Michael Pisaro/Greg Stuart - Congaree Nomads (CD)
Disc 2 of the Continuum Unbound box, copies are still available by e-mailing erstrecs (at) gmail.com. the actual box also contains a 12 page color booklet with photographs and liner notes.
CD inside a cardboard folder with liner notes info, transparent plastic cover.
(released October 2, 2014)
field recording by Michael Pisaro and Greg Stuart
percussion performed and recorded by Greg Stuart
mastered by Michael Pisaro
cover photo by Greg Stuart
design by Yuko Zama
Congaree Nomads takes as its basis 24 three-minute recordings Greg Stuart and I made in the park, along Cedar Creek and the Kingsnake, the Weston Lake and the River trails. It is a “nomadic” series that moves very gradually from the Creek to the Congaree River. Instrumental “fogs” (harmonies made by Pisaro and Stuart) overlay the field recordings. (GW 012)
The three discs will be available in a box (along with a printed essay).
Bill Meyer, Dusted
Music is inextricably bound to time. Without some recognition of continuous duration, sounds are just unrelated vibrational events. One might say that both are products of the human tendency to perceive patterns, some of which we recognize and others that we impose. Continuum Unbound is fundamentally time-based. It comprises three CDs, each exactly 72 minutes long. The first is a recording of sounds heard as night fell in Congaree National Park on the last evening of 2012. The second and third are compositions that deal with that experience, each of which gives musicians considerable latitude in what they play and strict instructions about when they play it.
And yet, the music’s subject is the essentially illusory quality of continuity. Composer/instrumentalist/sound recorder Michael Pisaro discovered this when he played back the originally audio document that he made with percussionist Greg Stuart. Pisaro, who lives in California, is an American member of the European-based, post-Cage-ian Wandelweiser Collective, and Stuart, who lives in South Carolina, is his most consistent and sympathetic collaborator and interpreter. Pisaro’s music has often mixed environmental field recordings with electronically generated and manually played sounds, but I’m not aware of another piece where the character of the field recordings defined the music’s character to the extent that it does here. When Pisaro first listened back to the sunset recording, which is entitled “Kingsnake Grey,” he was struck by how chaotic the unfolding soundtrack was. Although it followed a general drift — the birds got quieter, the bugs got louder — the closer he listened, the less continuity he heard. The prevailing trends were interrupted and disrupted by distant avian cries, the antics of squirrels, and crackle of plant matter agitated by animals. What seemed continuous was in fact an aggregation of events that weren’t necessarily related to each other and certainly weren’t occurring to any fixed plan.
“Kingsnake Grey” is a flexible and potentially quite absorbing listen. Pisaro and Stuart’s microphones capture the forest’s sonic life with near-tactile detail and a depth of field that increases with every listen. The option exists to just put it on and putter about, and it’s quite a pleasant ambient space-filler. But it rewards close listening with an experience of stillness within motion, a sense of a world going on around you while you observe it. You’re the tree, but fortunately not the one that the birds and squirrels land on. This recording, nearly empty of human-generated sound, also sets the stage for two very different pieces. Prior to that sunset recording, the two men had wandered the park doing three-minute site recordings; afterwards, they walked out through an accumulating grey fog. The two come together in “Congaree Nomads.” Pisaro strung 24 of those site recordings together, and then faded them in and out. He also composed a musical representation of fog, which Stuart realized. Fog seems like a monolithic thing, but it’s really just an accumulation of droplets. Likewise Pisaro’s score asks for the extraction of very simple individual sounds by bowing metallophones. Over the course of 72 minutes, natural sounds and distant airplanes recede as the high, man-made sonorities first pierce and then overwhelm them, ultimately cohering into what sounds like a massive organ chord. There is no organ save the one that the pattern-seeking mind creates to explain the illusion.
While “Congaree Nomads” uses human perceptual tendencies to complete a mass of independent sounds, “Anabasis” uses directed human activity to recreate the chaos he heard in the sunset recording. Five musicians — Stuart, Patrick Farmer, Toshiya Tsunoda, Joe Panzner, and Pisaro himself — each take responsibility for discrete sections of the piece. A graphic score asks for sand and wind sounds, which the players realize with anything from actual sand and crumpled foil to bristling electronics and an impossibly delicate-sounding piano. The experience of the park recordings is abstracted into blasts of complexly grained noise, open fields of electrical activity and sudden introductions of outdoor sound that feel like they’re caught during the brief moments between the opening and closing of a window. Expansive and episodic, it evidences no more concern with musical development than “Kingsnake Grey,” even though moment by moment it feels highly purposeful. In fact, Pisaro has gone to considerable lengths to orchestrate a series of planned and intentional actions that defies the human impulse to organize it. Time passes, things happen, and while they seem related, one must constantly question who or what is doing connecting the dots. (2/3/2015)
Brian Olewnick, Just Outside
Maybe the first thing to say is that, to me, one has to listen and think about all three discs as parts of a single piece. As interesting (to say the least) and formidable as they are individually, I read them as necessary parts of a whole, though that whole is large and dense enough to easily deter quick graspability. Pisaro has fashioned a triptych that takes pure, unadulterated Nature as a starting point and then attempts to dissect it, recognize and appreciate patterns (all the while clearly understanding that any kind of pattern recognition is a human function, not necessarily existent in the "real world") and, ultimately, to investigate the possibility of constructing a path through this (explicitly referenced) fog and begin to make a kind of sense of one's experiences.
The first disc, "Kingsnake Grey" is "simply" a 72-minute recording of a sunset on New Year's Eve, 2012 in Congaree National Park, South Carolina, begun about twelve minutes before official sundown time. It's only the sounds of the forest, no enhancements or intrusions on the part of Pisaro or Stuart, no sympathetic sine tones or bowed percussion. One can easily imagine many a composer constructing, say, an hour-long piece and doing something like this for five or so minutes as a kind of preamble. But for Pisaro this is central, the primary seed for what follows, a sound world entirely capable of existing on its own and being contemplated in depth for an extended period, an outgrowth of the post-Cage aesthetic of the Wandelweiser group. I've little idea of how recordings like this are accomplished but here there's an enormous transparency and perspective achieved; in addition to immediate area sound recorders, I have the impression of directional mics that can pierce some distance into the sound field, ignoring the nearby, though I also have no idea whether or not such things exist. One gets an extremely full sense of the world here, but full of both sound and space. Pisaro understood the likely main arc of the interval, one in which bird song gradually quiets and insects take over. This occurred but with infinite variations. In his notes (which are invaluable), he mentions a squirrel making a desperate leap just when the birdsongs were winding down, causing a renewed flurry of avian activity but then a hastened quieting and realized that this kind of event was occurring throughout the woods, both serving to build that arc but also to invest it with endless complexity, the kind of realization, I imagine, that spurs his own compositional thoughts that surface subsequently. I've listened to this disc some eight times now and am continually hearing new sounds and patterns among the creatures, the background hum (is there a highway audible here?), passing jets, various apparently manmade sounds (metallic tapping and general bustling about now and again) and sounds whose origins I can't quite determine, all intersecting in various directions in space; really an astonishing document in and of itself but, as said, just part of the picture here.
A small good thing about the second disc, "Congaree Nomads", is that Pisaro, again unlike what one might reasonably expect from any number of composers engaged in roughly the same area, doesn't take the "Kingsnake Grey" tapes and somehow rework them. Rather, he uses other recordings made in the same park, 24 of them in three-minute segments, arranged "geographically", from north to south, as the spine of the new work. For me, this adds to the sense of largeness, inferring the enormous range of possibilities in play. They fade in and out, allowing them to exist simultaneously as discreet points of reference but also bearing a relationship, slight or strong, with their antecedents and successors. Overlaid on these recordings is the realization of a Pisaro score by Greg Stuart (who, I should say, shoulders almost as much responsibility for the success of this venture as does Pisaro) on various bowed percussion instruments (marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales). Each of the 24 portions of the score contains from one to twelve tones and each initially matches up to the three minute length of the field recording extracts though gradually, the instrumental parts increase in length and begin to overlap. Also, the number of tracks on each instrumental section grows from one to 48 with the result that what began as clear ringing tones coalesces, toward the end of the piece, into a super-rich, organ-like cluster, evocative of the idea of "fog" which Pisaro cites as a thoroughgoing inspiration here, literally and ontologically. That's the nutshell and I may well be omitting important aspects or getting some wrong, but the effect is strikingly achieved, moving from the quiet opening moments, with soft birdsongs, a burbling stream, odd, wooden knocks and more, all beautifully present, laid alongside initially low, resonant bowings, the latter almost functioning like the sine tones in "Transparent City", here giving (me) the sense of the soil underlying the flora and fauna in addition to the gathering fog, maybe the condensation forming on the leaves sublimating to mist. It's a lot to grasp and I often lost my way here but, in fact, keeping the idea of a hike in mind helps a great deal, staying aware of the gradual landscape changes and those increasingly massed chords/fog banks ahead. The "organ" feel emerges strongly about midway through, inevitably imparting a "forest as cathedral" aura, something that requires a bit of grappling for this listener, an experience from which I usually escape unscathed. Those chords, I assume by virtue of multilayering and using close pitches, achieve a fantastic pulsing quality late in the work, transcending the church organ, entering the real world. An amazing piece, one that I think I've really only begun to get a handle on.
And then we come to "Anabasis", the most complex and, for this listener, most fulfilling part of this trilogy. The score, which is included in the booklet, provides a welcome roadmap for the piece which is set for five sound areas/players: Sand-Greg Stuart, "gravity percussion with sand"; Winds-Patrick Farmer, field recordings, hydrophone; Tones-Pisaro, electric guitar, piano, sine tones, studio and field recordings; Waves-Joe Panzner, electronics; and Interludes-Toshiya Tsunoda, sand, copper foil, polyethylene sheet, fan, sine tones, hydrophone. The sounds of the first four each predominate in their respective 15-minute sections, augmented by contributions from the others (save Tsunoda) in predetermined one or three minute segments; the structure of these segments remains constant, their occupancy varies. After each 15-minute portion, there's a three minute interval by Tsunoda (augmented by two of the four other musicians). It struck me as interesting that there's no obvious reference to the Congaree National Park itself (though it's possible, probable even, that some of the field recordings used by Pisaro derive from there) which seems to lead to an idea of transcendence, to a universalizing of that particular area; not sure. Pisaro references Badiou, particularly a passage with regard to a group of mercenaries lost in a desert having to "invent its path without knowing whether it really is the path of return", which could apply to bushwhacking as well as the musicians here negotiating their way. The sounds were created remotely by the musicians involved, with no knowledge as to the contributions of others, enforcing the sense of different solutions/pathways through the problem. As is always the case with Pisaro's music, there's much more going on than that and, again, his notes offer an excellent, clear look into his whys and wherefores. We hear music that grows from trickling sands to storms of same, similarly with wind; there's a constant ebb and flow in play. The moment Pisaro's featured portion occurs, at the 36-minute mark, there's a harkening back to "July Mountain" as, entirely unexpectedly, a piano appears, playing simply, tonally, though fragmented, as though glimpsed through a prism; it's an arresting, beautiful instant. It feeds in and out throughout the segment, ghostlike, a couple of notes here and there, a vestige of Romanticism amidst the hums, waves and silences, very moving. I should note here that Tusnoda's interludes work wonderfully, staying within the general aura of the work but also standing apart, a fine transition/contrast, especially the closing passage which opens enticingly onto new ground. When the final quarter begins, we hear what sounds for all the world like an organ. I assumed the trompe d'oreille lied in Panzner's hands rather than Stuart's (it's "his" section) though, peering more closely at the score, these figures seem to emerge during Pisaro's three minute sequences. If so, interesting, and fantastic as far as I'm concerned, that he seems willing to introduce this order of material, so traditionally attractive and strong. The whole composition breathes with conviction and many, many layers of depth, again more than is possible to go into here, more than I'm sure I've heard.
Extraordinary conception, amazing music.