Buffalo, New York born composer and guitarist Michael Pisaro-Liu has written a lot of quiet music. Music where silence is not what you get when the music stops, but where the boundary with silence is a key goal. Think of the opening solo clarinet movement, the Abyss of the Birds, from Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin des temps, where the softest, most ethereal sounds of the clarinet materialize almost imperceptibly from the player’s breath. . Focus on this transition as a time of musical exploration and you are in the world that interests him.
It’s not the kind of music he was trained to write. “Most of what I learned as a student was dissonant counterpoint, which here – in the United States – was descended from Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles. I had a few teachers who had worked with this system that Charles seeger [father of Pete, Peggy and Mike Seeger] taught when he was at Harvard. It’s a bit like the atonal American school of music.
Pisaro-Liu says he’s always been interested in experimental music – he lists Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix and Velvet Underground as his earliest interests – but describes himself as having been somewhat “between the generations”. As a student, he was discouraged from engaging in the work of John Cage.
He gives three answers when I ask him about the genealogy of experimental music, first offering the idea that “all avant-garde music is fundamentally experimental music” and tracing this back to Ockeghem in the 15th century or “The Mathematical Works of JS Bach, The Art of Fugue, The Musical Offering and Vom Himmel hoch”. Then he suggests Henry Cowell in the 1930s, embracing his own work and that of “Ives, Ruggles and Becker”. And finally, John Cage in the 1950s “with this famous idea of writing music whose outcome is unpredictable”. Take your pick, he said.
His own work, “only really settled down when I started working with silence in music, which would have been the early 90s”. The chronological list of works on his website begins in 1994, the year he turned 33. I happened to meet the other members of Wandelweiser gradually at this same time… I went from a period when I didn’t really know how to make experimental music to discovering it.
The name Wandelweiser, with its connotations of wandering, wisdom and a fragmentary reference to signage, “just popped into the mind of one of the founders, Burkhard Schlothauer”. Pisaro-Liu now links the movement to Cage’s notorious silent piece, 4’33”, the composer’s death in 1992, and the fact that there was “much to work on” in this area after Cage’s death.
“I think we all felt quite independently that there was something about silence that made it both a material to work with, compositionally, and something that didn’t quite behave. quite like a material, which disturbed the material. Somehow Antoine Beuger and Jürg Frey, Burkhard, myself and Manfred Werder more or less independently came across this concept. And then, shortly after each of us did that, we met. That’s how it was founded.
I had this idea to write a track that could be played very early, like four in the morning… That’s where this sleepy title comes from
The score to his 2013 work Sleeping, Wind, Voice, Poe, which gets its Irish premiere at the Carlingford Heritage Center on the afternoon of Sunday May 8, is 16 pages, only two of which contain musical notation. But there are no specific time signatures, barlines, or note durations.
The 90-minute work is for piano, trio, percussion, voice and playback (including field recordings made inside and outside the performance space) and the score is not really a score, but rather a collection of parts. The nine pages of broken words from short texts by Edgar Allan Poe and Raoul Vaneigem occupy the most space, all arranged in columns, three per page, each page constituting one of the 12 sections of the seven-minute work and 30 seconds each. Three pages are devoted to general instructions for musicians, and the percussion part is all text and timings.
It is part of a series of plays whose title is “asleep” and derives from the time spent in Neufelden, in the Austrian countryside. “I had this idea of writing a play that could be performed very early, like four in the morning. We did it there. That’s where that sleepy title comes from. Outside of that concept of being half awake, half asleep, it had to do with that particular mix of environmental sound and kind of imaginary music that you might feel upon waking up. All the works in the series have some perspective on this. They all combine an element of field recording, a certain elevation of the background, you might say, with the presentation of a type of music that doesn’t completely take over the background. You have these two streams, and neither is really dominant. Every piece in the series works with this concept.
Actor Olwen Fouéré is only the second performer to deal with the “strange alphabetically twisted language” he created in the play. Music is very important to her, she says. “I have already applied for my next life. It’s music, being a musician, singer or singer/musician. I’d love it.
“I am quite determined in what I pursue. I was working towards becoming a visual artist and rarely dabbled in it at all once I started working in performance. I find it difficult to diversify. But music is a very important part of my life. I collaborated for years with Roger Doyle. I just did something for the Finnegans Wake – Suite of Affections album he released.
She describes music as “the highest art form and the universal language” and seems relieved that there is “quite a lot of choice” in interpreting Pisaro-Liu’s work.
“I could use my heart rate as a guide,” she says, “but I could drift very easily. The only other time I had to be very strict about timing was when I did Gerald Barry’s opera, The Importance of Being Earnest. I was Doctor Chasuble. It was a fantastic version directed by Antony McDonald.
Meeting the rigorous demands of Barry’s high-energy work is a baptism of fire for any musician. Pisaro-Liu’s vision for performers and listeners seems colder. “I really want them to find their own path in music,” he says.
Fouéré performs Sleeping, Wind, Voice, Poe with David Bremner, David Stalling and members of the UK ensemble Apartment House at the Carlingford Heritage Center at 3pm on Sunday 8 May. luthcms.org