AMN Reviews: Sivan Silver-Swartz – Untitled 6 [Editions Wandelweiser EWR 1920]; a•pe•ri•od•ic – for [New Focus Recordings fcr249]

Nearly seventy years have passed since John Cage composed 4’33,” his most famous—or notorious, as at the time it seemed—“silent” piece. Since then the questions 4’33” raised—regarding the limits and definition of music; the relationship between the work and the environment in which it is performed; the ontological different, or indeed indifference, between sound and silence; and above all, the degree of control or letting-go a score can or should exert over its product—have given rise to a significant lineage or tradition within new music. Two new releases of music for chamber ensembles fall within that lineage and serve to bring it forward.

The Chicago ensemble a•pe•ri•od•ic, founded by composer/pianist Nomi Epstein in 2010, fits firmly, and quite deliberately, within the lineage initiated by Cage’s work. The group, which on this recording is an octet of violin, cello, flute, bass clarinet/clarinet, bassoon/voice, French horn, piano, and voice, performs works biased toward various kinds of indeterminacy, whether of orchestration, sound material, or architecture. Silence also plays a major role in their music, whether as primary material or as a structural element.

The four compositions on for were commissioned by the group; three are by group members and the fourth is by composer Michael Pisaro.

Violinist Billie Howard’s Roll (2016) comprises a sequence of soloists playing a sustained tone ending with a freely-chosen upward or downward glissando, followed by a silence. What comes to the fore in this work is the unique timbral quality of each instrumental voice, with the lower-pitched bassoon and cello making an especially rich impression. Vocalist Kenn Kumpf contributes Triadic Expansions (2) of 2017, a piece of mutating harmonies built up from slowly ascending or descending scales of more or less arbitrary pitch content. The entrances and exits are staggered in a way that creates an out-of-synch effect that keeps the center of gravity for the entire sound mass in a constant state of motion. Combine, Juxtapose, Delayed Overlap (2013-2017) by Epstein, is a very quiet textural piece that seems to play with the ambiguous status—are they music? Are they noise? Are they just a strange crystallization of silence into sound?–of liminal audio events. Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen (2013), in contrast to the austerity of Epstein’s piece, contains passages of almost lush bundles of sustained tones moving cloudlike across and through each other. The piece is broken into sections by long silences and is punctuated with passages for percussive pizzicato strings and a slowly ascending scale begun on piano and continued on horn.

One of the composers who studied under Pisaro is Sivan Silver-Swartz (b. 1993). Like many composers of his generation, Silver-Swartz works in eclectic forms ranging from composed new music to rock-derived song. His Untitled 6 is an hour-long work in just intonation for three or more violins, violas, cellos or other bowed instruments that can be detuned as called for by the score. On this recording, the piece is played by two violas, two cellos, and one violin. As with the compositions on for, Untitled 6 is an open-form work that leaves many performance decisions up to the players. The performers are divided into two groups, one of which is assigned a score arranged somewhat like a chessboard each of whose squares specifies a given sound gesture or a silence; this set of performers is given latitude, within some constraints, to choose the sequence of squares, and hence sounds or silences, they will play. The score for the second set of players is a linear table that specifies durations but allows for choices of dynamics and gestures. Like Kumpf’s Triadic Expansions (2) or Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen, Untitled 6 unfolds in a set of slowly shifting harmonies, but here the harmonies are given a particular piquancy from the instruments’ tunings and from the limitation of melodic material to open strings and the first harmonic—overall, music cast in a somewhat darker shade of consonance.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Michael Pisaro – Resting in a Fold of the Fog [Potlatch P117]

P117_cover.inddMuch of composer Michael Pisaro’s work is driven by the desire to explore the often complex ramifications of an ostensibly simple, fundamental idea. It isn’t unusual for him to take as his starting point the act of listening, whether to environmental sounds or to the properties of the material resources—sometimes deceptively basic—that his compositions call for. And focused listening does seem to be the key to the reception of the two long pieces collected on Resting in a Fold of the Fog.

Grounded Cloud (2015-2016) is a work for electric guitar, electronics and amplified bass drum. The latter instrument, played by the Dedalus Ensemble’s Stéphane Garin, gives the performance a distinctive, rain-like sound by having been prepared with grains of rice arranged to vibrate on its surface. Over its twenty-minute length the piece traces a long-period, undulating dynamic of accumulation and dispersal helped along by noise from Pisaro’s electronics and the electric guitar of Didier Aschour, also of the Dedalus Ensemble. (Although Pisaro played electric guitar on the piece’s premiere performance in November 2015, here he is on laptop.)

Hearing Metal 4 (2010-2011) for bowed glockenspiel, electric guitar and laptop, is the fourth in a series of compositions centered on the sonic properties of a specified metal percussion instrument. Originating with a piece for sixty-inch tam-tam, with this installment the series moves to a much smaller and higher-pitched instrument. As with many of Pisaro’s compositions, the focus of Hearing Metal 4 is on making explicit the multiplicity of sounds implicit in a single material or sonic gesture. The pitch material is accordingly simple: An ascending A major scale. The scale is arranged as a series of events separated by silences; with each succeeding tone the glockenspiel’s thin, almost transparent sound shimmers when intersected by the guitar and electronics. When listened to closely this piece, like the previous one, yields a sometimes surprising, albeit restrained, sensuality.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Michael Pisaro – Melody, Silence [Potlatch P115]

20282Guitarist/composer Michael Pisaro is a well-known figure associated with the Wandelweiser group, a fluid collective of composers and musicians interested as much in the spaces in between sounds as in the sounds alone. This interest is conveyed not only in the title of this single long work for solo guitar, played by Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear, but in the structure of the work itself.

Melody—or more frequently, harmony—and silence are the two fundamental states between which the forty-six minute long piece oscillates. The piece is largely a sequence of discrete chords or notes played individually or clustered together in packets of a few, separated by silences. Each chord or tone is allowed to linger and decay at its own rate. Some chords work together like progressions with more or less expected cadences, while others eschew any allusion to resolving, sounding instead like juxtaposed aggregates of tones, some of them combined into dissonances of varying degrees of pungency. At about four minutes in, an unexpected, recurring third element is introduced—a prolonged sine tone (or ebow?) that in its initial occurrence here lasts for nine minutes or so.

Because Melody, Silence is made up of a set of components to be arranged by the performer, the piece as played on this recording is a reflection not only of Alvear’s fine touch, but of his structural choices as well.