Iain Cameron's Diary
"Click here to access the Fruitful Album" - Click here to visit Music for the Highveld Project

The Highveld Project

Get your own
 diary at DiaryLand.com! contact me older entries

2005-03-14 - 12:04 p.m.

Michael Pisaro - who wrote the following managers to link the Temptations De Leuze and Lamonte Young:


In baseball, a very interesting situation occurs every time a ball is pitched. First the catcher gives a hand signal to the pitcher, telling him which pitch to throw. The catcher is making this choice based on a thorough knowledge of each batter and of the pitcher's strong and weak pitches. Once he agrees to the pitch, the pitcher throws, as best he can, the pitch indicated. There are many variables that can influence how the pitch is thrown: speed, spin on the ball, the change of direction of the ball, etc. Each pitch, though it might be called the same thing as another, is therefore unique. The hitter, whose job, of course, is to hit the ball, can, on the basis of his knowledge of the pitcher, guess what pitch will be thrown, but he cannot be certain. He is much more dependent on his perception of the pitch from the point when the pitcher starts his windup until he sees the ball coming towards him. He aims his bat, swings and then either hits or misses.

I think that this scenario is very much like that which occurs every time a piece of experimental music is played. Experimental music is a way of making music which began around the same time as Schoenberg's musical revolution, but which offers an alternate history of music in this century, with composers such as Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, John Cage, Christian Wolff, LaMonte Young and Alvin Lucier as some of the central figures. In parallel to baseball, we would identify the experimental music composer as the catcher: someone who creates signs which are to be read, who issues directions. Like the catcher, the composer has a storehouse of knowledge about the whole situation, and makes predictions based on this about what could Happen. He then decides on the best solution and takes a chance on it.

In that he reads the signs and then does his best to realize them, the musical performer is like the pitcher. However, in experimental music (as in baseball) much depends on the performer's realization of the directions. As a composer of experimental music myself I usually assume that about 50 percent of what an audience hears is dependent upon decisions made by the performer. He is after all, at the moment of the performance, the one with the most control of the situation. An experimental piece provides a framework for the performer, defining some aspects of a piece very carefully, put leaving important features open for the performer to decide.

In this scenario, the audience is the hitter. An audience member does not know everything behind a work they are experiencing. In my music, it is usually the case that a performer should prepare a new version of a piece for each performance. This means that even if an audience member knows the piece from one performance, he cannot completely predict how it will be structured in another (although the sounds might be the same). The most important attribute of the audience member is his sensitivity to all of the qualities of sound which come his way (in the same way that a hitter must be sensitive to all of the aspects of a moving baseball). The main difference in the two situations, is that when I write a piece, I would much rather have the audience hit a home run than to miss the pitch.

In baseball, everything comes together at the moment of the swing - the success of the hitter in reading the pitcher, the ability of the pitcher to throw a good pitch, the ability of the catcher to call the right pitch - all these are condensed into the moment when the hitter stretches his arms out and swings the bat at the ball. All the hitter cares about in that moment is the hit - he is sensitive not to his own feelings, but simply to the way the ball and the bat connect or miss.

Baseball in this way, is essentially binary - hit : miss.

The same, I think applies to music. It is often said that music provides a great variety of emotions, and it is hard to argue with this. However my own experience indicates that, prior to deciding what I feel in a piece (a secondary and quite variable decision), I must first be convinced that I feel (i.e., experience) anything at all.

As I was growing up near Detroit, the music that meant the most to me was rock'n'roll, and particularly Motown. Two of my favorite songs then (and now) were (are): "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" (which is about a poor black family in the inner city, where the father has just been killed) and "My Girl" (a kind of musical version of Shakespearean sonnet), both by the Temptations. At the age of seven, as someone who grew up in a relatively well-off white family and who had not yet begun to discover love (I didn't even like girls at that age), I obviously had no understanding of what these situations were,

so the feelings described were a mystery to me. Nevertheless this music communicated an entire world to me, a world which I still struggle to finds words to describe.

Because of experiences like this, I believe that music creates (as opposed to revives) feeling. Also that the first and primary feeling created from music we love is joy at our ability, based on the most subtle sensory discrimination, to respond. This must be very like joy a great player feels when hits a home run, the exhilaration of pushing his senses to their limit, in hitting an object which is moving very quickly in a complicated trajectory.

All of the sensory apparatus, including the ear, are indeed incredibly subtle. As Ronald Johnson, in his poem Ark writes: "The outer earshell leads to a membrane drum - and what pressure needed to sound this drum is equal to the intensity of light and heat received from a 50 watt electric bulb at the distance of 3,000 miles in empty space. At the threshold of hearing the eardrum may be misplaced as little as a diameter of the smallest atom, hydrogen." It is this incredible sensitivity, possessed by anyone with normal hearing that music stimulates. But this sensitivity, in order to be fully appreciated, must be challenged.

As a composer, I am interested in challenging the ear. This is not in order to be difficult, but because I know that in meeting this challenge, the senses and the mind have the opportunity to experience the kind of joy discussed above. For this reason, my music focuses on a kind of listening which emphasizes the limits of perception: the tiny, practically inaudible variations of sound which occur in an apparently stable tone; the sometimes invisible border between sound an silence; the almost imperceptible sense of time passing; the infinitesimal difference between something which is almost simultaneous and something which is truly simultaneous. In this realm the senses become aware of how subtle they are, and if we succeed can make us feel lucky to be alive.

In this century, new music composers have explored various kinds of discourses, with many going in the direction of greater complexity. The more complex the piece, naturally the harder the music is to follow. The difficulties which lie before the untrained musical listener are significant: often, only someone who understands the complicated history of new music and its techniques and procedures can really appreciate the music.

I work towards the 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 it gives up in complexity, is hopefully balanced by its impact. It should be very much like a baseball, coming towards you as you prepare to swing at it. Everything that came before and after does not matter: what one sees is the pure fact of a ball flying and turning through the air, following its own peculiar trajectory.

We come together for a musical performance, hoping something special will happen, and sometimes, for reasons that are not entirely clear, something does. Whether something happens or not is dependent on what occurs between the musicians and the listener, and is therefore utterly dependent on our relation with you. Therefore, for me, it is the relationship with the individual listener that really counts, and although I can never have any certainly of success, I can prepare the groundwork. I trust my own sense of what is important in music, to set up a situation where I think something special could happen. I call the pitch, and the performer takes over. The audience member steps up to the plate and takes a swing. Hit or miss?

Michael Pisaro

October, 1998



Michael Pisaro


1.) One sound, four instruments

A string quartet is a single instrument with four "folds" - a single sound material folded into four parts. The actual instruments of the quartet - violin, viola, and violoncello - represent, in Bergson's terminology, differences of degree, not of kind. They form a monochord, one string retuned, a continuity. (In two recent string quartets, distance (II) and here (4/1) , I use two violas instead of two violins so that the single string seems to branch from the center outwards, and the weight is redistributed from the ends to the middle.)

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.

However, within any single musical element, there is a multiplicity. An emphasis on one thing eventually reveals its capacity to be many things. Or as Gilles Deleuze writes: "contour is blurred to give definition to the formal powers of the raw material, which rise to the surface and are put forward as so many detours and supplementary folds." (The Fold, p.17) The different instruments, the four strings, the kinds of playing, the registers, etc. appear as many layered folds. A single event unfolding in time is a beginning composite which is decomposed - the multiple is immanent to the


2.) On the number 4

In Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing No. 63 (1971), the number 4 is given graphic representation. A wall is divided in four horizontal parts. The top layer is again divided lengthwise into four parts, on which is then drawn a series four kinds of line, which are repeated to form patterns: vertical, horizontal, diagonal (right-left), diagonal (left-right). The second section consists of the six possible combinations of any two patterns. The third section consists of the four possible combinations of three patterns. The fourth section consists of the single combination of all four patterns. The wall space thus exhausts the possible combinations of four differences. As becomes clear, the origin is not the single patterns, which become then combined, but the composite pattern. The wall is not a composition, but a decomposition.

Thus with the string quartet, working from single instruments, through duos, trios and then the composite quartet:

1.) vln vla 1 vla 2 vc

2.) vln/vla 1 vln/vla 2 vln/vc vla 1/vla 2 vla 1/vc vla 2/vc

3.) vln/vla 1/vla 2 vln/vla 1/vc vln/vla 2/vc vla 1/vla 2/vc

4.) vln/vla 1/vla 2/vc

No effort by Elliot Carter or Beethoven or even Charles Ives in his Second String Quartet, can permanently rend this essential continuity. In my work for string quartet, the continuity is systematically broken down into the composite parts: solos, duos, trios and quartets; densities of one to eight notes; pizzicato separated from arco; short durations separated from long durations, etc. They are nothing more than sequential presentations of a composite.

Music is largely conceived in terms of simple integers: one instrument, the single note, the unison; duple meter, the period, the two manuals of the harpsichord; the trio sonata, the triad, ternary form; the chorale, the four strings of the violin, viola, violoncello and contrabass, the sections of the orchestra.

These integers form simple sets whose permutations can be easily exhausted. Music is always in some sense a decomposition of the sets. It starts from a point and unfolds simultaneously in all directions. The unfolding takes time, but the result is somehow outside of time entirely, as it refolds itself back into a single entity. Some music appears to be goal directed, making a subject out of this unfolding and creating a contour, but I feel this is only an illusion. There is no origin and no arrival. The importance is all in the continuous unfolding, in transition.

3.) Transition

Although all acoustic sounds are in transition, the bowed sound is special in that it is a physical (and easily seen) manifestation of this aural fact. As the bow passes along a string, the hairs of the bow are constantly catching and letting go of the string; each individual hair acting in complex relation to the others; altogether producing a sound which is made up of many tiny sounds and spaces. Once again, the bow makes it clear that a sound is a linear collection of an infinite number of minute perceptions, as a line is a collection of an infinite number of points. "In order to exist in time, the point must repeat itself." (Xenakis)

But the perception of a sound reorganizes this series of infinitely minute events. An entire sound can not be heard all at once, especially when it is sustained. The mind, attempting to deal with the multitude of information, moves between attentive listening, and shutting out the sound. This shutting out creates a silence in which there is time to sort out the complex stimulus. Meanwhile the ear takes note of the continuing events which make of the sound. The mind, returning to the listening stage, races to catch up to the present. Thus listening seems to occur on two levels simultaneously: one in and the other out of time. As the mind works, outside of the time structure of the sound, it fuses the infinite into a whole, which is now something quite separate from the multitude of imperceptible moments. Just as one makes a composite image of the multitude of positions involved in a bow change, one makes a composite image of a sound.

This effect, which I continue to find fascinating, is especially apparent in sustained sounds produce by bowing. In here (4/1), in the two outer sections, very long sounds, requiring the bow to move almost imperceptibly are contrasted (in the central section) with sounds that have comparatively small durations (as pizzicati). Because with bow speed the character of this replication undergoes subtle transformation, in distance (II) the bow speed changes from one section to the next. (Sections are made up entirely of either one second, five second, ten second or twenty second bow lengths.)

4.) Multiplicity

I believe there are three kinds of silence. At the deepest level hearing turns inward and the mind is silent. This absolute silence, is the result of careful persistent effort, and is rarely achieved. At the next level, there is the kind of silence described above; a silence which is the result of a gap the mind creates in the listening process, as it goes to work on the sound. On the surface level, what occurs between sounds is "silence" - not really a silence at all. "Silence" is an openness to any contingency, that is, to any sound. The singularity of the work flows into a multiplicity, first by unfolding the composite, and allowing the "supplementary detours" to fill up the surface. This surface then expands into an even wider multiplicity, in which the performers and audience join, by staying open to "silence."

This "silence" is a transition to all that follows, as it already a part of any sound (not just a string quartet).

A string quartet sits silently, waiting for the next sound to begin. Their contour blurs; there is, for a short time, no "us" and "them"; just one "us." The erasure of these boundaries, makes us aware of still larger ones (the walls of the room, for instance), which themselves are erased as we leave the concert hall.

Michael Pisaro


previous - next