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Just Outside

It's going to be fascinating hearing different versions of Pisaro scores as they surface, as some are beginning to do already. Earlier this year, Miguel Prado released his reading of "White Metal" on a Senufo Editions LP (my review here) and we now have one from longtime Pisaro collaborator Greg Stuart and Joe Panzner. I've been listening to the new release both independently and side by side with the Prado, a luxury not often afforded. Pisaro has said that both reflect his score accurately and to the extent I can understand said score (minimal) that seems to be the case; similar basic gross structures are apparent in each and, to an extent, the raw materials overlap a bit, both Prado and Stuart/Panzner taking the title to incorporate or at least make reference to both white noise and (to my ears, to a far lesser extent) the metal genre.

On its own, this new version is a thrilling ride. One gets the impression, despite the occasional respite, of hurtling forward with extreme rapidity through notably metallic funnels and corridors, multiple layers of electronics melding into an all but impenetrable web from which the odd discreet sound emerges; I swear I heard a dial-up modem at one point. I'm still a bit unsure as to whether or not there are aural elements in common with each rendition (i.e., that are always part of any version). For instance, a regular, ticking sound appears near the beginning of both the Prado and Panzner/Stuart recordings; maybe the latter sampled the former, who knows? The intense nature of the present recording causes the silences to stand out in starker relief, imparting a very different sensation to the listener, here a kind of break from the intensity, more disquieting than is the case on the Prado; it's only gradually that the listener realizes that the silence isn't utter but, I think, contains the sound of the room. Not so surprisingly, the more I listened the more I picked out, the more deeply I understood, or began to understand, the interplay of the elements. This might be something that has to do more with my own reaction to various aspects of "noise" music (which Panzner has certainly delved into in past works) and the relative difficulty I often encounter in wending my way through. Listeners more generally in tune with this approach may have few such hindrances. I tend to hear Pisaro "first", then filter it through the performers' attack, so it sometimes takes me a while and, even so, I'm usually left with the distinct impression that I've only, if not merely scratched, at most gouged the surface. Sitting here now, listening to "White Metal" for about the eighth time, I'm hearing new things.

If, at the moment were I forced to "choose", I'd prefer the Prado, it might only be because his approach maps more directly onto what I imagine mine would be, not the most meaningful criterion. This one is strong, vital and, to the extent I can determine, a fine interpretation of Pisaro's piece, one that I'll return to many times. I also look forward to the realizations of this work, and others, by many more musicians in the future.

Required listening.


The Watchful Ear

This is the second realisation of Michael Pisaro’s White Metal to be released this year, and the second I have reviewed here. It is inevitable I guess that on the rare occasions that a contemporary score has two realisations released in a short period of time that reviewers like myself will draw comparisons between the two. How much this really helps anything is difficult to say, but the nature and parameters of a score like this one of Pisaro’s become more apparent when two really quite different versions are compared. Without writing the same review again, the beauty of Pisaro’s score is how it tightly defines timings, arrangement and even the loose definition of the sounds involved, but stops short of any kind of precise notation. So having the two versions of the piece to hand helps define Pisaro’s role in the music more clearly as while the structure and narrative of the piece is similar across both versions, this new version by Greg Stuart and Joe Panzner is very different to the previous recording by the composer alongside Miguel Prado. Pisaro requests that “white noise” sounds are used.

He even dictates their ferocity, texture and volume to some degree, but the flexibility that the term “white noise” provides means that we are dealing with two very different palettes of sound dropped into what is pretty much a predetermined template. While the older realisation mixed field recordings with less identifiable sounds the Stuart/Panzner effort blends a stream of harsh, often impenetrably aggressive mix of shortwave-like electronics and digitally formed scrawl.

Pisaro’s impact is entirely recognisable across the two versions. Inspired by Mozart’s 40th Symphony, or rather the way its at one time experimental sound must have sounded like noise to those that first heard it, the loosely defined, but never acutely curated white noises are then then split into four ‘movements’, within each of which there are definite peaks, lulls, and sudden chasms. The movements are each separated by long spaces which at first feel like silences as they fall between the torrents of digital noise either side, but closer attention reveals that recordings of different room tones fill in these spaces, adding a beautiful sense of very subtle colouring between the acutely positioned chaos. These patches of near but not quite silent greyness are prescribed by Pisaro in his score, and it is this degree of attention to detail, this vision of how the end product could come out sounding that marks Pisaro down as one of the most interesting composers alive today.

Interestingly though, one starts to wonder how much of this work is the product of the musicians’ creativity and how much the composer? Could the “template” for White Metal be made available for some kind of sequencing program in which musicians just drop suitable sounds into predetermined windows and press play? Perhaps this in fact is what the score already is- merely a series of frames into which content is poured, their placement already determined. So if, as is the case here, I prefer the Pisaro / Prado realisation of White Metal to this new release who might care? Do the musicians merely shrug and say they had no input into where everything landed or does the composer walk away saying its not his fault if the recipe was made using inferior ingredients? I jest of course. Nothing is that simple and the relationship between composer and musicians is a far more complex affair, but one does wonder as this kind of only loosely defined composition becomes more prevalent whether such questions could come into play in the future.

Apart from undoubtably being the noisiest recording of a Wandelweiser published score yet, this realisation of White Metal is probably also the ugliest, but deliberately so. The sounds Stuart and Panzner use are those that often irritate us in everyday life- harshly burning static and piercing fields of blaring digital scribble layered over one another. Pisaro calls for “noises” in his score, and demands that they are layered in an “intense or dense enough” manner that “differentiation between them might be nearly impossible”. The music here then isn’t an easy ride. This isn’t a piece to lull you gently to sleep and in Stuart and Panzner’s hands it isn’t meant to be. Its actually a really well made, finely constructed and enjoyable listen, but for me the Pisaro / Prado realisation allows the listener a little more breathing space and more variety in the material put to work. Its horses for courses though, and both versions are the work of exceptional minds. The one thing that is definitely a positive to me however is that the two versions didn’t come out sounding the same.

Released on Makam, a new imprint of the always excellently presented Dromos label.


Jason Bivins
in Dusted Magazine

Composer Michael Pisaro has been on something of a tear in the last several years. Following years of relative obscurity preparing works for the Timescraper label alongside other composers, like Jurg Frey and Antoine Beuger, associated with the Wandelweiser collective, Pisaro has been documenting his singular work more regularly on his own Gravity Wave imprint and elsewhere. In time, he’s intersected with many of the more adventurous souls emerging from various electroacoustic improvisational circles, and the result has been a series of fruitful collaborations. One of his most fruitful indeed has been with electronician/percussionist Greg Stuart, with whom Pisaro has recorded several iterations of his Hearing Metal series (among others).

White Metal is the second entry in Pisaro’s Grey Series and its first performance was by Pisaro and Miguel Prado, on Senufo Editions. It’s rich, exhausting, at times overwhelming stuff, and is nearly as interesting in its manner of construction as it is to listen to. It employs a graphic score modelled on the developmental arc of Mozart’s 40th symphony (each of the four precise movements in White Metal traces its logic), and is inspired by Marcia Hafif’s visual art, Reza Negarestani’s writings, and black metal. Pisaro is interested in creating opportunities for musicians to deal primarily in sonic extremes: with carefully calibrated transitions and other instructions, the piece deals with almost total silence and near-overwhelming, claustrophobic pure noise. Pisaro’s script for dynamics, textures, and various musical relations is fairly precise, even as he affords interpreters considerable opportunity for personal contributions. Some notes included in the score include: “an erratic noise that runs intermittently throughout the movement” or stipulating the number of sonic eruptions to occur in a particular frame, as well as their duration.

This performance, with Stuart on electronics and Joe Panzner on computer, is in many places an absolute, data-frenzied, feedback-driven squall. If you were among those taken by Pisaro’s stunning use of crunchy electric guitar on The Punishment of the Tribe by Its Elders, this piece connects the dots and shows Pisaro’s growing interest in this kind of sonic density. The opening irruption evokes Kevin Drumm at his most confrontational, and inaugurates a pattern of see-sawing between extremes, from shrieking fury to a dense hive of a drone and soft clacking sounds. Pitches spool upwards and downwards, creating ear-bending and head-scrambling effects not unlike those heard on Marcus Schmickler’s recent recordings. As things come to a boil, they drop off suddenly into total silence. These are the extremes indicated in Pisaro’s score, and Stuart and Panzner dive into them with thrilling abandon. 

Though the pattern and the dynamic arc remain consistent, the relative variation is impressive. Part 2 opens with soft wind and water, a rustle that soon becomes a train engine and then backs off to reveal thunderstorm first, then low sepulchral sound buffeted by harsh blades of noise. As it rolls onward, the sound of the buzzing hive rises and rises, the contrast in rhythm subsiding in favor of a multiform tonal wave — some granular, some smooth; some rumbling, some severe. Then, wave after wave of flickering static and interruptions of noise-blast pour out, always set against that low tonal core that ultimately sucks the piece down into another lengthy hush. 

The third part erupts like a modem seeking a connection in furious stutters and blips. Before long, a full array of drill bits is up and roaring, only pausing for enough air to allow you to hear the tiniest flame sounds, or magnetic tape crinkling in your deck. Occasionally in this piece, which shows the greatest dynamic range of the four, the modem returns like a leitmotif, but one that’s howling a plea for help. The last rendition is similarly caustic, but has a shimmering keyboard chord that peeks through the din, revealing different striations of thrum and oscillation. From first to last, there is considerable space and texture within the overall squall, and even more density of texture and tonality, despite otherwise being rather brutal. You rocket along with its velocity until the record fades out, the sound of cosmic chaos spooling into infinity.