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. This 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.