Monday, 2 March 2009

Michael Pisaro - 'transparent city'

Michael Pisaro – ‘transparent city volumes 1 & 2 / 3 & 4’
(wandelweiser edition - 2 x double cd)

The use of field recordings in composition is still a young tradition. This despite the fact that it is the everyday, natural or man made sound world that is the source of all musical expression in one way or another. What's more there are still very few successful examples of unprocessed field recordings being used as a key element in contemporary composition. More often they are used as a mere novelty or altered beyond recognition. Hovhaness attempted to incorporate the already over used sound of whale song into an orchestral setting in his work ‘and god created great whales’ in 1970 and indeed in its own way the piece worked – after all the mountainous orchestral palette that Hovhaness generally used matched the whale song & thankfully ensured a distinctly non-new age experience. This is just one example of course & indeed there are others.

For me the most enjoyable compositions in this area come from the pen of Toru Takemitsu. From the beginning of his long and close relationship with visual art forms Takemitsu created many works that made extremely successful and inspiring use of environmental sound - from the dramatic use of various sounds that he was required to incorporate when composing for radio & theatre, to his removal of ‘music’ from many parts of the soundtracks he was asked to compose for films, leaving instead the sound of the actors breath, the movement of cloth and the ‘empty’ air of the studio – genius is the word for Takemitsu, no doubt about it.

‘Field recording’ (whatever that terms means these days !) has moved on dramatically in recent years and Michael Pisaro is a composer whose work is clearly both artistically rigorous in terms of that forward motion and also imbued with a pleasing clarity. His ‘transparent city’ pieces appear on paper to be simple in the extreme – each is a ten minute unedited field recording from a single location in Los Angeles, with sine tones added by the composer at the editing stage. Each is then followed by a two minute silence.

When one comes to attempt to put into words the experience of listening to the 4 cds that make up this series it is perhaps helpful to come at the task from a similarly uncluttered stance. Firstly the field recordings themselves have a quiet and yet highly active quality that fits well with the ‘transparent’ element of the title. They come across as thin films removed from the surface of each location. If your interest is simply in intriguing and enjoyable field recordings then these discs offer a great deal on those terms alone. However, as with Michael’s compositions for conventional instrumentation (there are several discs on wandelweiser including the ‘harmony series’ cd & the ‘an unrhymed chord’ double cd set) his placement of similarly discreet and well judged other sounds – in this case sine tones employed in various pitches – somehow shift the pieces without one being fully aware of how or when this transition actually occurs or indeed returns the listener to the silence that follows. Many of these tones are placed at a level and range as to be easily mistaken for elements in the landscape recorded, whilst others calmly appear above the surface. The placement of these tones and the decisions on how they should impact (or not) on the listener is clearly an important part of composing with this amount of focus.

The use of sine tones (sine waves – single pitched tones, played here in constant strands) has become an accepted method in contemporary music – most actively employed in improvised and electro acoustic music. I’ve heard all kind of views on why this should be the case & indeed opposing views on whether it is actually music at all. To debate that further here would serve no useful purpose (does it even need debating any more ? I hope not), however I will say that my feeling is that there is a link between our willingness to accept these sounds and the momentary tinnitus that we all suffer from – those few seconds which grab our attention and appear like unusual events in even the most routine daily life.

When one attempts to compose using untreated field recordings as a main element of the work there are always those who believe that the skills or inspirations employed are not the same as with ‘proper’ (!) instrumentation or methods of transforming the actual recordings. I’m not sure how long it will take for this view to totally disappear but works like this can only serve to expose further the benefits of the sound world available to those of us who choose to accept or work with this form of compositional language.

Listen to these discs at a ‘normal’ level ( keeping the level the same throughout) – as indeed the composer suggests – and their transparency becomes apparent as the sounds combine with those of one’s own surroundings. I quite often found myself checking to see if a piece had actually shifted into its silent coda or trying to work out whether I was listening to the a flight path over San Francisco or actually above me.

We should always remember that in spite of all the technology available to us the fact is still that all that matters when one approaches music / sound & indeed our daily audible enviroments is having open ears, humility and the essential simplicity of ones inspirations or interests.


Anonymous said...

Nice field recording article! We're planning to use something called a SonoPak (combined with a MiniDisc recorder) to gather ambient sounds for an album. Any thoughts? In our case, it would be helpful to travel anywhere and record at any hour.

Jez riley French said...

I have to admit that the sonopak seems a bit puzzling to me - for roughly the same cost one can buy a decent pair of binaurals mics that will offer a wider variety of options. I also think that the mics in the pak seem to not be that good. Have you got hold of one yet ? perhaps you could let us all know what you think ? If you haven't purchased one yet send me an email & I can suggest some other options that might give better results. thanks for leaving the comment.