Michael Pisaro, Carol Watts, Drew Milne and Paul Banister.
Chair: Will Montgomery
What is Field? took place at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, London, on the evening of Monday, 12 November 2012. The event was presented by the Royal Holloway Contemporary Poetics Research Centre and was intended as a follow-up to an event on poetry and Wandelweiser scores co-produced by the research centre and UK arts organisation Sound and Music at the same venue a year before. (A transcript of the round- table discussion at the 2011 event appears in Wolf Notes #3.)
There were three elements to the evening. First, Michael Pisaro gave a talk entitled “Rubies Reddened by Rubies Reddening” on his composition July Mountain and his 2012 collaboration with Toshiya Tsunoda, Crosshatches. Then July Mountain was played to the audience through the PA (CD playback). Finally, there was a discussion chaired by Will Montgomery, with poets Carol Watts and Drew Milne, and the architect Paul Bavister.
I will begin by warning you all that I’m not really a theorist. I’m going to talk about this music in the ways that I’ve been thinking about it recently and hopefully it will make some sense. The jumping off point for this was an encounter I had with the journal Collapse, which is published in Falmouth by Urbanomic Press. They deal mainly with the branch of philosophy known as Speculative Realism. I’ve been interested in this since encountering the work of Quentin Meillassoux. A couple of years ago the journal was devoted to something they called Geo/Philosophy. To give an indication of what this has to do with I’ll read something from the introduction by Robin Mackay:
We turn our gaze back to our home planet to ask how, as products of the Earth, philosophers, scientists and artists have attempted to encompass it in thought, and how the philosophical enterprise of thinking the whole has been and continues to be determined by our belonging to the Earth.
There are some very interesting articles in there – on spice and the condiment, for example. And there are artists who have contributed but there is really nothing on sound. So I asked what would the term ‘Geo-sound’ mean? For me, it springs from having done work with field recordings for almost a decade and being ever more conscious of certain aspects of that work which, to me, have remained un-theorised. Not necessarily un- thought, but people haven’t talked about them. So I used the word Geo-sound to start thinking about it. For the last few months at CalArts I’ve been leading a seminar on this with graduate students. We’ve been trying to develop a few concepts and I’ll talk a little about those here.
The words or concepts that I will introduce mean so many different things that I hope you’ll accept my re- definition at face value and if we want to come up with better terms I’m more than happy to do that.
The concept I’ll start with is location. I’ve come to understand this as something that is referred to as a specific point in the world, something that can be mapped on a system of co-ordinates, say longitude and latitude. It’s described not just by where it is but how it looks and how it sounds, and it’s local (we get that from the word that contains it). If the ground-centred world is a physical location my starting question was: What could a sonic location be? What would that mean?
Our ears, especially the two pinna (which are the two folds on the side of the ear that filter high frequencies), tell us how sound is located. Back when I was studying computer music at Northwestern we had a location lab, an anechoic chamber, where we experimented with filtering high frequencies to see what would happen. Eventually the Head of Research found a way to recreate precise locational cues just by manipulating frequencies. In other words in an anechoic chamber you could have what looked like stereo and still hear a sound from behind you even though it was coming from in front of you.
Over the years I’ve thought a lot about what a location might be. From the standpoint of the topic of the day I’m going to talk about how the microphone is a good way of understanding it. Let us think of the microphone as a point, or nearly a point, where the diaphragm of the microphone moves. When we hear recordings we are normally hearing by means of a microphone that translates this location into a set of vibrations. The thing about that is that it’s always a reduction. So if I set up a microphone right outside the hall here and record what’s happening, there is no instrument sensitive enough to really register everything that’s there.
There is a poem by Ronald Johnson, ARK, written as a triptych. In the early panels (called The Foundation) he deals with the senses, and in one of the poems, “Beam 7”, he talks about how the displacement of a hydrogen atom of the eardrum is enough to send a signal to your brain. I looked this up and it’s scientifically true. It doesn’t mean you can hear it but it does mean that a tiny change is enough to be registered by your brain. The equivalent of that would be a light bulb in a vacuum three thousand miles away (from which your eyes get no signal and it’s not even within the realms of possibility to see). The ears are way more sensitive than a microphone will ever be, so every recording is a reduction of that point. Every point gets reduced.
Location prioritises conception over perception or imagination and I’ll talk about a couple of other concepts that involve progressively more imagination on the part of the listener. I would not term location poetic, so even something as beautiful as the recordings of Toshiya Tsunoda (my collaborator on Crosshatches) – they are not poetic in the sense that they don’t seem to pass through linguistic filters. When I discuss “place” at the end of this talk I think that this will make more sense.
I think a field (and I’ve written and thought a lot about what field means) is really a map of locations. If a location is this point then one way of conceiving of a field, not just any field but the field of field-recording, is something like a map of several different contiguous locations.
The next concept (that’s particularly appropriate to Crosshatches) is space. Again in common usage, this could mean anything from outer-space to you name it. The starting point for me was Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. For him the archetypal space is indoor not outdoor and the original encounter is the childhood home, or house actually (he doesn’t think by his definition that an apartment, which is a square block, can be a space). For Bachelard, the deep ancestor of space is the hut. So the hut basically serves as a shelter and eventually evolves to be a house that provides comfort and familiarity. Here’s what he says: “We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. […] The house shelters daydreaming.” That’s really what he wants to talk about in The Poetics of Space – that this sheltered place where there is some degree of comfort enables something, this kind of half- wake half-dreaming state.
I think that chamber music within the classical music tradition is very much about space. So that scores written by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and so forth that were originally performed in small spaces and not concert halls, have written into them the concept of the space where they would be played. It’s just a hunch. I can’t prove it but if you ever get a chance to hear that kind of music in a parlour-type room as opposed to a concert hall there is a distinct difference – in the sense that a chamber-music room is also protected place. I think the remnant of that kind of thinking is in the home stereo – so we have portable, adjustable sound- producing units that are meant for the home.
Space is also about resonance. Resonance is the report of sound given by walls, ceilings and so forth, anything basically hard or soft in the room that can either reflect or absorb sound. There is a famous experimental music piece by Alvin Lucier called Vespers that consists of people using Sondols, which are underwater echolocation clickers that enable humans to communicate with dolphins. They make quite a loud click. All the performers are blindfolded and are instructed to use these clicks to enact certain behaviours, mainly spatial behaviours. Since they can’t see each other, their interaction is based entirely on the clicks they hear. Resonance is the sonic impact of space.
Now I’m going to talk a little bit about Crosshatches, which is a 65-minute piece that Toshiya Tsunoda and I made together over a period of 14 months starting a couple of years ago. Toshiya is not a composer – he doesn’t consider himself to be a composer. He considers himself, if anything, as a field recording artist or a sound artist. His background is the visual arts. When we started working together he thought he would like to make a score, so this is how this piece began, as a graphic score. I then decided that I would take the blocks and
wedges that he had written for the score as indicating sound, as sound shapes. The block might be something that starts without any fade-in or fade-out and a wedge might be something that, with its downward slanting, would indicate a fade-out etc. We divided them up into chords and noises, so Toshiya created all the noises, I made all the chords. We understood this to be the basis of a work, not actually the work itself. Where this enters into what I’ve been talking about is that he took all of the sounds and put them in outdoor settings. His work, which in my terminology is very locational, was suddenly given something else to deal with. An outdoor location either had one of these sounds we’d made projected into it or he added to it later. Either way it involved some kind of scored component that we had made and something he had been doing all along.
For my part, knowing full well that he would make outdoor field recordings (which is essentially all the work he’s done), I decided that I would re-record all of our sounds in a space, as opposed to a location. I chose a chamber music hall near to where I live and made recordings of all those sounds, you could think of it as a re- description of the sounds. Hopefully you can see already that this is a deliberate confusing of the categories. I should say that in most of this work that involves field recording and recording in general it’s fairly clear what geographical, or in terms that I’m using today, Geo-sound components, are used. In other words, with most of this work the components are mostly comprehensible. In Crosshatches, however, we decided, before there was any terminology (all the terminology I’m using here comes afterwards to try to describe it), that there would be a complete mixture and overlapping and, indeed, crosshatching of these categories. [Plays a short extract]
I’m going to move on to a couple more concepts and the discussion of July Mountain. We’ve talked a little bit about location and space. The last Geo-sound concept I want to introduce is one called place. I think my first encounter with this way of thinking was in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In Swann’s Way the narrator is talking about his trip to the coastal town of Balbec and he knows that the train from the town that he grew up in would be at a certain time of day and all of a sudden he remembers all of the names of the stops from Combray to Balbec. It’s these place-names that serve to conjure up the entire place, some of which he’s been to and some of which he hasn’t been to. Then there is a discussion of Florence and other places that somehow carry in the name the character of the place. This is something that, as I have been thinking about it, must involve language somehow.
If we think about a place, Hollywood for instance, what does it mean? Hollywood twenty years ago was almost a slum and now it has been refurbished. It’s got a lot of locations in it, but when we talk about Hollywood we mean something like what I mean by place: which is a whole collection of images, some of which might have real world components to them and some of which might be imaginary, some of which can be met by an experience and some of which you conceive of yourself. This assemblage is how I come to understand place. I think its connection with language is real. It’s something that is also used in, say, hip-hop music, which is sometimes quite place orientated. In the town of Compton (Los Angeles) where most of the gangsta rap started, there is a language associated with that music: not just in a way of pronouncing words but the way words are used. The identifiers of Compton are no longer just photographs of the street, there is a whole set of imagery associated with it. In this way, along with everything else, it is a poetic entity.
With that in mind I would like to talk a little bit about the poem “July Mountain” by Wallace Stevens, which was the starting point for my composition of the same name which we’ll talk about later. I believe it begins to deal with place, or at least this idea of place makes an appearance in the poem:
We live in a constellation
Of patches and of pitches,
Not in a single world,
In things said well in music,
On the piano, and in speech,
As in the page of poetry –
Thinkers without final thoughts
In an always incipient cosmos.
The way, when we climb a mountain, Vermont throws itself together.
Vermont is a place, but what exactly is it doing in the poem? How does ‘it’ throw itself together? As it turns out, and I think this is often the case with Stevens, you get the feeling that there is a real Vermont and then there is what Vermont starts to stand in for in the poem. This is something that Stevens himself had thought about and actually wrote about in a late poem called “Description without Place”. I’m quite convinced Stevens is using place here in the context that I have come to understand it. Place is always in formation of an “incipient cosmos”. For me this carries the association of chaos. What else would a cosmos in formation be? Out of the chaos, opportunities for recognition are thrown up, but in “Description without Place” Stevens takes it beyond the concept of place, it’s there in the title. The poem, ostensibly, or at least the first part of it, deals with the difference between what Stevens calls seeming, and being. He begins by saying “It is possible that to seem – it is to be,/ As the sun is something seeming and it is”. I read this as saying that we understand being as something of a process, not as something stable. We might say that seeming is a part of the process of being, or maybe what [Gilles] Deleuze would call becoming. In being a process or becoming, seeming (the way Stevens uses it in the poem) dislocates itself from the precisely local (in my terms, “location”) and becomes something else, beyond even the collection of related images that I’m calling place. Stevens is looking for this point beyond place, for a description without place. As he says in the poem “If seeming is description without place,/ The spirit’s universe, then a summer’s day,// Even the seeming of the summer’s day,/ Is description without place.” Stevens says that this description is a little different from reality, the difference we make in what we see. As I read this, he is starting to evoke the work of the poet, somebody who makes, with language, a difference out of what most of us see. This is what, at the beginning of the poem is called seeming. Later in the poem, in section VI, he simply says, talking about description:
Description is revelation. It is not
The thing described, nor false facsimile.
It is an artificial thing that exists,
In its own seeming, plainly visible,
Yet not too closely the double of our lives,
Intenser than any actual life could be,
A text we should be born that we might read,
More explicit than the experience of the sun
And moon, the book of reconciliation,
Book of a concept only possible
In description, canon central in itself,
The thesis of the plentifullest John.
So this is how I’m reading July Mountain: we have a movement starting from what I’m calling place – a world of pitches and patches – towards a concept only possible in description. We arrive at the end of the poem at a place, or what might originally have been called place, Vermont. But that is no longer really that place, it’s no longer Vermont. No longer, in Stevens words, “a false facsimile” but something else. One word for this, borrowed from the physicist Julian Barbour’s The End of Time, might be ‘configuration’; another might be ‘orchestra’.
I will leave it there. I know it is complicated. Before we move on I would just like to read a section from the very end of the poem,
It matters, because everything we say
Of the past is description without place, a cast
Of the imagination, made in sound;
And because what we say of the future must portend,
Be alive with its own seemings, seeming to be
Like rubies reddened by rubies reddening.
Paul Banister: I think there’s a beguiling quality in the work, especially in the notion of site. It is attended to via the recordings and then subsequently rejected in the representation of the work as a whole. The talk mentions ideas of spaces for sound in the development of chamber music and the home stereo is hinted at, which I think is interesting as there is a relationship between the music and its language that has occurred alongside the development of the site of performance. Each new work being tuned to capitalise on the local acoustic condition. The small concert hall thus determines a range of acoustic conditions used to frame acoustic output, each surface dealing with appropriate reflections and absorptions. Yet this control puts a room-specific acoustic on the signature of the sound, questioning which comes first, the room or the sound.
Thus both July Mountain and Crosshatches are representative (to my mind at least) of an additive process, both physically and spatially. This means the notion of the artist adding to the raw base material, creating new readings out of the source recordings. It could be said that there are limitations of the stereo field, reducing the level of direct spatial engagement within the piece. I mean to say that there are many clearly defined elements in the work, yet they remain frozen in two dimensions. I wish it were more physically perceived, like Leibniz’s adjacent beings, in the spatial field. However, the intended playback room’s spatial arrangement, i.e. the room we are in now with its harsh surfaces and noisy windows, breaks up the rigidity of the playback, creating new and unknown spatial dynamics in the piece. This is unintended or simply unforeseen by you, the artist, and creates a spatialised indeterminacy to the work. Thus it seems to me that July Mountain (and Crosshatches to a degree) is about organisation, fragmentation and translation both spatial and ontological.
The notion of the Vermont throwing itself together could be considered as the reconstruction of the piece in the mind of the listener or occupant. So could you perhaps talk about the notion of the place of playback, the site of the playback and the value of stasis of the observer, and the room’s role in the reading of the work?
MP: I’ll try to. There are a lot of things in what you’re saying there that I think about. I’m going to divert just a little because my experience with this kind of thing is related to what I experience when I look at still-camera films. One of my colleagues at CalArts is the filmmaker James Benning. He makes these long, still camera shots of things. The first work I encountered was Ten Skies , which is a series of ten-minute shots of sections of the sky that are sequenced one after another. It is of course, two-dimensional. For me, at first, it seemed very flat, but then by focusing on the screen I started to become aware of movement because of the two dimensions. If I were in a three-dimensional space looking at the sky I wouldn’t have any framework or opportunity to see that. I tend to think of the stereo field as functioning something like that. Everything you say is right. Sounds that are three-dimensional in the world could be perceived in all kinds of ways and get flattened. In field recording we notice this immediately: if you go to a location and you’re hearing everything from every direction and you come back and listen to a recording of that location it’s so strange because all of a sudden it’s totally flat. To the extent that you deal with recordings, and we’re still in a stereo age, you have to somehow work with that as a material. Obviously in a live performance, with musicians planted in various spaces, you actually have much more flexibility.
PB: You have spoken previously about the performance of July Mountain where people actually were rubbing the drums – did you ever think about doing that in a spatial arrangement?
MP: It’s a really interesting question because the thing about sound is that it travels. There was an interesting composer, Henry Brant, an American experimentalist who worked with spatialisation – and I always found it less than I expected it to be. By having musicians everywhere you somehow expect a really dramatic effect of a sound coming from behind you, but then I started to realize that spaces just mix those sounds.
PB: I agree. I remember I saw a Stockhausen performance where everything was three-dimensionalised but because I was sitting in one position I didn’t get the benefit. One of the things I really liked about the score of July Mountain was that there was so much complexity in all of the different pieces that you could actually engage spatially. The observer/listener could actually walk amongst the performers creating an entirely new reading and bringing out the complexity of the space or the site of the recording.
MP: That’s what I’m hoping – that people will make the effort to do that because I feel that you start to accept that it’s two-dimensional and then work your way back behind the screen.
PB:To inhabit the piece, as it were.
Drew Milne: I’d like to begin by thanking Michael for being so generous as to offer us a description of something that sounded like the poetics of July Mountain. It’s the poetics that I’d like to pick up on. I was listening the other day to a recording of a panel discussion, which I imagine took place in this room about a year ago [i.e. the 2011 event referred to in the introduction to this transcript]. Michael was a contributor, and one of the other contributors to that panel [Antoine Beuger] talked about the difficulty of making a piece of music that would attempt to embody a poem by Emily Dickinson. He discussed the difficulty of making music that would involve reciting the poem by Dickinson, and I heard this as ‘re-siting‘. Then I thought no, they mean ‘reciting‘ – how old fashioned! I‘m interested in this kind of misprision, the way in which words get slightly shifted. Another example would be that the published version of Stevens’s “July Mountain” (which maybe varies) runs: “Not in a single world, / In things said well in music, / On the piano and in speech, / As in a page of poetry” but I think your text [given in the score and on packaging of the CD version of July Mountain] has “the page of poetry”.
Out of this misprision I’m interested in what work “July Mountain” is doing as a poem or a text in this piece, beyond the complexities that you‘ve already drawn out in relation to the naming of Vermont. I take it that the way in which place is working in the piece is to layer a series of spaces to decompose any clear field or field recording. So I suppose I was hearing in your talk a question about the status of compositional practice. It seemed to me there was a struggle between compositional practice, field-recording, sound-recording and geo- location of various kinds, with Wallace Stevens somehow being the glue.
What I want to draw out is what this means for composition. One way of thinking about this from the point of view of poetry is to say that poetry is resistant to this kind of analogy with another medium because it‘s already fraught with its own complex differentials. You said something about the sound recording collaboration, rather intriguingly I thought: you phrased it something like “beautiful but not poetic” and then glossed that by saying that it hadn’t gone through linguistic filters. I thought filters! what an interesting idea. I take it that for Wallace Stevens – and other poets – poetry is not about linguistic filters. It’s about an encounter with the world which might be primary to the world-making capacities of words and what we call language, without assuming that language is a necessary condition of the possibility of poetry.
Rather, poetry and music and art and artifice are conditions of the possibility of language. So I don‘t think that poetry accepts language as a primary condition of its artifice. The question then of what it is doing with language seems to me comparable to the questions raised by juxtaposing field-recordings, graphic scores, musicians and so on using a mixing-desk in the version that we heard.
Out of that, I want to suggest that maybe there‘s something about poetry‘s resistance to composition and the ordering of musical events. Part of the complexity of poetry‘s field is one of difference, where it’s continually opening up to the possibility of language worlds which are not ‘composable‘. I think that‘s something approaching what Wallace Stevens means by ‘an always incipient world‘. There‘s a problem of the word ‘in‘, in ‘incipient‘. It‘s a problem in the poem, what he means by ‘in‘. ‘In‘ starts to be as empty as a prepositional ‘at‘, but the notion of being in anything, in language, is one of the things Stevens is prepared to make a high philosophical comedy out of.
Poetry seems to me the obvious medium in which the question of composition is resisted in the name of a problem I would want to call ‘transposition‘. Not in the musical sense, but through the notion that Wallace Stevens is forever playing analogies with different media – aesthetic and experiential – so it’s a cross-aesthetic field of play in which poetry emerges as the difference-making artificer that is somehow beyond the mere juxtaposition of two mediums.
I’m wondering if your work in July Mountain is to say somehow that the poem “July Mountain” makes out of all the complex decomposition in the work a kind of differential that is resistant to the notion of composition. It seems to me that the gamble of the piece was that the process of composition – the shock of the piano, or the shock of something like a voice – would somehow triumph or at least resist its analogy with birdsong and some of the more obvious ‘real world’ elements that were clearly audible at the beginning but seemed to have been crushed by a more industrial wall of sound by the end. There is something in that process that isn’t quite composition. It’s the transposition of different fields of attention.
I’ve been working on this in different areas, with the notion that transposition accounts for the way in which different media are not as autonomous as people sometimes argue. So it is not as though music can ever quite be autonomous from other kinds of aesthetic argument. The problem is how arts set off analogies between themselves and then to structure a productive difference out of that. It’s not quite an analogy – hence the notion that it might be about transposing Stevens, or an idea from Stevens, into another medium. So it’s not quite transposing poetry into music.
I’m interested in how, if I’ve made any sense in this brief sketch of what I think of as transposition, materials from one field are moved into another and how the difference is felt. How far do you think composition is, in your practice, about controlling that process or about leaving it up to a more indeterminate, Cageian kind of field in which the composer is only really one element, rather than a controlling element? The function of the mixing desk is interesting to me in this regard.
MP: Great. There’s a lot in that to respond to. I have thoughts about two things that you said. I guess I’ll deal with this thing that you finished with first, which has to do with control and composition. In experimental music terminology Cage would use the word ‘indeterminacy’ in the sense that he would have it apply to a performer being given an instruction about the work that would still leave sonic materials open enough for the performer to make decisions about them. But I also like to think about it in terms of listening. One of the fascinating things about field recording is that it is, from the standpoint of art and music, always in a perpetual state of decomposition. It’s about as close a representative of an “incipient cosmos” as you can get because none of us control it. You turn on a recorder, you turn it off and whatever sense can be made of it is really in the listening. Obviously there are compositional decisions made but they are not of a recognisable type, it’s more an act of framing something that you know is outside of your control. For me, the opportunity of July Mountain was to try to think about creating a parallel situation in which all of the sounds would then be made by humans, and the piece ends entirely with percussion sounds. All the field recordings have been faded out and so that question that you’re asking about something that is simultaneously in a state of composition and decomposition is something I’ve thought a lot about. It has something to do with the density of what’s happening. My experience is that when you have this incredibly high density of an event, on a perceptual level it will never compose itself. No matter how much control is exerted by the person at the mixing desk there is simply too much information to really control. I don’t know if that addresses what you’re asking but that’s how I think about it.
This other thing that you’re calling transposition I have thought about in a different way, because of the work I have done with the translation of German poetry. The poet I’ve worked with, Oswald Egger, has an image that occurs in one of his books of a radio he had when he was growing up in an Alto Adige part of Italy (the part of the country that speaks German). He had this very old radio and on the radio there were place-names: Stockholm, Rome, etc. They were listed right on the dial. He was surrounded by mountains, the Dolomites, so there were only these stations that you could get. In one of his poems he describes how he would turn on the radio and he would hear “Stockholm”. For him, this is translation. What we normally call translation, which is the transposition into another language of vocabulary and meaning of the poem, is something like a mechanical activity. But what he views as translation is this: you have radio waves emanating from Stockholm and they come in to this device of the radio and then somebody sitting there sees the word ‘Stockholm’ and hears a sound. And so for me that’s an analogy of how I deal with poetic material and composition. There is no direct equivalent, it has to undergo some kind of overground / underground radio transformation which in the end means the poem is a kind of conceptual material, there is no commentary on the poem. I can try to make a commentary based on what I thought about, as I did in my talk, but I wonder if the composition in the end can possibly serve that function? If it can ever reflect back on the thing that it, in a sense, is derived from. To me it’s like it just keeps going – it’ll never come back to Stevens no matter what happens. It doesn’t have to, the poem exists anyway.
DM: Can we probe a bit more at what the meaning of composition is? It seems there is a struggle going on between sound-worlds, sound-material, grids and a process of compositional practice. But part of the interest of the Stevens model as I now read it, in ‘July Mountain’ and as a general Stevens poetic, is something like a late symbolist aesthetic in which words are not quite free of their musical content. Poetry is seen as something that is awkwardly artificial, comically artificial, particularly in early Stevens. Part of the Stevens gamble is a kind of conceptual wit that is resistant to the philosophical description of its poetic and therefore complexly trying to engage in a transpositional game.
I think what you’re interested in is something that’s more resolved than that in relation to the distance that you create between the musical score and the poem that leads you there. So I’m wondering whether you think that the composition has to overcome the sense of being either a critique of Stevens’ music or an illustration. It seems to me inevitable that the process of having included a poem so directly in the material creates the question of whether the conceptualising of the poem is ultimately criticised or appropriate. To put it starkly.
MP: On this question of resolution I don’t see that on musical terms anything is resolved. For me it is a very touchy subject as a contemporary composer, because in a way we are almost genetically coded to avoid resolution. The history of the 20th century is to think in terms of resolution being artificial in exactly the sense in which you mean it. I think that is the level on which it really concerns me, a sonic one. I don’t feel that any interesting composition resolves itself or if it does then you can say that its period is over. But the question vis-à-vis the poem is an interesting one. I really should think about that. I think that there’s a function of the words in the score that is much more about how the musicians respond to what they see than it is about how anybody might listen to it or encounter it. For the purpose of talking about it, it’s nice to read the poem, but I’m perfectly happy if people don’t know it.
On the other hand I feel that, since we use words all the time in music to communicate with musicians, their ambiguity – I think in the sense that you mean – has to be recognised. So scores that give instruction to musicians can seem very mechanical as if there is almost this automatic hierarchical implication. That is, “if I give you clear instruction you’ll follow what I say”. And yet that seems like such a hopelessly old-fashioned way of understanding how the language works. For me the introduction of this kind of poetic play that you’re talking about can, if it’s successful, have the function of loosening that relationship between the composer and his first audience, which is the people making the music. That’s really where I feel like the poetic work functions, really in that sense that it opens up the space between the worlds and what might have been meant and how it could be read in a number of different ways. That is an invitation to a performer reading to read, to actually read, what is given to them. I don’t think it does Stevens any good but it does me a lot of good! Ever since I started working on a whole series of pieces that preceded this called the Harmony Series I started to feel that this had some function. You can never really define it but this opening of what seems to be a functional language into this other area does something for music more than anything.
Carol Watts: I want to look at it slightly differently. The Harmony Series has these small, what might look like epigraphs at the beginning – fragments that sit at the top of the score and the score may have some relationship to them, they may suggest some instruction but we don’t know what it is. So the question of what the relationship is of the poetry to that realisation or actualisation of the score is really interesting, because essentially you can’t name it. For the musicians it is whatever they find in those lines, which may just be the shape or number of the lines, so their shape goes into the making of the piece, and not anything necessarily to do with what the poetry might do or mean.
I deliberately didn’t look at the score [of July Mountain], I just listened to it. I’ve listened to it twice; once, going to bed last night with headphones and then here, just now, so there are two very different kinds of experience of the same piece. One of the interesting things about the collaborative process that I think you go through concerns that question of transposition, how you move from one mode into another, or come to work with another person, for example in your collaboration with Toshiya Tsunoda. Quite what takes place is sometimes inarticulate. We can’t name it, but you can find modes of encounter or rapprochement that arrive to do that work for you, and then understanding comes later. You said in your talk that the terminology comes afterwards. One of the interesting things to me looking at how you work is that the terminology you’re trying to use to conceptualise it comes back as a recursive thing, you’ve already gone through the process of the work. The poetry does have a kind of generative role in that. Your July Mountain may not even concern the internal sense of what the Wallace Stevens poem is itself about.
I think then that there is play in this relation to the poem so when, for example, you are talking about “patches and pitches” you can understand that within the realm of the poem or poet but you can also, if you’re a Deleuzian, start to go on another route thinking about patches and pitches. This practice gives you permission to have that encounter, to take the conception of the question that you don’t even know necessarily that you want to ask through the logic of how you move from one mode to another. Sometimes the vocabulary and way of thinking about this process, the attempt to name it afterwards, is really difficult and terms hard to come by so that words like ‘description’ which I think comes through from the Stevens “description without place” invoking a kind of representation, doesn’t quite do it for me. ‘Transposition’ is one mode of thinking this exchange between sound and poetic material, and I came up with other ones. For example, what would it mean to try and think about this process of movement across modes as a diagrammatic movement? So that what you’re interested in is something that morphs between modes, from poetry into sound. There is some morphing going on here, the space does something to place.
The word place has an anthropological charge to it, that feeling that you belong to a place; you refer to Bachelard’s internal spaces. But something happens to place when you listen to that piece. I actually did feel like I inhabited July Mountain, interestingly. I think that there is something fascinating about being a listener when by definition, although you were talking about filtering out, the opposite is often the case. In fact you often hear too much but you don’t listen enough so there is an excess of hearing and not enough listening. What that piece did, in my case, was create a sense of where place might take place through the movement between hearing and listening: it’s constitutive of thinking place or it’s constitutive of thinking about belonging in sound, but there is no locatable way in which I could say more about that, ‘know’ where I am. It has no habitual life, it’s not an anthropological sense of a lived place. The extraordinary thing about that piece was the shock of listening to the full-on textured volume of it and something happening when the cusp moments between field and produced sound were coming in and there was an intensity, a roar, a huge acoustic shape that was taking place, but the shock is then going to look at the score afterwards and seeing what you’ve done. The fading through where you think the field-recording seems to locate you as a listener in a three-dimensional acoustic space – if you’re invested in that room, if you’re inhabiting it. In other words the July Mountain of it starts to grow, you’re on July Mountain and it could be Stockholm or it might be any place but you’re constituting it as place. Yet what you have done is gone from field-recordings all the way through to wholly human-created sound by the end, there is no ‘field’ in there, as such.
So I have two thoughts really: one is about the diagrammatic, that is, what would it mean to think (and this is using Deleuze a bit) not ‘field’ but a kind of phase-space where it’s possible to create and make new meaning through the morphing of points?
It’s also fantastic that when you do have work of this kind there is that generative moment of encounter where you can only, as it were, misrecognise through the other modes. This is my second thought. The point about the Wallace Stevens at that level is that there is a fundamental misrecognition of the Stevens and that is what’s enabling.
MP: I think that is really perceptive. For mis-recognition I’ll come back to Crosshatches. That was a project that was all about mis-recognition. So there is somebody who is a sound-artist wanting to write a score, possibly because he thought I would want to deal with a score. So we write a score together (which neither of us had done), but then have different understandings of how to decipher it. I ask Toshiya to create noises for one set of symbols, but he never does exactly what I expect: he starts making things that he has never made before that are not really noises, they are not white noise or anything like that. And this very ‘Deleuzian’ process continues to the very end. So I feel that must be what is going on. I think what Drew was saying is very much a part of this. Of course, you don’t think you’re doing it when you’re doing it. When I read “July Mountain” I thought “I know what’s going on here, it’s all about the replacement of something that you think is an environment by something else.” And it might not be about that at all, but you convince yourself, or at least I convince myself, that that is what it is. But then maybe I’m finally ready, several years later, to accept that as a mis-reading. Whatever it is, there would be no piece without my reading it in that way. However, that is where the idea came from because it never once occurred to me that you could literally replace bit-by-bit something that people understood as environmental by something else. It’s probably something that the person doing it can’t even tell.
I also like this idea of the morphing, for me the whole interest of the piece really lies in this transitional state, in the fact that no matter how many times you come back to it you find that your idea of the mixture between, let’s call it the ‘given’, that is field-recording, and the ‘produced’ doesn’t resolve itself. You could never find that point in which you’re convinced that now we’re entering the world of produced, it’s always coming too late, you’re always already there. By the time that you think there are still field-recordings there aren’t or you think that the percussion must have started up by now but it hasn’t so there is nothing graspable there and I relate very strongly to that. That was the intention. During the performance we had vibraphones and even when you are there, when you’re watching the musicians play, you sometimes can’t tell what belongs to what.
DM: I’m intrigued by what the status of the digital is for you. I wonder if you could say a little about that because we were listening to a digital version of July Mountain. I’m interested in the idea that there is a certain kind of digital way of saying this is mixed ‘in the box’.
MP: I’m interested in it precisely where it is out of control. It appears to be a black box where sound goes in and something comes out that is mixed. But in working with that medium, and it really is a medium, it’s designed to be used as it is in pop music recordings where every single instrument and the whole spatialisation of the thing is so precisely placed that you can identify everything. What fascinated me about the medium (I think Paul was calling it ‘additive’) is that you get effects that are completely out of control when you start adding things that are already too rich, so that you’re in a realm where the digital can’t quite resolve the information. It’s beyond resolution of what a machine like that can actually calculate. ‘Dithering’ is the technical term for it, where mathematics comes into it and decides where to cut off otherwise infinite decimal places. At some point when you are sending it sample after sample the machine no longer knows how to do that because its whole protocol for how to do it is based on a fairly simple set of circumstances – a base sound or a harmonic sound that has frequencies. I think this creates a true kind of indeterminacy, when the machine is doing what it thinks it knows how to do but it doesn’t resolve anything.
Will Montgomery: I’m interested in the way you use mono field-recordings. Field-recording is often a very directly representational, mimetic practice. The recordist wants to take someone to a particular place and represent it the best he or she can using the stereo field. But you have this technique of using stacked mono recordings in this piece. It produces a very warped spatiality – it’s a very unusual way of representing space. I wondered if you could say something about that.
MP: Yes, I wanted the field to be created quite synthetically in this case. Stereo is already a reduction so for me between stereo and mono you essentially just eliminate the left-right dimension. If what is really interesting is the sense of reading back into what is represented in the sound, then for me it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything. It’s just as if you had a ten-dimensional object and now it’s nine-dimensions because, from my hearing, the dimensions are more to do with how we unpack what we think we’re hearing than where they are in the actual x/y axis. This idea of bringing in, over the course of the piece, a series of field-recordings and playing ten simultaneously and thinking about what that means in terms of panning is really a crazy thing.
I worked with a video artist on a project that was related where we were recording in the same place at different times during the day, I made field recordings and he made video recordings of the same thing and then he would stack video recordings on top of each other, some of you probably know what that’s like, double or quadruple exposure and so forth. Things that are only there in one image are transient and ghostly, whereas things that are there in all four of the exposures will be solid. So a tree looks like a tree, but you can see right through a person or an automobile. One is more conscious of these layers in a visual sense than one can be in an auditory sense.
The layers of sound were just denser, they didn’t add dimension in the way that these temporal dimensions of the visual added. So it is not as big an alteration as it seems like it is. That was a bit of a surprise. This flatness that we’ve started to talk about is really something I come back to all the time with the medium. It’s just something we have to accept about recorded sound: that it requires work on the part of the listener to unpack its dimensionality. It can’t really be provided. I’ve been involved with a lot of multi-channel situations and I don’t think it’s really provided there either, without someone listening in the way that I’m talking about: a place that constructs the acoustic space that you’re in. Otherwise you’re probably destined to hear flatness.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).
Julian Barbour, The End of Time (Oxford: OUP, 1999).
Ronald Johnson, ARK (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1996).
Robin Mackay, “Editorial Introduction” Collapse Vol. VI, January 2010: (Geo/Philosophy issue).
Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London, New York: Continuum, 2009).
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: Library of America, 1997).
Marcel Proust, In Search Of Lost Time Vol 1: Swann’s Way, Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation, revised by D.J. Enright (London: Vintage, new ed., 2010).
Michael Pisaro/ Greg Stuart, July Mountain (Three Versions) (Gravity Wave, gw 002) Michael Pisaro/ Toshiya Tsunoda, Crosshatches (Erstwhile, erstwhile 066-2)