Michael Pisaro – fields have ears (10) (constellation, monarch, canyon) (World Première)

by 5:4

i’ve been spending time with assorted premières from last year, and among the more striking is the most recent—and, in fact, the final—addition to American composer Michael Pisaro‘s ongoing fields have ears series of works. Pisaro’s notion of the ‘field’ comprises a grid arrangement, the vertical rows corresponding to the players and the horizontal columns to divisions of time. Subtitled ‘constellation, monarch, canyon’, fields have ears (10) is a work for piano and orchestra, and Pisaro treats each of the 63 orchestral players as an independent sound source (forming an instrumental parallel to the field recordings and noise that accompanied the solo piano in the first fields have ears work, dating from 2008), with just a single type of sound at their disposal, not necessarily anything to do with their nominal instrument: flute 1, for example, is instructed “shaking paper lightly” while the bass clarinet has “plastic bag, light movements”, and so on. Each player makes three sounds throughout the work’s duration, only one of which is allowed to develop—the emphasis at the individual level is for the most part simply on the sound itself, which is either switched ‘on’ or ‘off’.

This description makes it seem as though fields have ears (10) is all about sound, when in fact the emphasis is as much if not more so on silence. That subtitle is crucial; Pisaro has described the piece as being inspired by “the silence one feels standing in the dark at the edge of a canyon; a vastness of the space is not conveyed by the mass but by its lack”. In a way not unlike that of Jakob Ullmann (and, in turn, of Cage), Pisaro’s noise floor is the unsilent ambient silence that is with us all the time, onto which these individual noise sources in-/ob-/extrude. Pisaro sculpts them into large-form textural behaviours that are, on the one hand, satisfyingly difficult to deconstruct, while at the same time sound exactly like what they are: noise at its most primal level, product of the most elementary forms of friction. The effect—early on at least, when the music is at its most beautifully vague—is not unlike that of Steve Peters’ Here-ings (comprising a distilled day of field recordings made in New Mexico), calling to mind immensity with the most minimal of means. And deceptive too, as there are times when it’s difficult to determine whether a sound is actually being heard or whether it’s part of the natural ambience—or even one’s imagination engaging in a little projection of its own.

Not, though, when the piano gets involved, from around six minutes in, with a sequence of low clusters. But even here, the effect is paradoxical: its presence is restrained, yet has a heightening effect on the entire orchestra, which almost immediately feels ‘on alert’. The piano’s material is inscrutable, apparently more externally catalytic than inherently expressive, yet nonetheless it’s impossible not to hear its actions in a lyrical light, a disparate roaming displaying signs of gesture and even the makings of melody. Even more so when the slowly shifting noise-vistas that have hitherto surrounded it abruptly vanish, entirely exposing the piano which, without wishing to anthropomorphise, seems to sound audibly self-conscious continuing now on its own, embellished with only the most spare contributions from the orchestra: various sustained pitches of diverse clarity, all feeling like offshoots from the main pianistic train of thought. Pisaro develops this in the latter half of the work into a dense network of protracted smooth edges, in the process blurring the distinction between consonance and dissonance. The resultant texturework (bringing Ligeti to mind) is exquisite and immersive. Pitch becomes something that both clarifies and obfuscates, that both draws attention to itself and becomes lost in a cluster, continually moving between stability and disorientation—or, perhaps, rendering both positions moot. This is brought to a head at the end, the piano becoming certain in a procession of chords, everyone else becoming undone as their notes fail and slide downwards and/or fizzle out. The piano’s resonant closing solo is emphatically melodic, but Pisaro keeps it fittingly pensive right to the end.

The best music works on both intellectual and instinctual levels, exciting both, and this is precisely how fields have ears (10) (constellation, monarch, canyon) operates. Its constant compositional paradoxes and gorgeous soundworld are key to its engrossing character, and while Pisaro doesn’t call it a ‘concerto’, the piece offers quite radical food for thought on the possibilities of that term. The sublime world première performance was given at last year’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow, by John Tilbury with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov.


Chris L January 19, 2017 • 17:04 - 17:04

While the following musing isn’t intended to take anything away from the singularity of Pisaro’s achievement here…

…it strikes me that, far more than is the case with any other Darmstadt composer’s MO, and despite his still being far less of a “household name” than Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio, et al., it’s now Lachenmann’s explorations of the line between pitch and noise that provide the touchstone for the current generation of “cutting edge” composers. Simplistic, I know, and as all generalisations tend to be, but is it fair, do you think?

5:4 January 19, 2017 • 19:24 - 19:24

i don’t think it is fair, no. Speaking for myself, as a composer who flirts regularly (putting it mildly) with the distinction between pitch and noise, i can’t say that Lachenmann is someone uppermost in my mind in this area, though of course i know exactly what you mean, as this is a quality (one of many) that characterises his work. This kind of exploration, it seems to me, is very widespread today – as much, if not more so, in the world of electronic music – so i suspect it’s over-simplistic to think of any one composer as the ‘touchstone’ for what is a highly varied and diverse line of enquiry.

Chris L January 19, 2017 • 20:53 - 20:53

Fair enough (as it were!); a mere thinking-aloud was all it was, and a pretty poorly-expressed one at that. I just find it curious that the kind of experimentation on which Lachenmann’s reputation largely rests is providing such a rich compositional seam at present, whereas many of the other innovations of his Darmstadt peers are not.

5:4 January 19, 2017 • 20:56 - 20:56

Can you elaborate on what you call “the other innovations of his Darmstadt peers”?

Chris L January 19, 2017 • 21:32 - 21:32

Off the top of my head: total serialism, Sinfonia-style collage, stochastic composition.

5:4 January 19, 2017 • 21:50 - 21:50

Well, total serialism is ridiculous, so that’s perhaps not surprising; collage has perhaps been supplanted by a more subtle ‘referential’/allusive compositional approach.

As for stochastic composition, i’m certainly doing my bit to ensure it becomes a lot more prevalent!

Chris L January 19, 2017 • 22:22 - 22:22

Re: serialism generally, those who claim it’s dead are apt to sound as silly as those serialists who kept saying that the symphony is dead, but, even so, there are very few living composers who are proudly true to the faith; in fact, right now I can only think of Wuorinen.

Anyway, I’m both digressing and waffling dreadfully. And perhaps my impression doesn’t reflect reality very much at all; nevertheless, it still seems to me that pitch/noise experimentation is very much du jour, the other MOs we’ve been discussing (despite your own admirable efforts!) rather less so.

Ugolino the Magnificient February 4, 2017 • 10:33 - 10:33

Your comment was actually fair. While “this kind of exploration is very widespread today”, it was not when Ferneyhough started to write this kind of music. Saying Lanchemann’s “musique concrète instrumentale” is not a touchstone if not THE touchstone in the development of the various “noisy styles” of today is like saying Schönberg’s music has nothing to do with integral serialism from the 50’s. A lot of composers often tries to refute that kind of obvious historical lineage, but it’s more often than not an attempt at hiding the fact than their music is simply not original at all.

Chris L February 13, 2017 • 09:40 - 09:40

Thank you for your support for my position, which I’m now belatedly acknowledging!

How much subtle distinction between “noisy” styles actually exists, and how much is down to many composers “hiding the fact than their music is simply not original at all”, is doubtless a moot point; all I know is that many’s the time recently that I’ve sat down to an HCMF premiere and immediately found myself thinking of Lachenmann.

That said, such accusations of hiding are not something that can be levelled at Simon’s own music, which is largely electronic and therefore bears no resemblance to Lachenmann’s for the most part.

5:4 February 13, 2017 • 14:33 - 14:33

Actually, electronic music forms a relatively small part of my output (so far), but you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Chris L February 13, 2017 • 15:13 - 15:13

I stand duly corrected!

James Weeks July 18, 2019 • 12:05 - 12:05

Beautiful commentary on this magnificent work. Couldn’t agree more with all of it, so well expressed. Thanks.

7 EXPERTS RANK THE DECADE'S TOP 5 IN MUSIC - Aesthetics for Birds September 29, 2021 • 23:25 - 23:25

[…] and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov (cond); not commercially released but archived here A radical reimagining of both the idea of a concerto and what sounds an orchestra can produce, this […]


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