected possibilities. This, says Michael Pisaro, is one way that experimental music reaches out into the world. But, he says, it doesn’t just reach out, it invites listeners in and asks them to interact with what they hear. Over the course of several emails, I talked with Michael about his sense of time in music, complexity in modern composition, why silence matters as musical material, and how sound is never exactly what it seems.

I first read about Michael Pisaro’s music in a review by Bill Meyer, which contained a link to several of Michael's essays about experimental music. One in particular, titled Hit or Miss, draws connections between modern music, baseball, and the feelings aroused by listening to The Temptations. Reading that and hearing just a brief sample or two of his music was enough. The next day I eagerly grabbed a copy of 2 Seconds/B Minor/Wave, and a couple weeks after that, I was ordering more.

Michael is a composer, guitarist, long-time member of the Wandelweiser Group (Michael's essay on Wandelweiser at Erstwords is a must-read), and a professor at the California Institute of the Arts. He’s also the head of Gravity Wave, the label on which many of his most recent recordings have appeared. His music is impossibly difficult to describe in a summary way, in part because his work is so varied, and referring to Michael’s avowed influences, like John Cage or Christian Wolff, does little to alleviate that problem. He's produced everything from pieces for classical instruments like violin, oboe, and trumpet to the Transparent City series, which is made up of sine tones and field recordings. A Wave and Waves, released by Cathnor in 2009, is scored for 100 percussion instruments.

After listening to some of the newer releases on his label and reading more of his essays, I contacted Michael with a few questions. Many of them arose from reactions I had to his essays (two of which had been written over a decade ago) and others were about how his theory applied to his practice. How could a composer so concerned with silence write and record an album as full-bodied as ‘Hearing Metal (2)?’ And how is it that silence increases the complexity of a piece of music rather than the opposite? In his responses, Michael talks about everything from John Cage to filmmakers Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, Bob Dylan, and philosopher Alain Badiou.

Reading Michael's essays will provide some context for the following conversation, but doing so isn’t required. I quote from the essays in several of the questions and Michael talks fluently and easily about the topics we cover.


Lucas Schleicher: I'd like to start with some introductory information. Who are you, where are you living, and how would you describe what you do?

Michael Pisaro: I’m a 50 year-old (white) guy living near Los Angeles, and teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, which is mostly how I make my living. I think it is still fair to call what I do “experimental music” although I readily admit that term has broadened to the point where it might nearly be meaningless. I write and play music.

LS: In 1997, you summarized your manner of working in the following way: “Normally when I start to write, I begin by selecting a single sound. My aim is to make this single sound become the piece, or rather, the piece is about the ‘becoming’ of this sound. This emphasis on one sound has several ramifications, which show up as preferences for the solo player, one instrument, one event, one silence, etc.”

Is this description still accurate? What do you mean by “the becoming” of a sound?

MP: Another word for becoming might be unfolding. To unfold a sound means to extend it in a way that (hopefully) reveals its potential. My belief is that “a sound” is never one thing, but something like a crystalline structure with facets, reflections and directions already imbedded in it. An unfolding might thus be likened to breaking it down into its chemical components, and then possibly combining them in new ways. I don’t think there is anything particularly new in this. It would also be a good description of the way Ockeghem or Bach worked.

Looked at in another way, however, the becoming of a sound might take place all on its own. That is, a sound or a location or a group of sounds, apparently static, can, through the mysteries of duration, establish itself without any other addition, or with just the slightest push from the musician. I’m thinking about a piece from Taku Sugimoto’s record Doremilogy (the first one, called 1.1) where a C is held on an e-bow guitar for a very long time (maybe 15 minutes) before heading relatively quickly up the rest of the C major scale. It’s a very odd and beautiful piece. But this tone, just apparently sitting there, starts to do something. Exactly what it is doing is hard to say, but it does have the sense of being on its way, of moving, even though in traditional terms it is always stable.

I think right now it is both of these ways of thinking that form part of the background to what I’m doing.

LS: Bach might have worked in a similar way, but not, I’d guess, in the same way you do. Many of your pieces, like the Sugimoto one you mention, develop slowly or incrementally over longer periods of time. Do you find that working with longer durations is necessary for achieving the effects you’re after?

MP: Usually the longer durations grow organically out of the initial decisions about the material itself, so I’d say yes, that’s often the case. Of course the durations are not exclusively long. I often find myself asking if there’s a way of making things more compact. Most of the harmony series pieces fit that category. Nowadays I try only to think about duration in the most practical terms. It becomes less and less a conscious variable, and in and of itself is (for me, now) far less important.

LS: In your essay Hit or Miss, you discuss the convoluted history of ideas that have shaped modern music, noting that an untrained listener will find it difficult to follow the why's and how's of the music.

You respond, "I work toward another goal: to seek to make a musical object which exists in as direct a relationship to a listener as possible. Anyone should, through careful listening, be able to understand what is happening in one of my pieces. Like most of the others associated with experimental music, I attempt to strip away as much of the obvious formal complexity from a work as possible: the work is direct and simple.”

What does it mean for an audience to understand your music and be in a direct relationship with it? Can you give an example of the kinds of ideas you hope to communicate?

field recording

MP: I think, first and foremost, that it means to be immersed in the sound world of a piece. Sound comes towards us; we go towards it. The relationship that produces this immersion is the activity from both sides. It’s my belief that “understanding” in this way is pretty much the same thing as listening carefully. I doubt that it is really a form of communication (that is why I like the word relationship).

LS: When I listen to 2 Seconds/B Minor/Wave or Asleep, Street, Pipes, Tones, I often find myself concentrating on individual sounds, more than I would when listening to a Beethoven symphony or a Rolling Stones song or something like that. The form or structure of your music changes the way I perceive the sounds themselves, so it's harder for me to separate the form from the sound. How do you see the relationship between forms and materials, and why is it important that you simplify them for the audience? What is gained from that?

MP: “[I]t's harder for me to separate the form from the sound.” This pretty much describes the relationship between form and materials that I like. It is something like a fourth dimensional view: where sound material and time seem to be made up of the same stuff instead of as being really different parameters. How this is done (or at least attempted) would probably entail a fairly detailed and technical discussion. But for now I would just say that it usually takes a lot of time for me to sort through the relationship to the point where they seem to gel as facets of the same thing.

I don’t actually think anything is simplified. Perhaps it just appears that way because we are used to instruments making a lot of different sounds along some few trajectories: pitch and rhythm mainly. But when the focus is away from those (as it often tends to be in the music I’m doing), other areas move to the foreground: timbre, duration, resonance, pitch deviation, and so on. It is true that for our ears, the differences here are subtler, but that’s where the activity of the listener I described above comes in. I think this kind of listening offers a different range of affect, or at least a different emphasis within affects we normally experience. Again, it is hard to talk about the affective realm in music, because it is subjective, and because language may not quite be up to the task. But perhaps it is the combination of the intensity that arises from this particular focus and the sense of stillness associated with the relative “smoothness” of the surface?

LS: I’m interested in this different range of affect. Popular music is capable of evoking lots of feelings and ideas by means of pitch, rhythm, and color. By shifting the focus to texture, duration, silence, etc., do you think the affective range of music is actually enriched, or is it just the means of generating affect that grows?

MP: Certainly the kind of affect that is possible is different under these circumstances. But from my perspective the “range” of affect is an illusion, akin to looking at the number line. What I mean is that there is no difference in number between the infinity of points between 1 and 2 (on a number line) and that between 1 and 1.1. What really interests me are the affects created by music itself (i.e., feelings we’d only know because music introduced us to them). This is where I feel that experimental music is the strongest: in the creation of new affects.

LS: Continuing along that line, how do you reconcile your desire to challenge a listener's ear with your desire to keep things direct? Is keeping the material and form simple the same as maintaining clarity in your work?

MP: I think was answering this above without really trying to. I’m proposing that this is not a contradiction, but more a question of the degree of resolution. I am saying that we can maintain the slightly “out of focus” hearing that provides this sense of clarity and the “immersive” listening the breaks the surface down at the same time (sometimes explosively so, as in the piece Ricefall (2)). Or, this is how I experience it, anyway.

LS: Knowing that silence is important to your work, I'm curious to find out why you use sine waves in many of your pieces. Visualized on a spectrum, I think I would place them on the side opposite silence. Do they hold a special significance for you, or do they serve a particular function?

MP: A) I love them. B) They might be the most useful musical tool ever invented. On some level everything we hear can be separated out as a collection of sine tones. This means that in some contexts they can become invisible, affecting things without us directly hearing them (this is probably my favorite thing about them).

LS: With regard to silence and invisibility, you've suggested that the "richness of sound" is dependent on its instability, and that the closer a sound gets to silence, the more unstable it becomes. Elsewhere, you've called silence a "disturbance" and characterized it as "dense." At first, these look like counter- intuitive thoughts, and I've wondered at what you mean by them. How is it that silence is so unstable or dense and what is it about instability that enlivens music?

MP: These are all related aren’t they? On an acoustic level, it’s a bit like the effect of a microscope: just about anything, when magnified, becomes complex.

But part of the instability of silence is also that fact that the non-action of a performer opens us to contingency, i.e., that apparently just about anything can happen at any time. Traditional musics often convey the impression that they can replace contingency with continuity, that the patterns of music being based on repetition and regularity can be a stable foundation. But as we know from the history of mathematics, when you introduce zero and then infinity into calculation, the stability of the system is thrown into doubt. Mathematicians have learned to live with those instabilities, and I think that the possibility also exists in music: we can discover both “stable contingency” and “unstable continuity.”

LS: I've noticed that in your writing there is a tendency to think about the quality of a sound in terms of its relation to the person hearing it. Therefore, we might call a sound "empty" if it escapes the listener's attention. In a similar way, I've seen you talk about silence as a presence rather than as an absence. Isn't it a kind of category mistake to describe silence in the same terms that are typically used for audible sounds? Were someone to say that you were just mixing up very basic distinctions, how would you respond?

MP: As you can see from the above, I think it is possible to consider sound and silence as variants of single category, because, on an acoustic level, silence in music is just a place for other sounds. Cage was so excited when he discovered that both sound and silence in music have to have duration: he thought he had discovered something much more fundamental than that apparent dichotomy between the two.

An empty sound, as I was thinking about it, is in a somewhat different realm than the purely acoustic. This has to do with a guess that when our mind is away or focused on something else, there’s a kind of acoustic inattention: perhaps a more profound gap or emptiness than when the sound of a piece stops. Of course I’m not a neuroscientist, so this is merely a guess. But it is something I think we all experience when we ask: What just happened? How did we get here all of a sudden, without experiencing the stages between?

LS: You talk about this kind of experience in your Erstwords essay, in relation to Christian Wolff’s Stones:

“With recording, sound is stored for use. How do you use a recording like Stones? Do you just listen to it like anything else (perfectly possible in this case) or do you find ways of listening to it that suit the recording in other ways: say playing it all day at low volume (so that it can be forgotten, except for those very few moments when a sound rises to the surface, reminding you it’s still there). Or play it so loud that you hear everything... In other words, the recording can be viewed as open, something like an instrument…”

In your own work, do you seek to create or encourage these kind of inattentive gaps? Do you see your recorded work as open in the same way?

MP: I do hope my recorded work remains open in that way, but I don’t consciously ask this same question every time out. I think the fact that for me recordings are kinds of environments is deeply embedded at this point.

In terms of the “inattentive gaps”, I think there’s something in the high density of pieces like A Wave and Waves, July Mountain, Ricefall (2), Hearing Metal (2) and Fields Have Ears (6) that actively encourages a state where one is constantly “forgetting” what one just heard. I’ve come to enjoy the experience of hearing a piece for a third or fourth (or fiftieth) time and hearing new things in it. This still happens to me with these pieces.

LS: Your sense of timing and structure contributes to that effect I think. Can you talk a little bit about how you understand time in relation to your music, and specifically to the way you structure your pieces?

MP: Wow, that’s a big question, in part because this can change from piece to piece, and there are getting to be quite a few of those! It may be best just to say a few things about it and hope that this gives some idea. The first thing to say is, as I indicated above, a lot decisions about timing and structure arise from the way I’m thinking about the sound materials. For some kinds of materials, the structure is a bit like a set of boxes in which things occur. For example, a set of regular time units whose stability sets the changes of the material in relief. Ricefall (2) would be archetypal, but the new disc on Gravity Wave, Fields Have Ears (6) would also be a good example, even though it doesn’t sound this way on the surface.

Other structures are bit more concerned with organic fluctuations in time: although Taku and I agreed to the larger “boxes” of 2 Seconds/B Minor/Wave, what happens within those time periods exemplifies different kinds of fluidity. In "2 seconds," because of the pulse rate, things vary proportionally in unpredicatable ways. In "B Minor," it is the interplay with an extremely fluid melody that hardly seems timed at all (in fact, all the durations were chance determined) and a relatively regular harmonic progression. Finally, in "Wave," there’s the "no time" of the drone with the highly abstracted (both patterned and irregular) notion of recurrence found in waves of all kinds (sound and ocean waves here are understood as facets of the same thing).

cover for Fields Have Ears 6

LS: Field recordings, of things like waves, natural environments, and cities, are featured prominently in your compositions, often beside more conventionally musical sounds like guitars, clarinets, and sine tones. Something I've noticed about this contrast is that it blurs the line between music and, for lack of a better term, nature. The Hearing Metal series is one example, but I hear it on 2 Seconds... as well, especially on "Wave." Is it fair to say that you are interested in the musical qualities of nature? Is it a topic you consciously approach when composing or performing?

MP: It all depends on what you mean by “nature.” Of course, like anyone else, I love the natural world (i.e., the environment: forests, rivers, and so on). But that’s not entirely my notion of what nature is. I also love cities and the sounds of cities. When I think of nature, nowadays, I think of what Quentin Meillassoux calls the “mathematicization of nature.” That is, the idea that nature is some kind of collection of objects (our world) that we come to know through the distorted prism of our perception, but which can also be approached, or at least better understood, through scientific means. These means give us some sense of things that exist well beyond anything we could actually perceive. The topic is, as Adorno pointed out, a moving target: each era redefines what nature is in such a fundamental way that one can hardly trust the concept.

LS: In your essay, Time's Underground, you make a remark that has stuck with me since I read it, but I'm not sure that I've understood it.

You say, “In the silence, the stillness, there is room for anyone. The silence of the listener is the same as the silence of the composer or the performer: here we are on the same plain, experiencing what is most important by saying nothing at all.”

I have a hard time figuring out how a composer's silence is the same as a listener's, and I'm curious which experience you think is "most important" in this case. Listening to your music, I get the sense that you are talking about an experience of selfhood and (broadly) community, or the world, but I can't formulate why. What do you mean by this statement? Do you think that other kinds of music (noisier kinds) are fundamentally incapable of communicating the same experience?

MP: Community is definitely what I’m talking about there. I was trying to say that when one experiences “performed silence” there is no hierarchy: because everyone is more or less doing the same thing (i.e., listening to “nothing”). I know that this is rather idealized, and over the years, I’ve seen people have the opposite reaction: that is, that the composer and/or performer are privileged in this situation, because they get to impose the silence. It is a question then of the individual circumstance: how the performance is set up, who is there, where it is, and so on. I don’t think anyone has thought more about this than my friend Manfred Werder. There you see an ongoing engagement with the whole circumstance that is very rare in music, in which the kinds of considerations we are talking about here are dealt with in a whole variety of situations.

I’m sure that actually many kinds of music are capable of this. For instance, high-volume noise might have the potential to be equally “un-hierarchical,” when, for example, the whole organism of each listener is completely wall-to-wall immersed in this saturated sound (even if this also seems like a possible paradigm of imposition).

I should say that my thinking about this issue might have evolved a little after 15 or so years.

LS: Community here has a political connotation to it, but we haven’t mentioned politics or social issues whatsoever, and those are topics that don’t often come up in discussions about abstract music, at least not anymore. Are your manners of composing or performing politically or socially motivated? And can you maybe say a little about how your thinking has evolved with respect to this issue?

MP: Last year I heard a very good talk on this topic by [Alain] Badiou that might help to introduce my own position. As you may know, he identifies Politics and Art as separate “truth procedures.” This means that they are not, by necessity, bound up with the same goals. He says that in the 20th century the relation between them took two main forms: Art under the sign of Politics (which is propaganda, such as what often appeared under leftist regimes) and Politics under the sign of Art (which produced the “aestheticized” politics of rightest regimes). I agree with Badiou that there are other possible formulas, even though great works of propaganda continue to be made (a current favorite example is the film The Forgotten Space by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch). One thing that I don’t think works is for artists to make direct political statements. It has always seemed to me that this has more to do with making the artist feel (and look) good than it does with changing anything. Didn’t Bob Dylan demonstrate this close to fifty years ago when he abandoned “protest”, went electric, and started to then actually change things?

But it is the search for these other relations that fascinates me at the moment. In our own time, from my perspective, there seems to be little creativity in the politics of equality. I like to think that the crazy, topsy-turvy world of experimental music (and art, film, dance and so on) could be a source of models for how we might re-think political action. This is too big a topic for one musician to handle: the most radical aspect of experimental music at the moment is its appearance as a “conspiracy” against the appearance of “things as usual.” It constantly tells us that the world is different from what we think it is, mostly because it keeps telling us that the world doesn’t sound the way we think it does. Of course, what we do is at the absolute margin of visibility. It hardly appears in today’s world at all. And any attempt to make a larger appearance runs the risk of compromising the radical inventions of new forms of experience. I think the best thing we can do right now is to continue to patiently enlarge the set of possibilities: of possible sounds, social relations, connections, networks, subversions, and so on. A true political movement gathers its own momentum, it’s not the work of one of us, it’s the work of all of us.

LS: That leads nicely to some of the statements you make in your 11 Theses essay, which takes Alain Badiou's Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art as its starting point. Since the transmission of ideas and interaction seem particularly important to you, I was shocked to read the following:

“Words like 'reflection' and 'communication,' words that seem to indicate that art is a kind of 'self-reflexivity' or it is something which has as its goal the delivery of a message, are anathema. The idea of a 'public' is not the goal of art, it is simply one of the conditions of art. An actual public, even if it only comes down to the artist herself, is a given."

It seems to me that "reflection" and "communication" are important to art, to the extent that art could not subsist (or maybe even exist!) were it not communicated. Could you maybe say a little bit more about what you mean here?

photo by Phill Niblock

MP: Here I think I’m very (perhaps too much) influenced by what [Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari write in What is Philosophy? They propose that art is about the creation of percepts, that is, things (intricate bundles of perceptions) that can be picked up by our senses. This seems very abstract, but that is only the start. It is very clear to me that art is the best medium (besides personal touch) to indicate feeling. But I don’t consider that a form of communication, i.e., as a form that can carry fully decipherable messages. It’s rather the case that music affects us before we know how or why it does. There’s really nothing new in this thought, is there? The deepest feeling seems to me to arise almost of its own accord.

LS: But in creating these percepts, do you hope to inspire feelings in the listener that are akin to the ones that inspired you to make the music? Feelings may arise of their own accord, but what can we say about listeners who get the same feelings or ideas from the same piece of music? Isn't it the case that some music does have a decipherable content? And that such content can be shared, between both composers and listeners?

MP: Yes, but what do we share? Would you want to be the one who defined that? In any case, I would not want to be the one who tried to pin down what my own work was making me or anyone else feel. It is much easier to share impressions of the sound world (i.e., features, structures, harmonies and the like) than it is to share feelings. I agree, however, that the sense we sometimes get, especially in performance, that we have all shared something tangible, that we’ve been moved by the same thing, is incredibly important. I just don’t want to name it.


Many thanks to Michael Pisaro for agreeing to answer these questions and being so helpful.
Photographs by Michael Pisaro and Phill Niblock.
Artwork for Fields Have Ears (6) (and all other Gravity Wave releases) by Yuko Zama.

Last Updated on Friday, 27 April 2012 06:09