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After I listened to some of Michael Pisaro's music, I noticed that my way of listening to environmental sound has completely changed without knowing. I began to notice that each environmental noise contains a subtle frequency similar to a certain tone or a pitch of the music. My ears started being attracted by daily noises like electric heater noise, the fan noise, the sounds of water flow, the chirps of birds, car sounds, etc., which I did not pay attention to so much before. When I realized that music does not only consists of sounds that human performers play, but also could consist of a series of natural sounds originating in the environment, I started wondering, "What kind of music could be born if humans and nature co-performed with each other?"
I do not experience being overwhelmed by a specific music too often, but when I listened to Michael Pisaro and Greg Stuart's 'July Mountain', which was just released from Engraved Glass as a 3-inch CD, I was completely blown away. In this music, the sounds of instruments and the environment are blended perfectly in a great balance, but also it seems that there is a massive power and beauty which emerges from somewhere beyond the willpower of humans or the simple power of nature.
In 'July Mountain', 20 mono field recordings (each 10 minutes long) that Michael Pisaro made mainly in the mountain area near Los Angeles from 2006 to 2009, along with 10 different kinds of percussion sounds that Greg Stuart performed/recorded, are mixed in a cross-fading method into one 21-minute piece. The poem contained in this score is Wallace Stevens' "July Mountain."
Ten kinds of percussion sounds, including friction noises made on a drum, bowed wood blocks, a bowed snare drum, recorded sine tones projected onto resonant surfaces, a stream of seeds falling on a high-pitched bar, piano chords, bells, etc., are used here. (From the score, there are 143 sounds with different tones or frequencies in 10 groups of percussion sounds.) The timing when each percussion sound is supposed to be played and stopped, the duration of each sound, and how often the sound is played, are all precisely instructed in the score. The timing, the duration and the chords of the piano are also set. In the course of the music, ten of 20 field recordings are simultaneously played at different timings to start and end.
From the start, some environmental sounds like falling rain, birds chirping, distant voices of people, airplanes flying overhead and cars passing by are heard. Despite this being a mixture of field recordings made at ten different locations, the sounds are all nicely blended as if they were sharing the same time and space, without causing any chaos or discordance, perhaps due to the delicately controlled balance of the individual volumes. At this point, any percussion sounds are barely recognizable.
Then as time goes by, more environmental sounds like helicopters, calls of sea gulls, and waves (as well as many other almost unrecognizable sounds) appear in the soundscape. Since the transition between field recording sources is so natural and subtle, there is no impression that one field recording is switched to another at all. It is rather like the landscape and the time you are in is slowly and endlessly shifting to somewhere else almost before you realize it.
About eight minutes in, one strong, determined piano chord is added in the middle of the environmental sounds. The appearance of this piano chord changes the atmosphere of the whole soundscape with a hint of strained tone. These piano chords, played at about 20 second intervals, starts affecting how the environmental sounds are heard. Airplanes, helicopters, the water, etc. - all the environmental sounds start to almost come alive. There is an impression that these scattered sounds from various sources begin to gradually unite into one massive existence by the chords and the notes of the piano.
By then, the complex sounds of percussion have also become more recognizable in the music, as if they have been silently stretching their branches and leaves deep inside the layer of the environmental sounds without being noticed. As always, Greg Stuart's skill of creating and inserting percussion sounds is brilliant here. While remaining behind the foreground of the environmental sounds, Stuart manages to elevate the music dramatically by giving the impression that the environmental sounds become gradually amplified with a little help from his percussion. However prominent the percussion sounds become, they never confront the sounds of nature that are meant to be the major role in this piece. This exquisite balance is sustained through the music.
Every time the determined tones of the piano are heard, the music seems to gradually increase in power as if it is absorbing the infinite energy arising from the surface of the ground. When the power of percussion sounds and the power of the simultaneously played ten field recordings' sounds are combined all together, it feels like the life of nature has waken up and gotten into the music. In the meantime, the transition and the flow of the music is so natural like breathing, there is no sense of pressure. In the last several minutes when the massive sounds interlock with each other, the music seems to gain some overwhelming power that is beyond the capability of humans, or even nature.
The perspective of the world seen in the Wallace Stevens poem - "We live in a constellation / Of patches and of pitches, / Not in a single world" is perfectly expressed by the music. The 21 minutes feel like a very long time to me – as if different senses of time of different places, the long, long history of humans and nature are condensed into 21 minutes. When the music ends, the texture of the air in my silent room feels completely different from how it was before.
In order to perfectly layer the hundreds of sounds with different tones or frequencies played by ten percussion sound sources, with the 20 field recordings that were made at different locations, Michael Pisaro calculated every detail of when each sound comes in and out, how long the sound stays, how each of the field recordings is overlapped, all in his precise score. (I have never seen such a powerful and beautiful score before.) With his calculations and a delicate care to not disturb the subtle nuances of the environmental sounds, Pisaro has created a magnificent symphony of percussion and the environment. Despite how precisely the score is notated, the music has a natural breathing flow and does not feel artificial at all. The theme of perfectly matched co-performance between performers and the environment, which Pisaro has also explored in 'Transparent City' and 'Only - Harmony Series 17', has been raised to a higher level here, in achieving this groundbreaking music. This is definitely one of Michael Pisaro's greatest masterpieces, bringing a wide spectrum of environmental sounds to life in a delicate but sophisticated way.