Friday, December 21, 2012

A year-end gift from Gravity Wave

Thanks to all who have supported this label over the past two years. I would not have allowed myself to dream that there would be as much interest in it as there has been. It is thanks to this that we are able to keep going.

As a small year-end thanks, I'm posting this recording of a concert at the complice gallery in Berlin on July 13, 2012 (recorded by Johnny Chang). Two pieces hinwandeln (zwischen himmel und erd) and Transparent City (2) were performed in alternation and without breaks by Johnny Chang, violin, Koen Nutters, contrabass, Gary Schultz, sine tones and myself, classical guitar. hinwandeln is a trio - and for each of the four times it appears, we rotated amongst the musicians (i.e., a different group of three players each time). Transparent City (2) is a set of instructions for how to play live instruments with a playback of recordings from the Transparent City discs (Edition Wandelweiser). Johnny, Koen and Gary play very subtly along with the Los Angeles field recordings and sine tones which form the basis of the playback. The small gallery space of complice was somehow a beautiful acoustic for this kind of performance.

Normally I think live recordings just serve as a document: interesting, but with a certain sense of "you had to be there." This one, from among many, is for me a bit more than a document.

We are getting ready for the two new releases some time in January (they are now at the printers) and will be back with you all then.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cover art for 008 and 009

We have finalized Yuko Zama's designs for The Middle of Life (Die ganze Zeit) (GW 008) and The Punishment of the Tribe by its Elders (GW 009) so I thought I would post them here. Excited to get these out into the world. If all goes well they will be available by mid-January, 2013.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Announcing GW 008 and GW 009

A drawing by Oswald Egger from Die ganze Zeit

We would like to announce the next two releases, hopefully out by the middle of January.

GW 008 will be a new piece called The Middle of Life (Die ganze Zeit). It is a chain of sound situations that links the poetry of Oswald Egger (in field recordings of Egger speaking, made at his residence in Hombroich, Germany), the voice of Julia Holter (singing my Lucretius Monody), and me playing piano (including sections from a solo piano piece written by Julia) — plus a few surprises.

The title contains a reference to two works by Egger.

Mitten im Leben fand ich mich wieder wie in einem Wald (ohne Weg).
In the middle of life I found myself again in a forest (with no path).

            From Diskrete Stetigkeit: Poesie und Mathematik (Edition Unseld, Suhrkamp, 2008)

Die ganze Zeit is the title of Egger’s monumental (742 page) poem of 2010 (also from Suhrkamp). It’s about nothing and everything, but as I read it, it has to do with the irreconcilability of the whole and parts of time (leading to, in my view, the impossibility of time).

GW 009 will be another new work, The Punishment of the Tribe by its Elders.

The material for this piece was initially recorded for The Middle of Life, but as it developed I began to feel that its darker, more foreboding character did not fit. The pieces are still somehow paired in my mind (like light and dark branches of the same tree).

In Hombroich, when recording Oswald, we somehow landed on the idea that his work is of a different (maybe opposite) poetic strain than that of (another favorite of mine) Stéphane Mallarmé. Returning home and combing back through Mallarmé, I landed again on this famous line from “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe” (The Tomb of Edgar Poe):

Eux, comme un vil sursaut d’hydre oyant jadis l’ange  
Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu

(in my rough translation, with some help from T.S. Eliot)

They, like the vile start of the hydra hearing the angel long ago
Purify the language of the tribe (or more literally: giving a purer meaning to the words of the tribe)

and on this one:

Calme bloc ici-bas chu d’un désastre obscure
Calm block fallen from an obscure disaster  (also from the Tombeau)

(Poe: the messenger of an obscure disaster whose consequences are with us still.)

This piece consists of electronics, low frequency hums, percussion, bass and electric guitar, disguised samples (from Black Sabbath and the Rolling Stones, among others) and field recordings, aligned with two very low sine tones.

A view from one of the buildings at Hombroich (near Neuss, Germany)

Thanks to everyone for the support of the label–this has allowed us to continue to release music.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hearing Metal series

Page 16 of the score to Hearing Metal 3

In a previous post, I wrote that the driving force behind the fields have ears series was extensive listening (that is, listening outwards along expanding lines, the way I think we do in a “field”). In the Hearing Metal series the listening is intensive: by this I mean hearing “into” physical material, where by means of sound it proceeds to unfold into facets.

The series began with Greg Stuart’s suggestion that I consider writing a piece for the 60-inch tam-tam required for a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I. (Stuart was at that time involved in preparing that piece for a performance in San Diego.) Greg had discovered that the range of sounds produced by this huge instrument was vastly multiplied by “close-recording” with the microphone. (Mikrophonie for all its brilliance just amplifies the sounds. Greg found that with the microphone one could hear more detailed and complex sounds than one could with the ear alone, i.e., that one could make sounds in a completely different manner when the microphone was being used.) He sent me a few brief recordings of the instrument and they were fascinating enough to suggest that the physical/sonic properties were worth exploring in detail.

As can sometimes happen to me when struck by an unfathomable sound, this most basic question suddenly arose: “What is a sound?”  There’s never one answer; maybe it’s not even important to answer. But each of the four compositions of the Hearing Metal series was written under the influence of this question. Each is an attempt to enter into the space of one or more instruments, and then to expand that space, to hear an inner geography of the range of sounds chosen. Any sound, even the simplest, is already (ontologically) multiple. But the multiplicity requires a succession of events to be heard: by extending, repeating, adding and subtracting, one begins to experience the sound more like a verb than like a noun. Sound is revealed through a concatenation of actions that follow a particular logic (in this case, that logic is the composition).
My sense was that each instrument or group also conjured a range of affects unique to it; as if the physical material itself could, with a little compositional mediation, be transmuted into an expression of something like the “feeling of the material.” (This is why reference is made with each work to the sculpture of Constantin Brâncuși.)

The four pieces in the series, all for metal percussion with sine tones (and occasionally other sounds and instruments) generally move upwards through the registers of metal percussion as the instruments themselves get smaller. The subtitles are from works by Brâncuși. All the recordings were made by Greg Stuart and myself.

Hearing Metal 1, 2009 (Edition Wandelweiser 0902, 63’42”). A collection of three pieces for the 60-inch tam-tam plus sine tones (“Sleeping Muse”, “The Endless Column”, “Sculpture for the Blind”).

The sound of the tam-tam when bowed or lightly struck is a composite chord with many (maybe hundreds of) elements. But it behaves unpredictably: one has very little control over which elements of the “chord” will appear and in which arrangement. These pieces create (in three different ways) opportunities to hear the elements of this source chord again and again. Similar to the method of my Transparent City pieces, the sine tones are used to locate facets of the geography of the sound that might otherwise remain hidden or unheard.

Hearing Metal 2 (La table du silence), 2010/2011 (Gravity Wave 005, 62’00”). Low to mid-range percussion, with a few higher instruments (almglocken, bell plates, brake drums, chimes, metal objects with contact microphones, cymbals, glockenspiel, gongs, steel drums, tam-tams, vibraphone); radio, electric and bass guitar, sine tones, samples and field recording.

A vastly expanded palette was used to represent what I thought of as a “silence.” As a memorial, Brâncuși’s sculpture turns an absence into a substance. This parallels my own view that silence is dense–because it is likely our best way in music to experience contingency. Contingency is (among other things) the hidden succession of things that creates any present. I think we have to understand this succession as basically unreadable: infinitely layered, chaotic. But we can sense it. I used 80 simultaneous tracks of recordings of the instruments that Greg had played to create this silence. The guide for how to deal with the 40 minutes of sound (i.e., the central part of the piece) is given below.

A chart from the score to Hearing Metal 2

Groupings of the sounds were created according to the parameters of “pitch”, “noise”, “mixtures” and “semi-pitched” and then crossfaded up and down (using a maypole-like structure to indicate the relative balance of the tracks). In practice the balancing was much more nuanced (with individual tracks moving up and down within each category), but I think one can still hear the succession.

I didn’t think one could begin this piece with this monolithic music, and so took my cue from the fact that La table du silence is situated outdoors: an invitation to see this silence as somehow framed by field recording. In the long first part of the piece, the recordings move essentially from the ocean to the interior, following the path of a river, perhaps hearing (or imagining) incidental sounds of radio and music on the way. The recordings themselves come from various places (in Big Sur, Austria and Germany) and include samples of radio test tones and stations (fading in and out the way they do when one walks through the hills) and transformed samples of my son John playing organ (perhaps one passes the ruins of a cathedral?). There’s a relatively short excerpt at the end (after the central section) of a stream in Germany, early in the morning as the birds start to sing. The feeling is (to me) meant to suggest that one comes upon this silence in the midst of a solitary walk.

Hearing Metal 3 (Prometheus, 1911), 2010/2011 (Gravity Wave 006, 45’20”). Sixteen suspended cymbals (bowed and with “gravity excitation”) and sine tones.

The ensemble for this piece was suggested by Greg Stuart, and I immediately went for it. The image of 16 suspended cymbals was really striking (even before one heard anything).  

16 suspended cymbals (with the composer)

After writing fields have ears (4) I wanted to work again with the idea of change. In this case the basic change that takes place over the 45 minutes is from the vibration of a solid (i.e., the cymbal bowed) to a kind of physical “evaporation” as the mode of excitation changes to gravity (beans, rice and then finally, millet falling on the cymbals). Like ricefall and some of the pieces from the fields have ears series, the ground is laid out as a grid prepared with other surfaces (including tile, metal, wood, paper, ceramic, dry leaves and even four drums in the center), which can be heard as the various grains fall from the cymbals. The ground comes to the fore in the center of the piece (when “the beans begin to fall”) and gradually disappears as the grain changes (in several stages and combinations) to the very light millet. The sine tones accompany, and at times instigate the change.

Hearing Metal 2 and Hearing Metal 3 were planned to work both separately and together. The structural movement from heavy to light and the placement of the silences are stronger when the two pieces are heard together. The moment when gravity starts in Hearing Metal 3 is a larger-scale transformation when heard in the 107 minute context of the two works together. (If you have the discs and the patience, give it a try!)

Hearing Metal 4 (Birds in Space), 2010/2011 (unreleased, 25’00”). Glockenspiel, electric guitar, sine tones and samples (of glockenspiel, energy chimes and crotales).

As a kind of coda to the large-scale dimensions of the first three members of the series, I wrote Hearing Metal 4 as a piece that Greg and I could play live. Greg had suggested that I consider Brâncuși’s Bird in Space as a reference and this fit perfectly in the trajectory of the previous two parts of the series (essentially completing the transformation from ground to air). 

This piece moves up the notes of a high A major scale, using each tone of the scale as the starting point for an expanding and contracting shape, made with layered glockenspiel, crotales and sine tones, and etched into the surrounding silence.

Hearing Metal 4 (excerpt)

My deepest thanks to Greg Stuart. It probably goes without saying at this point that none of these works would have been remotely possible without his artistry and the ridiculous amount of work he puts into them.

We (Greg and I) would like to acknowledge the support of Antoine Beuger, Jon Abbey, and Yuko Zama in the release of the recordings. (It probably also goes without saying that the discs of the first three are available from erstdist.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Some thoughts on the "fields have ears" series (and a few remarks on the current Gravity Wave release)

The German saying runs something like this:

Das Feld hat Augen, der Wald hat Ohren.

(Fields have eyes, forests have ears.)

When I first heard this cryptic sentence (a “Sprichwort” in German) from poet Oswald Egger, I understood that it had to do with the fundamental difference between sight and sound. But I thought: fields must (also) have ears. (And: whose?)

The series of pieces named fields have ears represent my attempts to come to compositional terms with different notions of “fields”: how we hear them, how they might hear themselves, and what there is to hear.
My idea of the field is a grid (pictured).

I find the implication that there are “ears” everywhere, at every point in a world, a fascinating concept, even if it is rather hard to imagine. It implies that position might be more important than time in hearing; and that the sounding configuration of a world can be understood (differently) from an infinite number of points. It says that what is audible to any one person is unique, but at the same time contiguous (and therefore directly related) to what is audible to others.
So the series is about creating (or rather, imagining) configurations of sounds in a “field.”
At the moment the series consists of eight works:

(1) for solo piano with four channel playback (which has field recordings, sine tones and noise). 20’ (2008) (recorded on another timbre 037 by Philip Thomas)

(2) for solo piano and four performers (playing sine tones and noise) 32’ (or more) (2008/9)

(3a/b) two different versions for five performers. Both have piano, contrabass, electronics and objects. (3a) adds field recordings and (3b), violin. 30’ (3a: 2009, 3b: 2010)

(4) for an ensemble of at least four musicians. 27’40” (2009) (recorded on another timbre by Philip Thomas, Dominic Lash, Patrick Farmer, Sarah Hughes and the Edges Ensemble)

(5) for flute, bass clarinet, percussion, violoncello and piano. 33’30” (subtitled “vapor”) (2009/2010)

(6) for solo guitar and electronics (including field recordings, sine tones, samples and noise) 56’ (2010-2011)

(7) for five musicians, four loudspeakers and a grid. 25’ (2010)

(8) for 80 performers: 57 with radios, and 23 with beans falling on various objects. 10’ (2010)

It would take a much longer article to go into the details of each piece, but I will try to sketch out the general areas of interest. The series progresses, point by point, through a set of compositional questions.
Initially, I had wanted to situate an “ear” (a musician playing a piano) in the midst of a field (represented by the four speakers in the corners of the room). In fields have ears (1), the pianist is asked to place sounds below, within and just above the levels of the environment I provided (which put versions of the same location in each speaker, mixed with an ascending scale of sine tones and a series of white noises at formal junctures). In fields have ears (2) the field recordings were replaced by live performers (playing sine tones and noises) in the four corners–but with the piano still in the middle. In both cases the “where” of a sound was at least as important as the “when” of a sound.

With fields have ears (3a/b) and fields have ears (4), something new entered the series: the idea of change. Fields change over time, listening changes our relationship to the field. Both pieces tried to create gradual changes within what would be recognized as the same field (or world).

fields have ears (5) crystallized another feature of the evolving series: the tendency of pitch elements to rise just slightly above the noise (to be, in the terms of this piece, the “condensation” of the vapor of noise).

fields have ears (6) was the first piece in the series to flesh out the four corners of the first two with a full-fledged grid (of 8 by 8 sounds in time). Since, in fact this was the last completed, I will say more about it at the end.

fields have ears (7) took this “virtual” grid of (6) and set it up on stage, as a set of 25 (5 x 5) squares – with loudspeakers in the four corners and performers moving between the stations of the grid on stage.

fields have ears (8) vastly enlarged this stage grid (to 80 units), but simplified the sound producing mechanisms so that virtually any performer could feel they were in the midst of a field with ears.

The experience of the series has given me a deeper awareness of the configuration of sound: spatial, harmonic, contingent, layered.

The largest, longest and most difficult piece of the series is the one recently released on Gravity Wave: fields have ears (6). For reasons that I discuss in the notes to the disc itself, the piece kept growing with each performance. It began with me laying out, in score form, a grid of bars in which tones and chords for the guitar could be “planted.” At the root, this was some kind of harmonic scheme (something like a long, complex, passacaglia). I wanted to reinforce the roots of the harmony, and thus created a series of sine tones to go along with the guitar chords.

However, in successive performances, as I kept adding elements, I began to appreciate how, in a field, one never actually sees the roots. That is, the growth somehow implies roots without making them visible. I wanted to create the sense of something that had, at a very deep layer, a solid root system, or architecture, but then allow this to be almost completely obscured by the growth upward from those roots.

I have always been attracted to things that one knows to have a structure, but which at the same time, don’t present that structure completely. Long take field recordings have this character: they clearly come from a place, but their shape in time is much more subtle than any musical form. The number pi also has this character: we know that the places after the decimal are determined. We can learn (some of) them; we can calculate them, but we cannot confront that structure directly (most of it will always remain hidden).

So as I kept piling on elements to the piece, I began to feel (despite the complexity) more and more at home in the environment it presented: one that suggested that the configuration of a world presents itself to our senses and feelings long before our minds know what to do with it.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

fields have ears (6) : released!

I'm very happy to announce that fields have ears (6) is now officially available from erstdist and can be ordered from this page or that site. There's some information about the release a couple posts down. The inside of the card comes with notes on the piece and a page of the score (which you can see in Yuko Zama's photo of the packaging below).

Soon I hope to post about the concepts behind the two series, Hearing Metal and fields have ears. Each series has so far been represented by three recordings - on Gravity Wave (Hearing Metal 2, Hearing Metal 3, and now fields have ears (6)), Edition Wandelweiser Records (Hearing Metal 1, EWR 0902) and another timbre (fields have ears (1) and fields have ears (4), both on at37).

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Artwork for GW 007

Here is a preview of Yuko Zama's striking final design for fields have ears (6) (GW 007). It is now at the printers, and we are still expecting this disc to be available by the end of February.

Some Upcoming Performances

In the last week of February I will have a strange little trip to Oberlin (Ohio) and Amsterdam (Holland).

From 19 to 22 February, I'll be a guest at Oberlin College for some talks and master classes. There will be a public performance of my work by students at the college on 22 February. Here's the program:

The shipwreck of the singular [harmony series no. 13] (2005)

within (2) (1996)
Tomorrow [harmony series no. 16b] (2005)
July Mountain (2009) (in a new version by David Bird, Eugene Kim and Christian Smith)
Where there is [harmony series no. 16a] (2005)
melody, silence (2011), Michael Pisaro, guitar
No longer wild [harmony series no. 15] (2005)

From 23 to 26 February, I will be at this year's Sonic Acts festival in Amsterdam. I'll be giving a talk on "music minus time" (on the same session with Keith Fullerton Whitman) at 10:30 a.m. on 25 February. Starting at 7:00 p.m. on the 26th, there will be a long evening of music of extended duration. This will include performances of my pieces Ils: harmony series no. 18 and fields have ears (5): vapor by Konzert Minimal from Berlin; and an extended guitar duo with Taku Sugimoto.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Announcing GW 007

The next Gravity Wave release (GW 007) will be fields have ears (6), a 56-minute piece for guitar and electronics. It has had a long composition history, starting from a solo for classical guitar and sine tones (premiered in Munich in July of 2010). It was subsequently performed in Seattle (August, 2010), A Coruña, Galicia (May, 2011) and New York (September, 2011). For each performance a new version was created, incorporating recordings from the previous locations (including parts of previous performances), and other sounds that I began to associate with the history of the piece: turntables, radios, records, field recordings, earlier pieces of mine, etc. The process reached its endpoint in December of 2011 (with me recording all the parts on electric guitar). What started as a fairly simple piece is now a densely layered object, that carries its history on its back like a tortoise shell.

The disc should be available near the end of February.