Michael Pisaro is a critically-acclaimed composer and guitarist residing in California, and also, a member of the striking Wandelweiser collective.
Renowned for his distinct ear for sublime textures compiled from the minutia of sound, for his emancipation of performers through a deeper communal listening, and an awe-inspiring presentation of stillness, quietness and silence over long durations, Pisaro has quietly - in more ways than one - become one of the greatest and most prolific living, American, experimental composers of his generation.
Ahead of the European premiere of 'asleep, desert, choir, agnes' at VIRTUALLYREALITY presents: Submergence/Emergence, Michael Brailey spoke to Michael Pisaro via e-mail correspondence about Wandelweiser, the many factions of silence, care in music, and the necessity for quietness in a hyperconnected world.
photo by Chiyoko Szlavnics.
"sounds decaying into silence -
when is that not beautiful?"
- Michael Pisaro
[MB] You’ve been an active composer with the Wandelweiser group for over two decades. How did this group set up and how has it developed into what it is today?
[MP] It got set up in a whole set of unlikely, and to me, still miraculous circumstances at the beginning of the 1990’s - essentially as a group of composers who had been independently exploring questions of silence and duration (part of the inheritance of Cage, Wolff, Oliveros, Lucier, George Brecht, etc.). I’ve written about this beginning at length for anyone who is curious. It continues to grow and change as I think some of the ideas and a lot of the music has been disseminated to the point where all kinds of people are drawn to it, not just composers.
[MB] Why do you think it's become so far-reaching, and what about the core Wandelweiser values of stillness and duration resonate with the wider artistic world?
[MP] That’s a very good question, but I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer it, since I have an insider’s view. To the extent those values do resonate with that world, I would guess it has something to do with Wandelweiser exploring a territory people might have guessed existed, but couldn’t really experience. But our concerns have also changed and developed in so many ways that the effect might be more attributable to the network that’s built up around it.
[MB] Aside from Wandelweiser, do you find your background as a guitarist affects your composition? If so, how?
[MP] In a review of my piece “Shades of Eternal Night” that was just published, the author Ed Howard posits that the final section of the piece embeds the decay of the piano (which is not present in any real sense) into the structure of the sound. I hadn’t thought of it when I was making the piece, but think he has a point. Now I've started thinking that something like that lies deep in my musical experience as a guitarist: sounds decaying into silence. When is that not beautiful? Things changed though when I got an e-bow.
'asleep, desert, choir, agnes' performed by University of South Carolina Experimental Music Workshop, September 2016.
[MB] I presume that transition from sound to no-sound is of particular interest to you? Do you enjoy situating performers and audiences on that precipice?
[MP] I enjoy that precipice so much myself I’d like to share it with people!
[MB] What about it is so enjoyable for you, either as a composer, performer, or audience member?
[MP] You know, I think in my case it’s just very deep in my sensory response, one of those things I instinctively love. But let me try to explain it a bit: for me a sound is most suggestive at the moment it stops. There’s an afterimage of the sound that keeps working in the body and the mind. Often we don’t take the opportunity to work with this image, but somehow the periods of lower action (or so-called “non-action”) allows this to begin to crystallise. There are so many beautiful affects in the process - where sometimes surprising feelings and ideas occur.
[MB] What about quietness or stillness ontologically removed from sound. Why do these factions of ‘silence’ still marvel you?
[MP] I don’t know. They’re still marvellous though, and for me remain inexhaustible in their consequences.
[MB] Are you thinking ‘inexhaustible’ in a Cagean sense, where silence is always pregnant? It strikes me that little of your music is ever really still - in a lot of these big ensemble pieces like ‘ricefall’, things are always bubbling away under the surface.
[MP] I mean that it (for me) has inexhaustible consequences. This doesn’t mean that silence or stillness are always a feature of the music, but that the experiences with these things lead to so many other ideas, observations, pieces, performances and so on.
[MB] In that case, I wonder how your relationship with silence and stillness has developed over your career?
[MP] There’s a lot to say here. In general I’d say that silence (in the form of non-action or at least low level performance) led me deeper and deeper in the questions of environment, nature and landscape. On the other hand, I think of stillness as an affect - one present in a lot of Wandelweiser’s music, but perhaps less so in mine now (though it’s often still there). This may have something to do with my encounter of the fullness and intensity of the environmental soundscape. Experiencing this may take a form of quiet listening, but what’s actually going on there is only occasionally affective in that way.
"There is no such thing in the material world
as exactness, only degrees of precision?
I like the word ‘care’ better - it indicates
that the person involved cares enough
to do what is necessary"
- Michael Pisaro
'ricefall (2)', performed by the University of South Carolina Experimental Music Workshop and the International Contemporary Ensemble, September 2016.
[MB] I’ve read that you’re more fond of using the term ‘environment’ to describe your work, when others might use ‘landscape’. Why do you prefer to think of your music as ‘environments’?
[MP] Actually I use both. I think environment is more general: there are an infinite number of landscapes in any environment. The dialogue between these two things is naturally of great interest to me. I think some of my pieces are properly understood as landscapes (though this is a category I associate with my close colleague Jürg Frey even more) - and others, like the piece you’re playing are more like “artificial environments.”
[MB] I guess thinking about them as ‘artificial environments’ brings your controlling of a sort-of chaos into the fore. Do you see yourself as the author of these works, or more as the formal architect, or maybe both?
[MP] I’m satisfied with the description “composer.” But I think that most musical works are actually ‘composed’ by more than one person - if one takes composition to mean a kind of setting in order. A violin or an oboe or a synthesizer all set out sets of possibilities that belong to the materials and methods of their construction. Any location has been shaped by forces of construction, unwitting or not. But if a performer, in the midst of playing a piece begins to feel like they are actively creating (even within limits given), I’m happy.
[MB] In this ‘artificial environment’ music (to roll with terminology), (where) does exactness matter?
[MP] It doesn’t? It can’t? There is no such thing in the material world as exactness, only degrees of precision? I like the word ‘care’ better - it indicates that the person involved cares enough to do what is necessary.
[MB] How do you see this ‘care’ manifesting? Do you feel it emerging - or maybe respawning - in ways beyond listening?
[MP] Yes, I hope so. One thing I love about the people I usually interact with - not just Wandelweiser, but the experimental community in Los Angeles (including many former students), but also so many of those communities I encounter around the world, is the care they show for each other as people. To me it’s deeply connected to the way we make music - including scores!
[MB] Also, your relationship to the extra-musical, specifically painting and poetry, is especially potent in your music. I wondered if you could expand on this, and what ‘care’ as a composer do you experience when creating a piece from an existing artwork?
[MP] I haven’t really thought about that in those terms before, but it’s interesting. Do we care for the artworks we love - poems, paintings, pieces? A few years back I attended a Buddhist funeral for a friend, and the leader mentioned that in that tradition the “afterlife” is sustained by the thoughts and actions of people who loved the person who has died. Could it be that works have this kind of afterlife - that is, we sustain them somehow by reacting to them and carrying them with us?
[MB] This brings us neatly onto listening, essentially the afterlife of sound put into performative practice. One thing that has struck us as an ensemble in the preparation of asleep, desert, choir, agnes for VIRTUALLYREALITY is the level of inquisition needed by the performers. Do you find performers ask the same questions when interpreting your scores, or do they ask things which surprise you?
[MP] They usually ask things that surprise me. I like that - and especially the sense that behind the question lies some genuine curiosity - about the piece, the style and especially about the potentials of sound in any given situation: what occurs to you because of the task you have to fulfill.
[MB] It’s all very emergent - we all feel like we could spend countless weeks and months getting deeper and deeper into the minutia of our sounds. Do you think there is an end to the depth of this listening, or an end to its benefits? To play ‘devil’s advocate’, when would you say is time to move on?
[MP] That’s for everyone to judge for themselves. I tend to think about moving forward with something rather than moving on. There’s enough diversity or difference in a good idea to keep pursuing it, and attempting to get it to yield results that take you further and keep you interested.
[MB] Looking towards the future, what role do you think stillness and quietness plays in a world often associated with distraction and digital immediacy?
[MP] Digital silence is a nice distraction, isn’t it? But if you’re asking if stillness, quiet, silence and non-action are necessary I would say undoubtedly yes. Perhaps simply turning things off every once in a while is a good idea.
[MB] That’s very true about ‘digital silence’ - I know a bit has been written about the concept of screendiving, where you are absorbed in the digital world unbeknownst to your surroundings, before being jolted back into the real world by a sudden change in environment. That is totally how I see the last two minutes of asleep, desert, choir, agnes, with those startling guitar chords. It’s one of the few moments of abruptness I know of in your music, period. A lot of the composers you cite at the beginning of this correspondence (Oliveros, Lucier etc.) have a strong, absorbing relationship to listening inwards, rather than outwards in the traditional chamber (for lack of a better term) sense. Do you think this is unconsciously as a result of a heightened connectivity?
[MP] Inward listening is something I feel I learned from Pauline [Oliveros] and Alvin [Lucier]'s music - and then that of Antoine Beuger. It’s such an incredibly deep realm. We are not listening to ourselves exactly - though there is that. For me the flux between the inward and outward is what is so engaging - and perplexing.