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Michael Pisaro blurs edges of performance, perception

Composer Michael Pisaro in front of the Harvard Music Building. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“Continuum Unbound,” a set of three CD-length compositions by Michael Pisaro recently issued in a handsome box set on his Gravity Wave label, presents the intrepid listener with an arc both aurally engaging and intellectually stimulating. Listen without first reading the CD booklet, and you might wonder what the discs – “Kingsnake Grey,” an unaltered 72-minute field recording made at sundown on New Year’s Eve 2012 in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park; “Congaree Nomads,” which mingles fragmented field recordings and sounds made by the percussionist Greg Stuart; and “Anabasis,” a dense, eventful odyssey for five musicians, including Pisaro and Stuart – have to do with each other.

Read Pisaro’s notes, and you comprehend that, as the title indicates, the component discs form a continuum: sounds of the natural world examined, engaged, and enveloped, respectively, to vastly oversimplify a rigorous, deeply considered sequence. Singly, the pieces intrigue and appeal; taken together, they can awe.


A faculty member at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, where he teaches composition and experimental sound practices, Pisaro has spent the fall semester in Cambridge, serving as the Fromm Visiting Professor of Composition at Harvard University. This week, two concerts of his music — a Non-Event presentation at the New England Conservatory on Tuesday, and a Harvard concert on Thursday — will provide opportunities for local listeners to become acquainted with a composer whose interests and influence now extend far beyond academic circles.

“Continuum Unbound” provides an eloquent introduction to Pisaro’s work, in which paradoxes abound. His music is exactingly conceived, even precisely calculated; the scores for pieces like “Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds,” a piece for crotales (antique bronze cymbals) and high-frequency sine tones included on Tuesday’s concert program, more closely resemble actuarial tables than sheet music.

Yet Pisaro’s music is also permeable, anticipating and incorporating environmental sounds, interpretive decisions entrusted to performers, and simple serendipity. Both “White Metal,” an eloquently abrasive piece on Tuesday’s program, and “Concentric Rings in Magnetic Levitation,” featured in Thursday’s concert, leave fundamental aspects to the discretion of their players.


“Clear concepts can sometimes lead to perplexing results: results that test the powers of perception on some level and are conscious of that test,” Pisaro wrote in a 2009 essay titled “Wandelweiser,” posted on the now inactive blog Erstwords. The post explained his involvement with the Wandelweiser Group, the loosely knit, globally dispersed composers’ collective that he had joined in the mid-’90s.

The collective, established a few years earlier by Europe-based composers including Antoine Beuger, Burkhard Schlothauer, Jürg Frey, and Kunsu Shim to promote mutual interests and support, extended an American experimental-music tradition started by John Cage, Christian Wolff, and their New York circle during the 1950s. Notions of silence, duration, environment, and communal creation were among the group’s chief aesthetic concerns. Kunsu, despite having left the collective, sensed a kindred spirit in Pisaro when they crossed paths at Chicago’s Northwestern University, and patched him into the network.

Perhaps fittingly, Pisaro’s long path to his present position had begun with a chance encounter. A classical guitarist with a background in jazz and rock, as a high schooler visiting New York City he encountered a gathering at the Lincoln Center fountain. Someone was dragging a bow slowly across violin strings. Others nearby were blowing into conch shells. Gradually, Pisaro realized that what he had stumbled upon was a musical performance, directed by Cage himself.


“I had a little preparation, but that moment for me, of hearing this thing that I only gradually recognized was a performance, was this whole question of the indiscernibility of a piece of music from its environment, and the fact that it depended upon me kind of deciding to hear this as music, rather than that it was in any obvious way a musical performance,” Pisaro said during a recent interview in his Harvard office.

“It took me a long time to unpack what happened there, and I suppose the main kind of local effect was that I immediately realized I needed to know a whole lot more about John Cage,” he continued. “But I think the long-term impact was really this question about how one or whether one makes a distinction between music and the environment, the whole set of considerations that go into a performance.”

Pisaro, whose compositional path previously had tended toward notational rigor and tonal complexity, increasingly turned his attention to more open approaches. A decisive turning point arrived with “Leaves,” which in 1993 became Pisaro’s first published composition: a 50-minute duo for violin and retuned guitar, fashioned in short sections with regular incursions of silence.

That thrust, shared by Pisaro’s soon-to-be colleagues in Wandelweiser, was a consequence of Cage’s “silent” pieces like “4’33” ” and “0’00,” ” which forced consideration of the environment in which a musical performance happens. In “Leaves,” Pisaro interjected deliberate page turns, resulting in a composition 30 to 40 percent of which consisted of silence. The intent are again neatly expressed in Pisaro’s “Wandelweiser” essay: “Silence in music was not the cessation of sound, or even a gesture: It was a different sound, one with more density than those sounds made by instruments.”


Stuart, featured on two discs in “Continuum Unbound” and many other Pisaro recordings, has become a vital interpreter of the composer’s works — a David Tudor to Pisaro’s Cage. Stuart first encountered Pisaro’s evolving work as an undergraduate at Northwestern; later, the two migrated to California at the same time — Pisaro to teach at CalArts, Stuart to study at the University of California, San Diego.

“Initially, I really had the feeling that I was hearing something that I had never encountered before,” Stuart said by phone from South Carolina. “Working on pieces like ‘Harmony Series,’ ‘An Unrhymed Chord,’ and ‘Ricefall,’ I had the feeling that I had no idea what anything I played on actually sounded like.”

Those pieces, and others that followed, Stuart said, caused him to appreciate the infinitesimal nuances contained within each instrument and note — an outlook vital to “Closed Categories in Cartesian Space,” in which a percussionist is tasked with bowing four crotales for 16 minutes apiece, while subtly shifting sine tones create corruscating vibrations.

“Specifically with something like ‘Closed Categories,’ playing it is actually quite mysterious,” Stuart said. “It’s hard to say what’s causing what, and so part of the attraction of playing that piece is that it’s very intense trying to figure out the motion of the bow, the timbre of the sound, these very weird microtonal changes in pitch from what you’d think would be a relatively stable object, this bronze metal disc.”


In any music so seemingly esoteric and forbidding, the question of affect can arise. A listener could readily respond to recordings made in a park, but might take issue with an hour-plus of high-pitched metal and electronic tones.

“The idea of affect and of emotion, I really think that’s why we write music, or one of the main reasons why we write music, and I’m always conscious of that,” Pisaro said. He paraphrased a former teacher, Ben Johnston: “You have to be clear about what you want to hear, but that doesn't automatically mean that everybody else will want to hear it.

“For me, a piece like ‘Closed Categories’ is affective,” he continued. “I understand that it’s difficult, in part because high frequencies can be painful. But it’s also beautiful at the top of one of the Sierra mountains, like Mount Whitney. Not everybody climbs there, and I understand that. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that some people wouldn’t enjoy being up there.”

Music of Michael Pisaro

At: Williams Hall, New England Conservatory, Tuesday at 8 p.m. Free, 617-585-1100, www.nonevent.org

At: Paine Concert Hall, Harvard University, Thursday at 8 p.m. Free, 617-496-2222, www.music.fas.harvard.edu/calendar.html

Steve Smith can be reached at steven.smith@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.