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'Hearing Metal 1' consists of three pieces from Michael Pisaro, performed in 2008 and 2009. The instrument used here is a tam-tam, a large oval-shape metal percussion similar to a Chinese gong, polished into smooth gold. According to Pisaro's explanation in the liner notes, "The tam-tam is also a vast sound landscape - an instrument that makes noise at the slightest provocation. A resonance is created just in the act of walking past the instrument or breathing on it ... that is, if your ear (or a microphone) is close enough to hear it. Whether it is touched with a bow or a hand, it responds with chaotic, unpredictable complexity, never producing the same sound twice."
This series is the product of a close collaboration between composer and performer - the piece evolved as Greg Stuart made test recordings based on Pisaro's suggestions and sent them to him. Pisaro's approach was, "to work within the givens of this landscape, to allow some of its implicit contours to reveal themselves - by collecting sounds, giving them a duration, putting them into a clear structure, and cutting a path through them with pure tones." These three pieces were named after Brancusi's sculptures.
1. Sleeping Muse (25:00)
Four parts of bowed sounds were put together like "a four-part chorale, with a melody made up of long sine tones buried in the sounds."
In this piece, sine tones were carefully added almost like being fused with the thick layer of the bowed sounds of the tam-tam, without any sense of sticking out. Once you perceive the sine tones, subtle nuances of chords emerge from the massive layer of the sound. The chords overlap with the chords that are created from the resonance of tam-tam itself, to become a large-scale composition. The subtlety, in which you may not hear the chord if you cannot perceive the sine tones, is the real thrill here.
The resonances of tam-tam sounds here are round and soft textures, and not overwhelming or chaotic at all. The long prolonged sounds of the thick layer of resonances create a peaceful and solemn ambience, which may almost induce you to a state of semiconsciousness or meditation. Plural sine tones penetrate the thick layer of sounds, appearing and disappearing, to connect scattered sounds into chords. The volume and the balance of each sound is also changing as if it is breathing slowly, and focal points of the whole sounds are shifting from one sound to another with a slow motion. The beauty emerged here is stunning - it feels like watching a large heavy object, silently and slowly rotating and scattering many small reflections toward different directions in the dark.
At the ending, the thick layers of metallic sounds are gradually growing together like a grand symphony, with some surging little waves of chords (there is a memorable part for several seconds, where some hidden chords emerge glistening like a ripple of small lights), then the whole sounds are slowly carried into the silence.
2. The Endless Column (28:36)
The material of this piece is "a collection of sixty extremely light, close recorded strikes, randomly ordered, but with a rising scale of sine tones mixed in, more or less within the central frequency range of the tam-tam (from 50 to 671 Hz)."
Even though the tam-tam sounds originated from extremely light strikes, they sound a heavy massive resonance to listeners because of the close recording. There is a solemn and purifying atmosphere in the sounds of sixty strikes, which evokes in me memories of Japanese 'joyanokane', the bells rung 108 times at old temples in the silent midnight of New Year's Eve. Here, the resonances that were created by sixty strikes differ in pitch and volume, which give a stereoscopic effect on the music. It feels like watching giant rocks floating in the dark space, slowly passing by one by one in front of me, from different directions. The soft round texture of the sounds creates a calm peaceful ambience, and there is no feel of danger at all.
It may be hard to perceive the moderate sine tones that penetrate the thick layer of resonances of tam-tam for a while. However, in the last eight minutes of the piece, the hidden sine tones gradually emerge with a rising scale in each strike, slowly creating a melodic pattern. This delicate transition of the sounds here is a highlight of the piece, to end as a spectacular musical piece composed of sine tones and resonances of the tam-tam.
3. Sculpture for The Blind (10:36)
This piece features "eight layers of bowed sounds (which are then released) along a pattern of lengthening durations and combined with a sine tone trio, again woven into the sounds of the tam-tam."
Sine tones are again almost hidden in the thick layer of the tam-tam here. Besides Pisaro’s extremely sensitive use of sounds, there is a powerful strength in this piece, too. The exquisite balance of the eight layers of round metallic sounds and a sine tone trio creates a sense of oneness like a symphony. The thick layers of sounds seep in your brain naturally - as if you were wrapped in the flow of warm water - without any hint of unpleasantness of cold harsh metallic noise. At the ending, the long stretched bowed sounds and the following resonances slowly disappear into the silence.
Dealing with the resonances of tam-tam is considered to be challenging, but Pisaro succeeds here in delicately handling them to bring out the possibilities of tam-tam sounds in the most beautiful forms. In each piece, the sine tones that were added at nearly imperceptible levels create translucent chords and bring a harmony to the entire piece. In this series, Pisaro manages to let the layers of tam-tam sounds and sine tones co-perform in the finest balance, and creates sensitive but majestic symphonic poems for this contemporary era.