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on guitar (+1) an essay on presenting a concert of compositions by Michael Pisaro

by Chaz Underriner


In preparing a program of Michael Pisaro's solo and duo pieces for electric guitar I have found it necessary to write out my thoughts and inspirations not only as a way to organize my own approach to performing the pieces but also as a point of reference for others to experience his music. However, I think it is important to state that my own quasi-programmatic and very visual experience of Michael's music is merely a singular listening rather than a guide or an attempt at a definitive interpretation of the piece(s). The three pieces that comprise guitar (+1): Rapport Abstrait, E lá fora and black, white, red, green, blue are related in that they all play with our perception of sounds and connections between separate entities. Rapport Abstrait concerns the gradual unification of two separate performers, E lá fora concerns the unification of atmospheric sounds with intentionally created sounds as a play on sonic perception and black, white, red, green, blue concerns the unity of sound with color and space. The title of Rapport Abstrait may be translated from French as “abstract connection”. I believe that the title of this piece strongly informs the relationship of the two electric guitars as well as the overall progression. I experience Rapport Abstrait as the gradual coming together of two separate entities in multiple ways. The two guitars begin the piece by quietly swelling chords completely separately from one another. The sounds played relate to one another quite naturally and create a rich harmonic progression in their back and forth interaction. In the second section the guitars play in quiet unity – a sustained resonance with ebow which foreshadows the coalescence to come. I am drawn into these quiet drones and I feel as if hidden spaces are being briefly unlocked and peered into, but never for long enough. This section always ends too soon. In the third section the guitars play in unison every minute or so while also playing by themselves. The two guitars are still separate yet related, as if the performers speak to one another and begin to think as one, yet each is still consumed by their own stream of thought. The final section of the piece, at 36', contains the only continuous pulse. This shared sense of timing, a shared internal counting between the two performers, is a dramatic culmination of the developing unity throughout the whole piece. Whatever the “abstract connection” is that the title refers to, the separate elements are curiously synthesized in the last moments of the piece. The title of E lá fora is a quote from the poem The Keeper of Sheep by Fernando Pessoa meaning “and outside”. “Sentir a vida correr por mim como um rio por seu leito, E lá fora um grande silêncio como um deus que dorme. I feel life running through me like a river in its bed, And outside a great silence like a sleeping god.”

—Fernando Pessoa (from The Keeper of Sheep, XLIX)

This piece is meant to be performed outside and taps into the idea of a “great silence” by a choice blending of the instruments with the environmental sounds around them. A section of plainly performed chords with 10 second interjections of silence frames the beginning and end of the piece while the bulk of the piece consists of a “great silence”. I experience the “great silence” of very quiet sustained tones on the guitar and melodica mixed with the atmospheric sounds in a similar way as I experience Michael Pisaro's Transparent City series. Transparent City consists of field recordings of different places in Los Angeles with quiet sine tones added into the recordings by the composer. What initially appears to be an untouched recording of a neighborhood of Los Angeles with traffic noise and all is slightly shifted by the


nearly imperceptible addition of sine tones. I find that this subtle addition of sine tones shifts my perception of an ordinary street recording in a profound way – Pisaro is able to illuminate sonic features of the sound-scape that previously went unnoticed. To me this is like going to a normal street in Los Angeles and stringing dim lights from street post to street post to create a tiny glow which illuminates unforseen minutiae. The significance of this “great silence” is in the details – the mental impressions created by the interaction of naturally occurring sounds with those imposed by the composer. black, white, red, green, blue for solo electric guitar is in one way a clear hommage to Rimbaud's poem 'Voyelles' in which Rimbaud imprints each of the french vowels with a color and riffs images on each of the associated colors. Black, white, red, green and blue, the respective names of the five sections of the piece, are derived directly from the first line of Rimbaud's poem: “A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles, Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes...” If Rimbaud ascribed a synesthetic and mystical quality to each vowel then Pisaro translates the colors of the vowels into vast fields of sound. Each of the five sections of BWRGB I associate with one of the vowels and colors of 'Voyelles' and each section dramatically transforms the listening atmosphere by subtle means. My experience of the piece is of traveling through vast color fields, experiencing soft plays of light and encountering fragile sonic imagery which emerges from nothingness. When I listen to the repeated soft mallet hit on the body of the guitar of part I, (noir/black), what immediately comes to mind is a large gong. The struck guitar produces subtly shifting overtone beatings which interact with the dark drone of the low strings to create a meditative mood and space. The repetition of the strike naturally falls into a very long (ca 10”) periodic rhythm which shimmers in subtly different ways like the dark color fields that comprise the Rothko Chapel. This glacial and constant rhythm takes on the zen-like practice of striking a gong as a form of focused meditation. The long ring of the guitar pervades the atmosphere and clears mental space for us to reside or even recalibrate. Mark Rothko, Rothko Chapel (1 panel) (1971)


Part II (blanc/white) is like walking through a silent, frozen landscape. The vast silences of this movement evoke wandering under the stretching vastness of a colossal white tent from which we cannot escape. The almost inaudibly quiet guitar tones play against our perception as shifts of light – a patch of gray appears and disappears, a sharper brilliance of light briefly overtakes our vision. This lonely tundra is sparklingly beautiful, yet uninhabitable. We are convinced to travel the hostile land that we might appreciate its slight glimmers for just an instant.

Cy Twombly, Untitled (1970)

Part III (rouge/red) contains the most dramatic sonic changes in the piece with its plainly articulated dyads. The resonances and overtone beatings of the composed intervals here create a delightful grind, a vivid pleasure accented by slight pain which lovers may know. The warmth of blood and skin. Longing.

Cy Twombly, Red #4


Part IV (vert/green) is comprised of tonal swells which ground us into fertile earth. This is peace after turmoil, rest after rapture and the contentment of unity. “...U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas, the peace of pastures dotted with animals...�

Cy Twombly, Untitled Parts III and IV (1988)


Part V (bleu/blue) is comprised of a “low rumble� of re-articulated long durations. Again we are brought to inhabit a vastness, this time the mystery of the deepest ocean, as we are swept into a slowly moving current. Our body is gently and suddenly pulled into invisible waves and we glimpse faint refractions of light from the distant surface.

Mark-Rothko, Blue, Green and Brown (1951)

As a whole, the BWRGB feels like a mental journey in which the body is stationary but the mind and soul transverse vastly contrasting territory; much like the experience of reading a science fiction novel which piques one's taste for other worlds.


Voyelles by Arthur Rimbaud A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles, Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes: A, noir corset velu des mouches éclatantes Qui bombinent autour des puanteurs cruelles, Golfes d'ombre; E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes, Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d'ombelles; I, pourpres, sang craché, rire des lèvres belles Dans la colère ou les ivresses pénitentes; U, cycles, vibrements divins des mers virides, Paix des pâtis semés d'animaux, paix des rides Que l'alchimie imprime aux grands fronts studieux; O, suprême Clairon plein des strideurs étranges, Silences traversés des [Mondes et des Anges]: —O l'Oméga, rayon violet de [Ses] Yeux!

... Vowels A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels, I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins: A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies which buzz around cruel smells, Gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents, lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley; I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips in anger or in the raptures of penitence; U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas, the peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads; O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds, silences crossed by [Worlds and by Angels]: –O the Omega! the violet ray of [His] Eyes!

guitar (+1) essay  

program notes for a concert of Michael Pisaro's music