Sunday, 13 February 2011

“Get Thee to a Nunnery”: Michael Pisaro's ‘Mind is Moving’ at The Nunnery (Bow Arts Centre), London, 12/02/11

Jennifer Allum (violin), Rebecca Dixon (cello), Dominic Lash (double bass), Henri Växby (guitar), Jamie Coleman (trumpet), Tim Parkinson (voice).

Michael Pisaro’s star has been rising recently – at least, his work has become a frequent subject of discussion within improv circles, and there’s been an increase in the frequency with which his works are performed (albeit in small and sparsely-attended venues). What this means in relation to the usual connotations of ‘rising stars’ is harder to judge; and, indeed, one of the main points of interest with Pisaro, and other composers and performers associated with the Wandelweiser group, is the fact that they are hard to place within pre-determined narratives and positions. Thus, Radu Malfatti comes from a background playing ‘high-energy’ free jazz, while Pisaro assumes the role of ‘academic composer’ (he teaches at CalArts); but it doesn’t seem strange to discuss their works in the same sentence. Of course, this closeness has always existed (AMM, Musica Elettronica Viva and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza come to mind), contra the journalistic method of building up and stratifying divisions which are not nearly as important to the practitioners of the music themselves as to critics and ‘taste-makers’. Nonetheless, there is a definite sense that something new is afoot, given the way that Malfatti, Pisaro et al straddle clear-cut lines between ‘modern classical composition’ and ‘free improvisation’, finding common aesthetic ground within both camps.

The ‘Mind is Moving’ series is actually a fairly early work, dating from 1996, and it’s interesting to come to it, in a new ensemble ‘arrangement’, on the back of the ‘hype’ of the past couple of years. At the same time, it’s hard to disentangle serious critical consideration from what might seem almost petty concerns relating to the physical circumstances of attending a continuous three-hour concert performance on a British winter’s evening.

Performances like these come to seem like endurance tests, not just because of the extreme length, but because of the details of the music itself, which, rather than ‘moving forward’, alternates between non-developmental drones, staccato plucks and bursts, and lengthy silences, or near-silences. Furthermore, the fact that what we were actually witnessing was the simultaneous performance of several separate solo works added to the ‘severity’ of the aesthetic: just as a particularly gorgeous swelling concord between several different instruments was reached, one voice would suddenly drop out, introducing an abrupt change in texture. This was not music that one could easily relax into, as can be the case with more ‘blissed-out’ drone material, but neither was it an exuberant, chaotic Fluxus happening. Despite the softness and the quietness, the simultaneity was something jagged and uncompromising, to which the listener had to adjust themselves –to move their minds to the movement of the music. Once this happens, once that shift occurs and everything clicks into place, it’s amazing – but it may take a slightly uncomfortable half-hour or more for that to happen.

Yesterday’s performance, as I experienced it, fell into something like three sections, one for each hour. The first contained more ‘ensemble’ playing – overlapping drones in concord and gentle discord, the preponderance of stringed instruments giving something of the feel of La Monte Young’s early Trio for Strings. The second saw the piece start to unravel, to spread and splay out, to become more sparse – and at the same time, the audience began to grow more fidgety, people moving about and leaving or arriving, the ritual of creaking wooden floorboards and the shuffling retrieval of bags from under seats coming to take on the feel, almost, of a kind of slow-motion dance, an integral part of the piece. Ross Lambert’s uncorking of the lid of his thermos flask, and subsequent pouring of small portions of steaming coffee, seemed deliberate, even staged, as if the music was there to accompany a kind of updated, low-key tea ceremony. In some ways this was welcome, imbuing the audience with a sense of participation, heightening the sense of occasion and the social/ ritualistic function of the music; but it was also the section I enjoyed the least, finding it hard to get into the lengthening silences, irritation at the way these silences were filled with the distant echo of voices and various other creaks and thuds, visual disjunct between the sounds I was hearing and the garish, Pop-Arty exhibition pieces on the walls and floor (a pink canvas with silver lettering that read ‘my subconscious drove me’; a giant free-standing cut-out decorated with the Stars and Stripes), and, most importantly (perhaps leading to all of the above), physical discomfort from sitting for hours in a hard plastic chair as the room got steadily colder. This stage is probably inevitable when one is faced with a concert ‘marathon’ (I’ve no idea how audience and performers coped with the 12-hour Wandelweiser show up in Glasgow last month) – and it was, arguably, the necessary preamble to the final section on the night, filled with long, long silences in which the audience finally breathed in unison with the performers, even the traffic outside dying away to just a murmur. Eyes closed; bass plucks giving a body to various drones, only to echo out again, leaving the initial sound modified, yet the same; guitar strings maintaining and sustaining their sounds as they were struck with a vibrating HB pencil; a cello tone held for a beautiful age, harmonics ringing and singing and mourning and keening; Jamie Coleman’s trumpet now muted, lending a plaintive jazz inflection (through single notes and timbre rather than through any specifically jazz phrases); rougher violin bow scrape; spoken words, sounded single and separate, sometimes coalescing into a story or poem, or a suggestion of such – names – hints at phrases – ‘historicism’, ‘angel’, ‘Louis’ – often audible only as acoustic presence, as a half-heard signifier without the signified; vocality as only semi-linguistic expression, semantic in a musical sense.

Applause followed quickly on the end of the piece, and everyone had to hurry out of the building (some people probably wanted to get away as soon as they could in any case); one almost felt that it would have been more appropriate simply to end in silence and drift away more quietly, rather than snapping out of that mood which the room had shared during that final hour or so. I’ve no idea how the event would come out on a recording (I noticed a Zoom tucked away behind a chair, so presumably some sort of permanent document does exist); to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have much patience listening back on a home stereo, but it felt important to make the step up from the hour-long live Wandelweiser performances I’d heard previously, to one of three times the length.

That’s the main body of the report out of the way, I suppose, but there are still a few more questions, raised by the concert, which I’d like to consider before concluding. In his liner notes to the CD release of ‘Mind is Moving I’ (as played by Pisaro himself on guitar), Jürg Frey notes that, apart from the ‘regular’ guitar notes themselves, "in this music other things quite simply turn up: like the occasional whistling or soft scraping of the strings; not effects, but pure matters of course. Perhaps there is here the faintest reminiscence of the image of a folk singer, who whistles along with his guitar playing, and uses the noises to clarify the rhythm." For me, that kind of idiomatic register wasn’t really present in the realisation of the work that I heard yesterday, and what struck me about the whistling was the fact that it was part of the written score: the notation of accident, or, if not precisely of accident, of material that might normally be considered ‘incidental’ to the ‘proper musical substance’, the ‘meat’ of a piece. One might say that there are two levels to the score: first, the notated material, which, though it will vary according to the musicians’ control in playing – for example, how well they can sustain a held forty-second tone on trumpet – remains broadly the same, set up, as it is, within certain, fairly strict parameters; and secondly, the material that arises from the physical circumstances of the performance location. This latter element may only emerge at certain, relatively brief moments (and can be edited out entirely during studio recordings); nonetheless, it can prove important. During yesterday’s performance, for example, there were plenty of low volume sections in which the score actually took a back seat to the environment accidentals around it. Some of the very quiet sounds that peppered the near-silent portions of the collective realisation (short, pp or ppp single notes) were barely louder than the ‘incidental’ sounds which invariably fill such silences in live performances of Wandelweiser material (muffled traffic roar, people’s chairs and clothes creaking and rustling, their stomachs rumbling, their throats clearing), and one might argue that the (notated) whistling had, at times, less of a presence than audience member Eddie Prévost’s rhythmic rubbing-together of his hands to keep them warm. Prévost is, of course, a musician, and perhaps this hand-rubbing (which occurred several times throughout the concert) was a kind of cheeky musical contribution, smuggled into the space on the sly. After all, the lesson we’ve learned from Cage’s 4’33” is that all the material, sonic and otherwise, that is present within the performing space, is part of that particular interpretation of the piece. Of course, there are ‘undesirables’ which one might want to filter out (the excessive coughing that marks concerts of classical music during any moment of quiet, for example) – and yet, perhaps, the attitude towards this has remained somewhat uncritical. For every moment of coincidental magic (rain on a resonant roof, a strategically-placed police siren) there are numerous other longueurs, in which the typical sounds of an urban environment come to seem clichés of the music, despite the fact that they all come from ‘outside’ the control of the performers.

Frey, once more, seems to disagree: "Many pieces created today are written for specific places or opportunities (whether for the concert hall or a special performance), and then fulfill the function intended for them in that place. However, in a piece like mind is moving (I) the prevailing impression is that the piece itself must first create the site where it can sound[…]The piece[…]creates, all by itself, over the course of its long resounding, its own site: a place where it can Jive." Maybe this is true when referring to a recording, but it hardly seems realistic when one considers the typical circumstances of a live performance – and, indeed, even the circumstances of listening back to a recording (where does one listen? in a comfortable arm-chair with noise-reducing headphones? on a walkman in a crowded street? in the background while surfing the internet?). There is no such thing as the ‘pure’ work, only something that exists in the world, which it modifies and is modified by. Perhaps, then, it would make more sense to come to a synthesis of the two positions: what occurs is not exactly the creation of a new site (a bloody-minded imposition on a previously-existing space), nor is it a situation in which the music is placed helplessly at the whims of environmental accident. Instead, it is a play, a dialogue, an argument or collaboration between the space and the music that takes place within it. And while I’m a little uncomfortable with the way in which experimental work like this gets sequestered away into the pristine, cloistered space of the white-walled art-gallery and arts venue, I must admit that the Nunnery proved very much conducive to such spatial exploration.


Lutz Eitel said...

Hey, after your identification of the accidental siren as a musical cliché, and the wonderful description of never quite involuntary musical audience contributions, I thought you’d end including the cocoon of knowing expectations we educated listeners bring towards such ‘arty’ events into your summing up, since we noise-cancelling heads that read music even into perception dysfunction surely can’t connect to whatever personality a true listening space would have out there? But I think you didn’t do that, or did you. Good read, thanks.

Michael Pisaro said...

David, thanks so much for this detailed, wonderful, thoughtful report. I would love to have attended this event (had it been possible) and was very curious about the total experience. Between your report and Richard's (and the recording from that Zoom you mentioned - which I'm listening to again now), I feel I got at least some idea how it was.

As you seem to be saying, the performance space is, in our music, a collaborator. There is much to say about this beyond the usual observations - and with this review and your brilliant follow up on the Set Ensemble concert, you have gone some distance.

Incidentally, I guess since I wasn't at the concert, I am quite able to enjoy the recording. It seems, on the whole, to have been a wonderfully attentive audience, especially towards the end. I always found those moments in long duration events when everyone (and everything) falls silent to be especially beautiful. Their seeming impossibility in most settings makes them feel like a gift.

david_grundy said...

Michael, thanks for commenting. I wonder if we might extend the idea of space from live performance to recording as well; for example, the use of field recordings which imply particular spaces, thus opening up a three-level process: the original location of the field recording, the location where the music is performed (such as a recording studio), and the context in which the final CD/LP is played. And of course, in a performance space, sounds carried from beyond the four walls of the room (whether in the same building, or outside it) add a further dimension. The music, then, refuses restriction, opens up to other and further and wider spaces.

Michael Pisaro said...

I agree with what you are saying about the virtual and real spaces of recorded music. I'm not sure how often this network is truly activated in recordings, but it is for me one of the great potentials in the use of fairly ordinary field recordings - that they transform a space by combining with it.

The notion of music walled off from its environment is one of those traditions that I think experimental musicians have been most anxious to shed, from the heritage of live classical and most recorded music. But, as you also point out, it is not without its own risks: there are already clichéd ways of doing even that.