Saturday, 8 January 2011

Michael Pisaro - Fields Have Ears

Label: Another Timbre
Release Date: November 2010
Tracklist: Fields Have Ears 1; Fade; Fields Have Ears 4
Personnel: Philip Thomas: piano (all tracks); on ‘Fields Have Ears 4’, with Patrick Farmer: natural objects; Sarah Hughes: zither; Dominic Lash: double bass + members of the Edges Ensemble – Julian Brooks: laptop; Stephen Chase: conical blow horn; Richard Glover: slide whistle; Johnny Herbert: spring drum; Ben Isaacs: trumpet; Joseph Kudirka: cymbal; Bob Lockwood: melodica; Scott McLaughlin: cello; Liz Nicholas: frog guero; Hannah Sherry: clarinet

This was the first disc of the ‘Silence and After’ series to which I listened, and it proved so compelling that I chose not to play any of the others until I’d really dug (into) it, acclimatised myself to it, let it form a part of my listening habits for the next few weeks at least. Perhaps I didn’t pay it as much close attention as I’d convinced myself I had, for I actually still find it quite hard to write about; but perhaps, also, the fact that this music can resist analysis after being lived with for a certain period tells you more than any lengthy critical spiel would have.

In any case, what we have here are three compositions by Pisaro (I’m assuming that the first two, at least, are fully notated, though the final, ensemble piece, would seem to allow more space for a certain amount of improvisation, within certain, fairly strict parameters, especially given that it’s credited as a ‘realisation’ of the original work). ‘Fields Have Ears 1’ is for piano and tape (a fairly sparse field recording which features birds, the occasional distant rumble of a passing plane, and the hiss of the recording device). One might say that the tape functions in much the same way that silence does on the other two pieces – i.e. as the actual substance of much of the piece, often seeming to take precedence over any notes that are played. (I’m reminded of Pisaro’s comments in the liner notes to last year’s Terry Jennings/John Cage release, ‘Lost Daylight’, along the lines that even the sounds in Jennings’ piano pieces have silences in them.) What piano we do hear reminds me, a little, of the way that Jennings’ work emerges from European serialism and the La Monte Young/ Cageian turn to Oriental philosophy with what one might call a softer side – being unafraid to use consonant, ‘pretty’-sounding chords. As I noted in a previous review of the Pisaro/Taku Sugimoto duo album on erstwhile, this is a risky policy to adopt – the shock of the pretty in an avant-garde context can wear off into mere gloopiness if not done exactly right – but the note combinations Pisaro asks for on these works are actually less up-front in their prettiness than Jennings’, particularly given the way that they’re strung out between such long silences.

‘Fade’, a work that is by now ten years old, is more immediately stark: the pianist plays a repeated (pedall’d) note, slowly, before pausing and playing a repetition of a different note, pausing again, playing another note, and so on. There’s a kind of lag here that’s implied in the title – not in the sense of “echoes, dying, dying, dying”, but as something vaguer, a slight blurring at the edges, repetition of the note not so much emphasising it as enclosing it in a kind of haze (a consciousness emerging from the use of delay effects that’s been enabled by electronics). I’d concur with Yuko Zama, who writes that, “in Pisaro’s piano pieces, the composer and performer’s personal voices are not on the centre stage” [1]; but this does not make the piece in any way ‘mechanical’, ‘cold’, ‘impersonal’, etc: rather, we approach an egolessness that is at the heart of much post-AMM ideology, and that has something akin to the communal approach which western classical music forgot about for a couple of centuries, but which the rest of the world managed to retain and partially teach us back once we began to realise our mistake. I’m not saying that Pisaro’s music really has make in common with any of these communal musics – in terms of sound it’s very much part of a particular western lineage (the piano being the ultimate symbol of western classical music, even) – but it does approach similar insights from a different angle, particularly on this disc’s third track.

‘Fields Have Ears 4’, the most recent piece, expands things right out, to include an ensemble of fourteen players (in which Thomas’ piano is the most prominent and recognisable sound), but it manages the feat of making the large group sound incredibly delicate and small. Here we have exhalations, indentations, modifications of silence; slight change, but no ‘development’ as such. And yet something is changed; as the ensemble musically breathe together, as they repeat the process of unison sounds followed by silences, those sounds and those silences start to change, to shift. Whilst one is first conscious of Thomas’ chiming chords – a kind of early signal at the start of the sounding sections – and can just about pick out a clarinet from the quiet cloud of players, one gradually comes to recognise other elements in the texture; in particular, at the prickling edge of stereo picture (preventing things from becoming too smoothly ‘pure’), the rustle/crackle of Patrick Farmer’s natural objects. How a large ensemble controls itself to such quietude is quite astonishing, and lends the piece something which a small group playing at the same level could not have achieved – and something which is more than just a trick or an example of human dexterity.

In both ‘Fade’ and ‘Fields Have Ears 4’, one might visualise the sounds as having physical presence – sculpturally or architecturally, as objects that hang in space – sound as such being material in space. Let’s say, somewhat fancifully, that silence functions like the air between the columns of a colonnade; or perhaps it would be more apposite to reverse the metaphor, so that the sounds are the air, the silences the actual structural that intersects and defines it. Then again, let’s just ditch the analogy altogether, for the relationship between sound and silence is more symbiotic than it allows. Sound modifies silence modifies sound (and the subsequent sound/silence of life after you listen). That’s the great legacy of 4’33”, as explored in Kyle Gann’s recent book ‘No Such Thing as Silence’ – a listening awareness expanded beyond the conventionally musical to include one’s environment as a whole (which is an expansion outward but also an expansion inward, into the ‘minute particulars’ of a particular moment or location or space – “the / flight back/ to where / we are” [2]; “the original experience of now and here and this; […] not […] to look at a different world, but to look at this same world differently.”[3]) Thus Pisaro’s use field recordings – listening back to the world and incorporating it into the music, not so much in a ‘chance’ manner, but with structural intent. If the aim is not to introduce natural sounds for aleatory effect, neither is it to mimetically replicate anything as a kind of hyper-realist version of programme music, a couple of stages beyond Respighi’s or Hovhaness’ decorative incorporation of bird- and whale-song into otherwise fairly conventional orchestral works. [4] In point of fact, the sounds we hear on ‘Fields Have Ears 1’ are not pure field recording – there are a couple of unobtrusive sine tones in there, I believe, though they take up a smaller part of the sonic picture than the tape hiss which is up-front throughout (and yet doesn’t give a lo-fi impression at all, perhaps because Thomas’ piano playing is so lovingly recorded). The danger, nonetheless, is still that one will be tempted to say ‘oh, nice bird song, that’s pretty’ and leave the music on the level of a BBC sounds effects cassette tape with some added piano chords here and there.

Further, one might argue that the use of field recordings is an established technique for Pisaro now, and is perhaps even in danger of becoming a tad hackneyed at times (I wasn’t too keen on the ocean waves that appeared in the third piece of his duo recording with Taku Sugimoto). On the evidence we have here, though, I don’t think that at all; I find it impossible not to admire the care of shaping, refining, honing this aesthetic of silence in a way that extends beyond initial theoretical generalisations and into the fabric of the work’s construction and execution. Perhaps it’s the compositional framework that imposes a necessary rigour on what could become unfocussed, random, or meandering in improv contexts when everyone’s having an off-day – though that said, Sugimoto’s turn to ultra-ultra minimalism in his recent composed work doesn’t, for me, have the same rigour in its translation to disc (live, it may be wonderful, the creation of a specific kind of shared experience). I don’t think I could pin-point exactly why this is, but, somehow, the recordings of Pisaro’s pieces that I’ve heard do work as discs, as albums separated from their live moment of creation; they do still function as compelling experiences.

‘Fields Have Ears,’ then (the album as a whole), possesses a spareness which is not emptiness, and a real clarity – each note is weighted and considered and placed, each pause judged, each element considered. In a way, one can’t distinguish too easily between whole and parts because it’s not developmental (apart from that it occurs in time; as music, it is necessarily linear on the most basic level). Close focus is, then, on the moment, though the music is generous enough to allow for moments of inattention too, occasional drifts in concentration, without severely harming one’s ability to pick up the thread again when one zones back in. That lack of distinction between episodes, that lack of build and climax might seem like mere flatness to some, but it’s actually pretty hard to achieve, especially on a long, large-ensemble piece like ‘Fields Have Ears 4’; a state that cannot be conjured without real dedication, on the part of both composer and performers, to the particular aesthetics which enable and prompt it.


[1] Yuko Zama, review of ‘Fields Have Ears’ (

[2] J.H. Prynne, ‘Airport Poem: Ethics of Survival’, in ‘Poems’ (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 2005 (1969))

[3] John Osborne, ‘Black Mountain and Projective Verse’, in ‘A Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry’ (ed. Neil Roberts) (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003 (2001))

[4] Nor is it to reproduce natural patterns or rhythms in a stricter sense (the ‘breathing’ effect of ‘Fields Have Ears 4’ is simply my subjective interpretation, and one could easily listen to the piece without thinking of it as breathing-like at all. That said, it is capable of making one conscious of one’s own bodily rhythms, asserting themselves just at those moments when one is trying to still oneself, to hold one’s breath, to listen closest (I could feel my ear pulsing against my headphones at the quietest points in the music).

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