Pickens II, Melinda Mead Photography

Pickens I, Melinda Mead Photography

Charleston, Melinda Mead Photography

three days in South Carolina

by Jennie Gottschalk

An interview with Michael Pisaro

Sam Sfirri:  As the area of focus for this project is your work between the years 2000 and 2010, I can’t help but think of specific events in your life that may have changed the course of your practice. Someone listening to your music and reading through your scores will undoubtedly notice how concerned you are with place. Because of these concerns, I wonder to what degree the physical move from the Chicago area to the Los Angeles area in 2000 has had an impact on your method of composing.

Michael Pisaro:  I’m sure the move had an impact. It’s something however that I became conscious of only gradually. Around the time I started making the field recordings for Transparent City  in 2004 it became clear that I was more interested in the question of the sounding environment here than I ever was in Chicago. Could that be a result of enjoying the California climate, or was it a natural evolution of concerns in the earlier work? Usually the composer is the last to know such things.

Another, more concrete change was the presence of so many experimental musicians already in Southern California, and the sense that the experimental tradition (in music, in the visual arts, in film) had already been here a long time. Also Jim Tenney started at CalArts at the same time as I did and with him came an incredible group of interesting students, which I’m sure had an impact on how I worked and what I could do.

Jason BroganThe Collection is a popular piece of yours, having been performed internationally many times and in various versions. Ten years after its composition, what does the piece offer? For instance, I find in it a remarkable position regarding today’s immigration situation. I am reminded of a slogan in La Distance politique: “tous les gens qui sont ici sont d’ici" (everyone who is here is from here).

MP:  If I understand your question correctly, you mean the sense that The Collection is open: to any performer, or number of performers, to any kind of instrument, to any level of expertise, to any performance space or sounding situation, etc. That’s what I hope, at least – not to exclude anyone. But perhaps there’s something more (and this again is probably not something the composer himself can say or know). Even better than an openness (that is, a door through which anyone can walk), would be if each person would feel at home in the environment. If this is the case, then the challenge of any performance is to think anew the question of how to create a home for the people and the sounds.

SS:  It seems evident, due to your dedication to composing and teaching composed experimental music, that you are open to many different kinds of notation. Looking through some of your scores, one might come across traditional notation mixed with text, graphs, numbers, and in one instance, color pictures of nebulae. Whatever the kind of notation used, your scores exhibit incredible clarity, leaving the reader with an understanding that the score could be written no other way. When approaching a new piece, do you see your compositional role as utilizing the clearest possible notation to yield a particular idea in mind, or do you aim to use a particular type of notation - in the case of the harmony series, a study in text-based notation, as it were - or something else altogether?

MP:  I seldom begin a piece with a notational idea. Usually I’m trying to imagine the whole experience - which eventually crystalizes for me into an impression. Then I work, slowly and deliberately, outward from that, trying to see and hear it in as much detail as I can. It’s at this point that notational solutions tend to arise. In the case of the harmony series I wanted to create a situation in which harmony would occur spontaneously, naturally, and in a way which allow any note or tuning choice to find a place (in this sense it is an extension of ideas I started to work with in The Collection). The idea of any tone seemed to preclude, for the most part, mentioning any specific tone (however there are some exceptions in the set). And so I thought that by using language, I could create structure while mostly resisting the temptation to name pitch. Then it occurred to me that, since I was using language, I could really use it, that is, allow the excerpts of poems to influence the reading of the score, and hopefully, in some way, the atmosphere of the performance.

JB:  Your collaboration with Greg Stuart has yielded a compositional practice that differs in many ways from earlier work. Especially with regard to recording and sound installation, has this collaboration been a way for you to investigate different methods of sound production?

MP:  The collaboration with Greg is unique in a lot of ways. Certainly, as you say, it has allowed me to experiment with ways of making sound that would be (nearly) impossible in a live context. Greg usually works with very soft sounds which nonetheless retain a high degree of definition due to the recording techniques he uses. (Greg is not only an incredible percussionist, he’s also a first-rate, creative sound engineer.) There’s also a love of musical labor in Greg that I’ve seen in very few other musicians (perhaps David Tudor is one point of comparison). He has the capacity to work for long periods of time in an intensive recording and performance situation that serves as a condition for these large projects we do - they’d be impossible otherwise. What amazes me is how coherent his results are - one feels this is the expression of a single consciousness, despite the myriad details contained in the work. Greg Stuart is a one-man orchestra, a quiet explosion.

SS:  In the liner notes to your album, harmony series 11 - 16 on Edition Wandelweiser Records, Greg Stuart refers to the entire collection of pieces as “revolving around the process of translation”. It seems, with this series, that text is the particular point of departure for you. Do you see this process of translation as characteristic of other pieces you’ve written, or even a particular method of investigation for you as a composer?

MP:  Translation is definitely one area continuing interest for me. It became especially important when I was engaged in converting Oswald Egger’s Nichts, das ist into English (which appeared in book form as Room of Rumor: Tunings). That was such an incredible process, working with the staggering richness of Egger’s language and trying to find analogues in English - which, more often than not, meant creating things that could parallel, word for word, the German. The harmony series followed closely upon that work. There are other kinds of translations as well: I once took a subset of Pi and translated that into sound - and this led, a few years later, to a project which attempted to do the same thing with the fifth book of The Ethics by Spinoza (Reading Spinoza).

JB:  What is your focus for the fields have ears series? How does the seventh version, which we’ll be performing, relate to the previous six? What is the significance of the title?

MP:  The fields have ears series is about trying to install a three dimensional environment on the concert stage - to create a field on the plane of the stage. This has taken a variety of forms, but has increasingly moved towards making a grid of the performing space (rather like the way one plants flowers) - which is the case with the new piece. I want to feel the front / back dimension is just as important as the left / right, and also that various diagonals and trajectories can emerge. I strive to create a situation where the “plants” in the field are intertwined, that they can intersect and interfere with each other in complex ways to form a whole that’s as much like a network as a single sound image. The other day I was looking at some beautiful photos Yuko Zama had taken at the Noguchi Museum in New York and thinking that, in many ways, his gardens contained a visual analogue for what I was trying to create in sound (and space).

The title is my comment on an old German saying (which I first heard from Oswald Egger): “Das Feld hat Augen, der Wald Ohren.” (The field has eyes, the forest, ears.)  I thought, given the interest in field recording, that fields, loosely defined, also have ears. Fields have many ears: where are they?

Interview conducted via e-mail, September 3 - September 6, 2010

Photo: Yuko Zama

Michael Pisaro, nachtstimmung (2007 - 2008) [excerpt]

performed 25 January 2008 by Object Collection

selections from the harmony series (2004 - 2006)

Eleven Theses on the State of New Music

by Michael Pisaro (PDF)

Michael Pisaro on teaching composition at the California Institute of the Arts

Michael Pisaro Portal

at The Wire magazine online