fields have ears

Michael Pisaro fields have ears Another Timbre

I suppose this could be construed as maudlin in certain circumstances: a piano etches with resonating single piano notes some unspooling tape of field recordings — the cawings of crows, chirping of sparrows, jet scrawl — all so beautiful and quaint. Where’s the goddamn noise? But let’s not get angry here, because we don’t expect that either, right? And there’s something that sets it apart from the forced sentimentality of William Basinski’s degraded tape piano musings or those records of ambient crystal gaze piano and jungle sounds you listened to in your grandma‘s basement — she cooked a mean squash curry, don‘t get me wrong. And while there’s a kind of easygoingness to fields have ears 1 (for piano and tape), it’s far from torpid, instead exhibiting a gentle propulsion, becoming a meandering walk where as you travel further there‘s more and more to see. And maybe you wouldn’t be totally wrong to think this is the avant garde equivalent of that much feared EZ listenin’… But when is it that everything has to be so tough? Things are what they are, not what we think they should be sometimes. And sometimes I wonder if we all want difficult art because our lives are so horrifyingly boring, so disturbingly easy. No, no, I digress. Let me explain.

The field recordings used are themselves entirely ordinary and in this creating a kind of novelty, throwing out the obvious by jumping head first into the everyday, albeit this everyday slightly muffled under a quiet pallor of tape hiss. And in fact this is where it gets sticky, it’s as though fidelity of the tapes are part of the point, in one instance early in fields have ears 1 there’s a flutter of distortion in the tape, drawing ones attention to the medium itself and the fact that this might not be what it seems. This is an aspect where it’s suddenly apparent that this isn’t a rumination on a loaded memory… no childhood baths, cotton candy stuck to fingertips, tire swings in the backyard, digging holes in the yard until you hit rotting treasure. Nope, it doesn’t seem to fall into that pit of nostalgia when it so easily could reside. You could almost miss the sine tone at the ten minute mark well up only subside to a barely insinuated hum throughout the piece it’s so well integrated that it could easily be ignored, fitting snuggly in the elbow of the environment that has been constructed.

I read in a interview conducted by Sam Sfirri and Jason Brogan where Pisaro states that, “The fields have ears series is about trying to install a three dimensional environment on the concert stage – to create a field on the plane of the stage.” Interesting if initially a little oblique in regards to a recording like this one, but there’s something that resonates. Each placement of sound does seem to chart a different area of perception/listening, conjuring up an amalgam of responses. The use of these oddly resonant and nearly melodic piano notes and chords create a grounding that the field recordings obscure, while the sine tone gently needles the inner ear making it seem like the whole thing is just …a… little uneasy– there’s something hidden out there, somewhere. It’s as oddly disconcerting as it is beautiful and immersive. These sounds come from nowhere and everywhere, as artificial as they are naturalistic, drawing attention to themselves and the nature that we attach to them.

There’s something nice about music that purposely shows the subtle seams in it’s construction, as though commenting on itself. It seems to be a motif that Pisaro has employed before, this use of field recordings and barely there sine tones in Transparent City albums or July Mountain, which seem to be as much about how we as listeners listen and find meaning as it is about just making some nice sounds. And let‘s face it, this sounds pretty damn nice. Philip Thomas plays with the requisite emotional fortitude, engraving chords with subtle resonating power, so that even if you simply sit down and listen to it superficially, which I no doubt do most of the time, it‘s still very attractive. Although in this case I don’t think a superficial listening works so well. It’s too easy to write off that way, far to easy to think it‘s just some winsome if rote routine. Don’t worry be happy.

fade (for piano) is an interesting interjection, although that‘s probably not a fair description of the piece. None the less it still strikes me as a breather between fields have ears 1 and 4. It’s definitely harder for me to come to terms with. The composition seems simple enough — usually 5 or more repetitions of a single piano note let to decay, often lowering in volume after the initial note. One could stop there, fart in the bath, and continue reading Murakami, plucking absently at their eyebrows. But again, that’s missing something, just what is up to you. Because in this simplicity complexity rises, albeit slowly, and with care. It strikes me as a slow dislocation. I keep striving to hear something in it that isn’t there and in a way it‘s like searching for something that you don’t know even exists. And in this case it’s a boat (if you were wondering when a bat shit crazy analogy would come in). Thomas’ piano notes chart depth, as though using soundings so as not to run aground. But that never seems to be a possibility here– the splintering of timbers, the mast snapping and falling into placid water as the sand bar ground the keel would be far too obvious. Expected in that movement towards catharsis found so often in music such as this. Instead there’s something like a miscommunication here, just below the surface. When the notes overlap it seems almost as there’s a beautiful struggle coming out like getting over some small hiccups of mistranslation in a café in south east China. No, you really like Tony Leung, yes, Leung. No not leung, LEUNG. Tony. Tony? Forget it.

Like fields have ears 1, I wasn’t initially interested in fade, it struck me as overly simple and spare and maybe I was simply falling into that trap which equates mass with truth, volume with force. I don’t know if there’s any truth here, whatever that may mean, but there is force, there is a feeling of being somewhere for a time, and while it may not be immediately recognizable it’s there.

fields have ears 4 (for 4 or more players)is quite immediately stunning in all its minute detail, and surface tension. The small puffs of sound that are emitted remind of sudden blooms of algae. The character of the sound is woody, dark, vegetative. And very quiet. You hear Thomas’ piano among the barely stirring mass, a bassoon possibly, low tones, it’s hard to single any of the other 13 musicians (including Sarah Huges, Patrick Farmer, Dominic Lash and 10 members of the edges ensemble) out really. But you don’t hope for anything too recognizable, as it would seem gauche in a way, and that surprises me. That’s not always something I look for in music, as I usually celebrate the awkward, the obnoxious, the perverse, the singular voice. And thankfully this music is far from the gauche. You don’t feel as though the imperative is for all the musicians to sublimate their natural inclinations or voices, but to work together as one thing, one group to further the piece. It’s cool if you don’t want to bow down, but it’s cooler if you just want to join in for a bit. The piece itself changes, of course, nearly subliminally, but changes none the less, around the 11 minute mark the activity increases if the volume does not, Thomas’s piano chimes a few times, before it disappears again. The timbres change so delicately it’s like someone you love breathing against your cheek as they shift in their sleep.

I find what I appreciate about fields have ears 4 and much of Pisaro’s work is that it doesn’t aim at making you feel the listener feel like philistine or rube, either. It doesn’t seem to place the pedantic bullshit that springs up in modern composition ahead of the results, the mood, the … music. You don’t have to worry about getting it. You don’t have to feel like your method of listening is wrong. You don’t have to feel like your missing something, anything. Because you exist with the music. And while it’s not telling you anything, you can join it if you want. In these delicate plumes of sound that arise out of silence, there is a delightful acceptance. No, this isn’t some kult artifact, as there is no required knowledge of previous works, arcane books, or greasy discographies: there is no wrong here. You are not wrong. And while this is all easy to write, like some dripping hippy armpit bullshit, it’s there none the less. And while so often this music is considered austere, this in fact feels completely full and alive. I can’t explain how nice that is.

another timbre

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