Conversation with Michael Pisaro-Liu

from harmonic series

Gil Sansón: The essay you wrote to deal with the subject of Wandelweiser is very much essential as an introduction, and in it you describe how the composers who are now seen as the main figures of Wandelweiser came to meet each other and realise the potential for musical and social advance within a new relationship between sound and silence, between time perceived and time quantified. I'm particularly interested in how you came to this paradigm before meeting Antoine Beuger or the other founding figures of Wandelweiser, and to what degree the common references (Cage, Wolff, Fluxus, etc.) made evident that there was a group of composers who were mining the same territory, so to speak, without being aware of each other. The question here would be how did you come to be so that your musical interests aligned so harmoniously with these composers from Europe?

Michael Pisaro-Liu: I think it’s one of those things where preparation is only a part of it. I must have been primed a bit by my background. In Chicago I studied with George Flynn (who had been simultaneously part of the uptown and downtown scenes in NY in the 1960s), Ben Johnston (who had worked with Partch and Cage) and Alan Stout (who was a student of Wallingford Riegger and Henry Cowell). I was very inspired by the music of Charles Ives. When I was in my early twenties, we had a group that played Feldman, Wolff, Cage, Haubenstock-Ramati, and so on. So although experimental music was out of fashion in classical music circles in the 80s when I was a student, I was actually never far from it. However it really was out-of-fashion in the US in the 80s and for some time thereafter. The other plus of being in Chicago was that the AACM was there. I loved all of it - Art Ensemble, Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, and though he was not in AACM, Cecil Taylor - not that I knew what to do with it as a composer who was pretty far removed from the jazz tradition. (In retrospect it’s obviously foundational to any contemporary conception of experimental music.)

In my first 12 or so years of writing music, I had written in all kinds of different styles, seemingly searching for something. I liked the European avant-garde (especially Ligeti, Lutoslawski and Berio), but it didn’t feel like something I could honestly work with as a composer from the US (and from the midwest at that). Increasingly, and perhaps like the rest of the people in Wandelweiser, I was attempting to find something that spoke a completely different language. In around 1990 or so I put a long silence in a piece, with no clear reason why. There were tentative steps in that direction for a few years in the early ‘90s. I would not say that I'd found the Wandelweiser paradigm yet. It was more like seeing the fin of a shark moving quickly across the water without knowing what was beneath.

The “alignment,” as you call it, felt like it was instantaneous. More or less as soon as I heard Kunsu Shim’s music, and then shortly thereafter, Antoine and Jürg’s - I absolutely knew that was what I had been searching for. They were bolder - especially Antoine. And they seemed to be able to do more with their music in the European environment. Perhaps because Cage, Feldman, Lucier, Wolff and so on were still pretty central to Europe’s conception of the American avant-garde? But for me Kunsu, Antoine and Jürg were miles ahead of that, and lighted the way forward. I stepped on the gas to try to catch up.

GS: You used the term singularity to describe Wandelweiser. I think it's very accurate. An event from which a number of trajectories emerge, that regardless of how far they may stretch from each other they can always be traced back to this singular event. Now more than 20 years after, the Wandelweiser network has grown considerably and the map of the network finds many overlapping vectors encompassing many types of music making, complicating the issue of what is the sound of Wandelweiser to a high degree. At the same time, if we make the analogy to that other singularity (The Big Bang) it was to be expected that some bodies would generate more gravity, one evidence of this being your Gravity Wave label. My question is this: Did you feel in any way limited by the Wandelweiser record label regarding the way you feel your music should be presented, or was there simply a need to express yourself artistically in every aspect of record production? Maybe a mix of factors including these? Your CDs on Wandelweiser seem to have a different attitude compared to the ones on Gravity Wave, in which there are artistic statements that seem to push the limits of what's commonly known as Wandelweiser music, yet at the same time retain the same sensibility. Some of them have a closed form appearance, in that they are fully formed artistic statements and not so much recordings of your scores as finished electroacoustic pieces. It all seems to point at a wish to test personal boundaries in a more controlled editorial environment, completely devoted to a singular vision. 

MP-L: The analogy with a singularity (or “event”) is, in my opinion, correct. I refer back to this beginning all the time. My belief that the consequences of this event should be explored and tested to their furthest limits has definitely led me in directions I wouldn’t have anticipated 30 years ago. But it really hasn’t been so calculated. I never thought about what I could or could not release on Wandelweiser, in terms of the actual music. Aside from some practical considerations, including the idea of starting Gravity Wave being suggested by Jon Abbey, with the generous offer that he and Yuko Zama would help me run it. I think it (i.e., GW)  turned into something like what you said: an exploration of the recording as a fixed or in some ways, closed, work. For me there’s no getting around that fact, so I thought: why not embrace it? After all, my scored works often continue to deal with openness and indeterminacy, in situations where the creativity of the performer in the moment accounts for so much of what we enjoy about the music. Musical performance in the live situation is like theater, whereas fixed works are like film. So, over time, I’m less interested in using the label to record scored pieces than to explore ideas that come up in a fixed, clearly finite medium. If I were to try to summarize, looking back at the series of 20 discs, and in particular Continuum Unbound and Nature Denatured and Found Again, it has something to do with how a sense of the infinite can be touched in situations where there are clear limits. The formal possibilities for exploring this continue to fascinate me. 

The image I have of Wandelweiser is an exploding star-plant, casting embers in just about any direction, and then encouraging these fire-seeds to grow in ways that are conducive to the local environment. There’s something ineffable in the “whatever” of Wandelweiser, as it was and is. I’ve never accepted stylistic descriptions as what it was all about, even if, especially at the beginning, one could have described the similarities between the work of the various composers more easily. Rather than individual works then, it is these collectively explored trajectories in what is still a kind of world or community, that continues to fascinate and inspire me...

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