Richard Feynman, an American physicist, was famous for the attention he placed on teaching; seldom in academia does one find a scholar as intelligent as Feynman, let alone one with the passion and ability to convey his abstractions to novices. I frequently recall the following anecdote:
Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi Dirac statistics. Rising to the challenge, he said, “I’ll prepare a [first-year] lecture on it.” But a few days later he told the faculty member, “You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the [first-year] level. That means we really don’t understand it.”
Although this quotation has mostly molded my attitudes toward education, it reminds me lately of Michael Pisaro’s music. There is a reductive elegance in it; it’s not per se simple (maybe simple without being too simple, as Feynman might say), but explicative. Pisaro’s scores are immensely clear, despite their non-standard notation (e.g., ricefall (2) and july mountain), facilitating one’s understanding of their performances and deepening appreciation thereof. These scores translate perfectly into sound, exposing a world of engrossing timbres unburdened by unnecessary complexities. Varying from bending percussive micro-tonalities to prodding sine waves, these beguiling resonances are at times at odds with the perceived accessible nature of Pisaro’s constructions. His pieces, both their score and execution, are akin to an excellent first-year lecture on quantum mechanics; abstract phenomena are presented in a way so that anyone can comprehend and love them.
Pisaro’s “Hearing Metal” series is a multipart lecture of the above, now on its third rendition. Each is in dedication to the sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi, with track names and piece subtitles littered with Brâncuşi references (Sleeping Muse, The Endless Column, Prometheus, 1911). Although the orchestration differs across each entry, each piece is primarily composed of electronic (sine tones, field recordings, a guitar, etc.) and percussive (cymbals, tam-tams, ‘surfaces,’ almglocken, etc.) elements, with every rendition performed by Michael Pisaro (electronics) and Greg Stuart (percussion, a frequent interpreter of Michael’s compositions).
Hearing Metal 1, released in 2009 by Wandelweiser (the composing group of which Michael is a member), was composed in 2008 and 2009 through close interaction between Pisaro and Stuart. With this piece, Pisaro sought “to work within the givens of [the instruments’] landscape, to allow some of [their] 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.” Hearing Metal 2 and 3, two recent releases on Pisaro’s own Gravity Wave imprint, are a continuation of this aesthetic, once again displaying a keen, unadorned attention to the acoustics of his instruments. And, with this submission to the dimensions of his orchestration, Pisaro unveils an eternity’s worth of resonances, a practice that is at once simple and demonstrative of a deeply fundamental understanding of the aural.
For example, Hearing Metal 2 opens with lush field recordings (from Big Sur, California; Neufelden, Austria; and Haan, Germany) whose depth alone seems endless. Soon coupled with an organ sample of sine tones, the piece reaches an unbounded mass, which when played at high volumes is laden with idiosyncrasies — a near-fractal level of complexity. As well, the second part of Hearing Metal 2 closely pitches sine tones against percussion reverberations to generate an exquisite drone of infinite scope that is nonetheless atomic when examined at extreme volumes.
In contrast to the melange of its ‘successor,’ Hearing Metal 3 has moments of separation wherein Stuart and Pisaro can be discretely heard. For this piece, Stuart revisits the textures of ricefall (2), delicately and not-so-delicately pouring grains onto surfaces. When combined with Pisaro’s tones, the resonances explore a full territory uncharted by ricefall (2). However, there are still moments of Pisaro/Stuart mixing, like when Stuart’s “sixteen suspended cymbals” bow against Pisaro’s sine tones, all of which coalesce into the spectacular drone akin to those found on Hearing Metal 2.
Through their entire durations, Hearing Metal 2 and 3 are awash in otherworldly tones, all the while permeated by a collegial atmosphere. The listener not only feels comfortable when nestled within these metals, but also engages in the process. These pieces never evoke the timeless shit-stain abstract art sentiment of “I could do that”; instead, there is a surjection between what and how: the listener observes a mapping, its outcomes and inputs, yet never uniquely relates an input to its image. The appreciation is heightened by this relation, but because of this ambiguity, “Hearing Metal” is never reduced to a triviality. After all, these resonances are complex.