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Michael Pisaro's 2007 composition 'A wave and waves', performed and recorded by percussionist Greg Stuart, is soon to be released on a CD from the Cathnor label. 'A wave and waves' was composed for one hundred percussion instruments (or one hundred percussionists) in two parts. The one hundred percussion instruments include sandpaper, metal brush, small grains of rice and seeds falling on the surfaces of different materials (wood, ceramic, glass, hard plastic, metal, etc.) as well as on more traditional musical instruments including marimba, vibraphone, snare drum, etc. The score states: "All sounds are extremely soft. They are like single grains of sand (or molecules of water), which, by being combined with other like sounds form larger patterns and collections."
The first part is "a single wave", and the second part is "100 (smaller) waves". The duration of each part is 35 minutes. Each part begins with one minute of silence and ends with 40 seconds of silence. There is also a silence of 4 minutes between the two parts.
Part 1: A world is an integer.
This part consists of 100 consecutive sections of 20 seconds per unit. The starting time of each instrument in each time unit is marked in the score. The duration of each sound is 20 seconds (or a multiple of 20 seconds). Sounds are supposed to be steady with no crescendo or decrescendo.
After the one-minute silence, a soft middle-pitched tone generated from a bowed vibraphone emerges like a gleam in the dark. The pure tone is soon overlapped with a small noise of rubbed stones, and then disappears slowly. Soon after, a few different pitches of tones appear and begin to form quiet chords behind faint metallic noises. As in 'an unrhymed chord', the process of forming quiet harmonies when different tones and noises overlap is beautifully presented, as well as the subtle waves born from the resonances of overtones. Then, various other sounds, like falling rice, seeds and pebbles dropped on different materials, and the friction noises of sandpaper, come in and out over the course of time, to slowly form a more complex constellation of sounds.
Since each sound is played at a very soft volume, even a thick layer of numerous sounds does not bear any noisiness or heaviness which would commonly be associated with the idea of '100 percussion instruments'. With Greg Stuart's extremely careful and delicate treatment, the plural sounds never clash roughly with each other, and instead give the impression that they are moving as a collective with consonance while sharing the same tranquility. Stuart brings a memorable beauty to his sound creation here, as if each single sound were given a small life as part of nature.
The pure straight tones in different pitches, created by bowing various musical instruments, evoke the horizontal vastness and a slow, gradual move of a single wave. Meanwhile, the fine particles of small grainy sounds, created by the showers of rice, seeds and pebbles falling on various materials or simply from ripping paper, evoke the image of a microscopic world inside the wave - where thousands of small bubbles and swirls of water constantly emerge and disappear. The layer of the various sounds with different textures creates a stereoscopic effect and a realistic perspective for the whole soundscape, resulting in the lifelike impression of a single wave slowly and silently surging from a far distance. The whole sound also evokes a feeling of floating in space, as if I were watching small stars glowing in the dark - appearing one by one in the galaxy, slowly passing by each other, then disappearing into the dark.
As the piece progresses, the combinations of the sounds in the wave are gradually shifting as if different sceneries are being portrayed. The transition between them is so natural and subtle that each fully emerges before being recognized. Even though the volume of each sound is not raised, the music seems to expand on a grand scale, via the effects of small fluctuations born from the resonances of the increasingly intricate overlaps of the sounds. Even when the wave reaches the highest peak with the thickest layer of sounds (50 sounds at the same time), the whole never falls into a chaotic noisiness, and the same tranquility is sustained throughout. Sometimes in the midst of a dense cloud of sounds (evoking a meteor shower), some subtle glimmers of chords (harmonies) emerge off and on.
Near the end of the piece, the intricately scattered sounds gradually decrease back to the thin layer of sparse sounds. After the music ends, when the last sound of small grains falling on a metallic surface is absorbed into a complete silence, the remnant of the chords remains in my brain as if the music were still continuing behind the silence.
Part 2: A haven of serenity and unreachable.
This part consists of a series of one hundred waves of sounds. According to Pisaro's liner notes, he observed the actual waves on the coast of Big Sur for hours, and found "not only that the waves came in nearly regular intervals of fifteen to twenty seconds, but that there was a larger pattern in which every seventh wave would be a big one."
In this section, six groups composed of ten instruments play sounds in a row, followed by a group of forty instruments forming one big "seventh" wave, in order to duplicate the cycle of the real waves. Each group sustains the sounds for thirty seconds - starting with very soft sounds, crescendo gradually and "crest" with a slight dynamic “hump” at the twenty-second point, and then slowly fading away. Each group starts playing twenty seconds after the previous group started, thus there is a ten-second overlap from one wave to the next.
The gradual ups and downs of the volume of the sounds convey the dynamics of actual waves, combined with the small wavers created by the resonances of various percussion sounds. All the sounds from a hundred instruments are perfectly balanced with each other, occasionally creating subtle harmonies, giving the impression of one massive organism slowly moving, not a random collective of various sounds. Each wave consists of a slightly different combination of the sounds, and the size of each wave is different just like real waves. As the volumes of the sounds moderately shift up and down, a wide range of sounds from low frequencies to high frequencies intertwine with each other to form a series of waves, while the 'seventh wave' conveys a tremendous psychological impact, as if the wild force of nature were gradually seizing you. The recording and mixing techniques create a fantastic stereoscopic effect here - it almost feels like I could touch a small particle of some of the sounds if I reach a hand in the air. Even when listening to it with a normal set of speakers, there is an impression that the sounds are surging from many different directions, creating a physical skin-tingling effect beyond the auditory sensation. If I heard this section with a surround-sound system of several multichannel speakers, I feel I would experience the illusion that real waves were swallowing me.
Again in this section, Greg Stuart shows great finesse in re-creating the natural dynamics of waves, while giving the organic impression that the whole music is alive. The subtle transition of the soundscape, where one sound cross-fades with another successively, creates a memorable beauty - as if a kaleidoscope is showing slightly different patterns of images while slowly turning.
Near the ending, the thick layer of the sounds becomes thin and sparse again. After the last percussion sounds (evoking the gentle sound of rain sparsely hitting on the roof) disappear, the music ends, followed by forty seconds of silence.
In both parts of the piece, the flow of time is perceived on a grand scale, while a constellation of small sounds shifts gradually, all with a tranquil atmosphere. Each part is presented gracefully between two silences - the silence before the piece contains a hint of the sounds about to appear, the silence after the piece contains the residual images of the sounds of the entire piece - similarly to much of Pisaro's other work.
Over the course of the thirty-five minutes of each part, Michael Pisaro has brilliantly mapped out a blueprint of the imaginary waves in his score with careful calculations - the timing that each of one hundred percussion sounds should come in and out, how the sounds should overlap with each other, how the collective sounds should form the dynamics of the real waves, and how to allocate each grain of the sounds to bring the perfect balance to the whole music without losing a natural flow - just like he did in his 'July Mountain' piece. And in addition to Pisaro's precise formulation of the waves, Greg Stuart has breathed a living energy of the real waves, by re-creating a series of dynamic and sensitive moves, with his meticulous attention to detail and the skillful performances based on his deep understanding of the composition. As always in Pisaro's music, the music conveys the natural feeling without any artificial impression, despite the precisely measured configuration of the sounds. As well as another recent masterpiece 'July Mountain', 'A wave and waves' is a sublime collaboration in which the outstanding sensibilities and the talents of the composer and the performer are perfectly linked together.
A New Realm - Somewhere in Between ...
The notable momentum of the recent works of Michael Pisaro, as recognized in his 'July Mountain' and 'A wave and waves', seems to reflect the significant growth and inexhaustible creativity of Pisaro as a composer. The surging waves of his creative ideas and energy, which seem to be endlessly diversifying, deepening and moving forward, constantly surprises me with his new releases every time - from gracefully simple, serene music with almost unrecognizable subtle waves of sparse sounds and characteristic silences, to overwhelmingly dynamic music with mesmerizing waves of thick layers of complex sounds.
The signature of Pisaro's music is that seemingly simple and sparse compositions can create impressively profound and rich experiences, while seemingly massive and thick layers of tumultuous sounds can create serene and tranquil experiences. In Pisaro's music, silences can evoke sounds, and sounds can evoke silences. While subtle wavers of the sounds bring to mind some translucent images floating somewhere in between awake and asleep, the music can carry the listener somewhere in between the reality and a different world - a new realm of consciousness.
Of course people may feel different ways about the same music, and what I wrote about the music here may not be experienced by many people in the same way. But I think that is not so important. The most important (and amazing) thing is that music can contain a magical power to inspire an individual deeply and intensely, awakening one's creative imaginations to unexpected areas, and let him/her experience profound, multiple beauties by directly appealing to perceptions with sounds and silence. My experience was just one of the examples of how this magic could happen to a person - which in my case has driven me to this long writings. (In the past decade, I have not been inspired by any particular music to such long serious writing, and I thought that I would never be into writing about music so passionately again. In that circumstance, to bring back my devotion to the music writing has been a very precious experience to me. I would like to express deep thanks to Mr. Pisaro and his music in that regard.)
In the last three months while I have been trying to explore Michael Pisaro's music – in order to find the answers to the spell of the music, the experience was just like entering into a deep forest. Rather than writing about a wide range of music extensively from a horizontal approach, I prefer to write about some particular music (or a musician) by trying to dig down deep to the core of the music. I believe that in this way, I can discover something truly valuable, which may only be found with such a vertical approach - and I love that value. In the process of exploring the Pisaro ouevre so intensely, I think that I found many small but true pieces of beauty that exist behind the music. They were like little jewels gently placed under the trees, in a quiet, modest appearance which people may pass by without noticing, but emitting a pure, true light. When I found each of them, I tried to describe where they are hidden, and how beautiful they are, in my words - hoping that someday someone who seeks the similar musical experiences as mine would notice the presence of those gems as well.
I may have found some of the answers to the spells of Michael Pisaro's music, but I would never be able to figure out what is coming next - what kind of groundbreaking ideas that this prolific composer (who has already written over 80 pieces) may come up with in his genius brain in the future. Especially in recent years, Pisaro's music seems to have been even more creative and dynamic, growing deeper and broader through his close collaboration starting in 2006 with Greg Stuart, one of the ideal performers for Pisaro's composition as well as Barry Chabala, both of whom can precisely and deeply understand and realize the subtlety of Pisaro’s compositions. It will be always exciting to me to see what will emerge from their mutually inspired collaborations.
(Yuko Zama, 4/24/2010)
(my study graph of Part 1 - a chart to see how 100 percussion instruments come in and out.)
(my study graph of Part 2 - bowed instruments are marked in colors as well as in the part 1.)