Michael Pisaro on Poetry and Visual Art as Compositional Tools

The Wandelweiser composer and CalArts professor speaks to Lucrecia Dalt about his engagement with painting, poetry and representations of chaos

Guitarist and music scholar Michael Pisaro has dedicated his life to pushing the boundaries of six-string composition. A member of the Wandelweiser collective, much of his work revolves around what still appears to be the final frontier in music: the incorporation of silence. Besides his own musical endeavors, Pisaro holds the chair of Experimental Sound Practices and Composition at the renowned California Institute of the Arts, counting the likes of John Maus and Julia Holter as his alumni. In this excerpt from the latest episode of Red Bull Radio’s Pli, Lucrecia Dalt spoke to Pisaro about how poetry and visual art inform his work, the collective experience of chaos and how we encounter “the real.”

Chiyoko Szlavnics

Do you have an idea of something that informs your work in this moment that is not specifically music?

In general I would say I’ve probably been more influenced by poetry than any other medium. Coming in second would be visual art, but it’s not like I don’t watch films and things like that and don’t have ideas about them. One problem when you get to be my age is that you’ve experienced so many things that were important for you that it actually is kind of hard to sift and talk about just one. Usually it’s the most current one, whatever that might be that you’re thinking about, rather than, in my whole life, the 50 to 60 things that I could mention.

When I was in Paris a couple days ago I got a chance to see the Cy Twombly exhibit, which is at the Centre Pompidou there. I don’t know if you know this artist. I think [Twombly’s] usually considered an Abstract Expressionist. He’s kind of a contemporary of Jasper Johns and [Robert] Rauschenburg. Also like Rauschenburg, [Twombly] went to Black Mountain College in the late ’40s, early ’50s, where [John] Cage was and other people.

Twombly died about five or six years ago and I hadn’t seen a retrospective of his work in probably close to 20 years. It comes up because I’m actually working on a piece, or I will be working on a piece, for a Gravity Wave CD that’s based on his series called “Fifty Days at Iliam,” which is a kind of symbolic representation of the “Iliad.” People who know Twombly know that especially later in his work all kinds of classical references are made, mythological references and so forth, kind of scribbled onto the canvas. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he lived in Italy, but in any case this series, I think it’s eight paintings, is really incredible, because it seems to me at least every bit as vivid as Homer. It’s obviously dependent upon Homer, but it represents a kind of... I don’t know what you would call it. It’s not really a summary. It’s like he takes critical moments in the story, and then he probes them in-depth, so you’re not getting eight paintings that tell the story of the “Iliad.” You’re getting moments in the story that are represented visually, not in any kind of representational way.

One of the things that’s so powerful about this mythological reference is that you know you’re dealing with history, but you don’t sense distance.

You don’t get pictures of Troy or the Mediterranean Sea or the soldiers or anything like that. You get abstract imagery. There’s one painting at the end, after the defeat, that’s called “Shades of Eternal Night.” Incredible painting. It has that text “Shades of Eternal Night,” which is by Homer, written across the center of the canvas, kind of scrawled across the center of the canvas, and then shades of black, gray, blue and purple on white canvas. It’s sort of layered in a way that you can’t really separate out all the colors. It’s a kind of mass of color in the center. I’ve been really preoccupied with this painting for quite a while.

One thing I realized by looking at the Twombly exhibit is that he started in the early ’50s with canvases that looked very radical at that time, because they basically just looked like somebody doing their homework. You have things scrawled on the canvas, calculations, odd drawings that look absolutely primitive and preliminary, then you have dashes of paint here and there. They’re sort of all white-ish in color. Many people didn’t know what to do with this as artwork, because it doesn’t announce that it’s any kind of finished work.

In any case, the things that he begins to show on these paintings, I started to realize – to people who know Twombly this will probably sound very strange – but it seems to me like they’re painted to represent more dimensions than the three or four that we live in. You very often in Twombly get square upon square or squares scrawled at odd angles to each other, or you get a famous motif of his, a kind of continuing line that circles and circles and circles. If you look at these early-ish [works], these paintings from the ’50s, I’d seen them a lot of times, but it started to occur to me that they’re not flat. Of course, they’re represented in the two or three dimensions of the canvas, but I somehow stopped seeing that way and started seeing them as kind of impossible geometry. Something that is reduced to the dimensions that are given on the canvas, but actually represents something quite a bit more complex.

I’m sure Twombly wasn’t thinking about, whatever, the ten or 11 dimensions of string theory or anything like that. It seems to be very intuitive, but then this is coupled with the preoccupation with time. One of the things that’s so powerful about this mythological reference is that you know you’re dealing with history, but you don’t sense distance. These “Fifty Days at Iliam,” it feels absolutely present, even though it happened 35,000 years ago or whenever it’s supposed to have happened. This, for me, it’s always been a curious folding of time. Like, if time was not simply a linear thing, but could fold backwards and forwards, there’s certain moments in the so-called past that fold forward into the future, and it’s almost as if you can touch them.

I started to see that these two things, this weird ultra-dimensionality and this preoccupation of time, are actually versions of the same thing, or at least they cooperate together. I don’t know what to do with that yet, but it’s something that having seen this series of paintings and other Twombly works, I know will preoccupy in this piece that I’m just starting to work on.

Pisaro, Egger, Holter - The Middle of Life (Die Ganze Zeit) Excerpt

How would you work next with something like these paintings, for example? How do you start to frame, or what would your process be?

It strikes me that with painting and poetry it’s actually similar in that I don’t want to make a direct response to the work. In some ways you can’t avoid that, because you know it’s behind a lot of your thinking. But in the music that I’ve written that’s used poetry, where the voice is involved, I’ve always tried to do it in a way that either the poet speaks – as in the case of Oswald Egger, on this CD I made called The Middle of Life in which there’s a lot of texts by Oswald – or it’s somehow reworked and fragmented in a way that I feel like it becomes kind of my own material. These Tombstones pieces I made sort of operate in that way. I guess I avoid any kind of direct reference to the thing unless it’s incredibly direct, like in the case of Oswald reading his poetry. What I don’t do is set poems to music as if that was just a very simple process; that you could just take the poem and have somebody sing it, and you’ve done something with it.

One way of going about this, one kind of distance to achieve is through the formal characteristics, and it can be simple as using the number of lines in a poem as an element of certain features in the score. Another artist who’s been really important to me over the years has been Agnes Martin, and there’s a lot of early work especially of Martin’s that deals with grids and shapes, very, very clear shapes. Sometimes these are literally, directly imported into a piece.

I’ll come back to Twombly, but a recent piece that I wrote that is dedicated to Agnes Martin, or at least inspired by her – it’s got her name in the title – referred to paintings in her series “With my Back to the World.” These paintings generally have three colors: A kind of very light yellow, a sort of salmon-colored, pinkish red and then a sort of sky-colored blue. They’re all handpainted. The texture of the color is really important. They’re very, very faint, generally speaking. In the piece I decided I was just going to make formal equivalence of this red, yellow and blue so that the audible sections in the piece are as in her work: the one just begins when the other one stops, and it’s a complete different kind of material. Instead of trying to interpret my feeling about the painting in any direct way, it was much more through this byway of dealing with color and form [that was] direction for the structure of the piece.

I suspect in the case of the Twombly, I’m going to try to deal in some way with a multi-dimensional mass of sounds that feel like more or less one thing, but that have all these kind of embedded fissures and colors already in them. I’m sure you know this yourself: A lot of times you start inspired by something, but then there are features in the process you’ve started that take over and become even more important to you than the initial spark of the idea.

We’ll see. I’m very curious, especially with this image somehow representing, to me, potentially all of these different layers of time sedimented on top of each other, and I have material I’ve already recorded on the piano for it. I have to think really about how I’m going to deal with that, with the hard, musical material and this sense of time. That’s somewhere down the road that I figure that out, I guess.

Let’s just say the vast majority of things that bounce off us we’re not fully aware of, if we’re aware of them at all.

About poetry, is there something specific that you would like to talk about?

There definitely is. Here’s another example, another thing that’s been on my mind because it’s part of this series that’s still ongoing. That’s the poet Lucretius. The main way we know about the Greek philosopher Epicurus is because Lucretius wrote “De rerum natura” in Latin, as a kind of teaching text for the prince he was working for, about this philosophy that he’d somehow become completely identified with. “De rerum natura” is organized as a kind of poem that has the simultaneous task of laying out Epicurus’ ideas.

I don’t know exactly how I got onto it, but I was attracted by the fact that it’s a very materialist philosophy, and it’s something that I’ve been engaged with for as long as I can think of, philosophically speaking. The very fact that you had something that is in a way a kind of science – as it stood close to 2,000 years ago – of the universe, that doubles as a poem, felt to me like it combined the two concerns that are artistically engaging for me. On the one hand, this kind of philosophical or rational approach to making music – you could even say scientific – this is very much a part of the experimental music heritage going back to Cage and before, but on up through today’s tuning systems that are based on science – the work with acoustic and resonant materials of Alvin Lucier and people like that.

That’s not what Lucretius is really writing about, but it is this material aside. Then that, wedded to what is incredibly beautiful poetry in Latin. There’s six books each dealing with a different topic or approach, and I wanted to do one piece for each of the six books. As of now I’ve done four of the six, getting ready to work on the fifth. It’s really an interesting issue because there’s absolutely no question of setting the entire poem. It would already take you several days to read it or at least an entire day to read it out loud, let alone sing it. I had to think about how do I use this text, because so far all but one of the pieces have involved people singing. So how do I use this text to generate what I need for the singer, but at the same time have this balance between the poetic or the song and the conceptual ideas in each of the books? I’m not sure I would ever have come to such a clear sense of how these two things might be brought together without that particular poem.

It basically means I’m writing pieces that have lyrical content for singers, that have melodies and things like that. The very first book is a solo melody that’s a “monoity” – I call it a “monoity.” It doesn’t actually use the text, because Lucretius begins at the very beginning. The entire first book is basically about the molecular atomic structure of the world. It’s very radical because instead of beginning with God and all of the mythological components, he’s dealing with hardcore, physical matter as he knew it, of the world as being the foundation of the world. This idea of the molecule and of trying to think about a molecular music that basically just dealt with individual elements that were strung together is sort of how that initial piece came together. Each of the successive ones has tried to do a similar trick, which is to wed a certain concept of what’s going on there and try to find a musical parallel, and then a way of dealing with it poetically and lyrically.

Joseph Haydn - Die Schöpfung

One thing that I see frequently in interviews about you, or words that maybe you’ve mentioned frequently, are chaos and unpredictability. Is this something that you are frequently concerned with in your work?

Like a lot of the things that I was just talking about, I don’t feel that’s something that I can really approach directly. Certainly I wouldn’t trust myself if I believed that I could somehow present chaos in a piece. In classical music history there is a very famous presentation of chaos, and that’s the beginning of “Die Schöpfung” by Haydn. The first part of it the orchestra plays chaos, and given that it’s the first part of the 18th century, it’s incredible music because you had to do crazy things harmonically to imagine what that would be. But in spite of that I don’t see any way of actually doing it. For me, it’s kind of a question of, first of all, acknowledging. If you do acknowledge, which I do, that the vast majority of elements we encounter we’re either dimly aware of or not aware of at all. “Encounter” is too strong of a word. Let’s just say the vast majority of things that bounce off us we’re not fully aware of, if we’re aware of them at all.

Of course, probably any physicist or people who deal with these multi-dimensional worlds would agree that we only experience the things that enter our own dimensions, and have no real consciousness of the very real things that might be right next to us, but that are somehow outside of our own dimension. For me, that allows a kind of image of where, let’s say, “chaos” is. Ultimately it’s not something that we experience directly, although we call things “chaotic” I think in part because – and I don’t mean this in the scientific way – because they seem that way to us. Usually it just means that we don’t have explanations for a set of things that occur or a complex of things that occur. Nonetheless, I think it does represent that there are many things in the universe that might truly be chaotic in the sense of not fully rational or comprehensible or that don’t obey, say, laws of cause and effect, or at least that this is a possibility, so we have these echoes of it in the things that we call chaos.

For me, that’s where it gets interesting. In thinking about an artwork, can you sort of create conditions under which this, say, “feature” might make an appearance, even if it’s just this kind of appearance? That it’s an echo of something that is genuinely chaotic? In determinacy or chance, these things that are again part of the experimental music heritage, I’m sure that’s why they’re attractive to me, because I felt like there was something unknown and potentially unknowable about that. As time goes on I think that that’s really only one, and maybe not even the best way of thinking about this issue.

If you think about that question, “Can I encounter the real?”, the answer is often “You can’t make yourself see the real, you have to accidentally stumble upon it.”

In every piece it’s kind of a question of, is there some sort of pointer or arrow or feeler into the real, what Lucan would have called “the real.” In Lucan, that essentially means elements of the material and sensory world that we no longer experience because we have shut them out. Symbolic language is the biggest culprit, basically because it allows our heads to be filled with words and ideas and images of things, and he thought that prevents encounters with them at a more immediate, sensory level, which apparently we have a much stronger sensibility for before we acquire language and identity. For me there’s a parallel there, because if you think about that question, “Can I encounter the real?,” the answer is often “You can’t make yourself see the real, you have to accidentally stumble upon it.” This could be a psychological or Freudian slip of some kind, or it could be a moment in an artwork that reveals to you a kind of feeling or emotion that completely catches you off guard.

Since we haven’t talked about film, that’s the medium that maybe is the most effective at this, because I think we sense, or at least I feel, more strongly in the presence of this uncanny in films than I do in any other medium. I think it has something to do with the framing mechanism, that things can enter the frame that are totally beyond your expectation, so you tend to see the set as a world. Then, when things enter into that world or are subtracted from that world that don’t correspond to your image, there’s something in that feeling that’s very much like these words that I shouldn’t use interchangeably but that I’m relating. Very much like that sense of “the real” or of this underlying chaos.

Béla Tarr - Werckmeister Harmonies (Trailer)

Do you know Werckmeister Harmonies, this film by Béla Tarr?

No. I know Béla Tarr, but not this film.

I think it’s his next to last movie. First of all, it concerns tuning, in part. Werckmeister was one of the meantone people from the 17th century, 18th century, and there is a character in the film that’s concerned with tuning, but there’s an image, an unforgettable image. They’re in this tiny Hungarian town, and the world’s largest mammal, a blue whale, is being brought into a neighboring town for exhibition, and it has to go through this tiny, little village in Hungary in order to get there. It begins in a bar and there are a bunch of people getting drunk, old guys and some younger guys getting drunk, and they walk out in the middle of the night into this dimly lit street and they’re wheeling this whale down the middle of the street.

The way Tare films it, you don’t get any overview of the thing. You’re seeing this place, this very antiquated looking place, and then this thing – you have no idea what it is – comes into the picture and seems unbelievably enormous. You only see the parts of it go by through the camera as it goes by. You never get an establishing shot that shows you the entire thing, so it seems much bigger than anything else, much bigger than anything else you’ve ever seen. For me, this is one of those moments, because if I were there as a person I’d have some perspective. It might still be very strange and uncanny to me, because it would be a real animal or a dead animal being wheeled through the streets, but I would at least know the dimensions of this thing. But because it occurs in a film and he doesn’t show me, I’m totally reliant on what’s in the frame in order to comprehend it. This is the kind of thing that happens in films that really always amazes me, that moment where something appears or something happens that you’re not allowed in the world of the film to really, fully grasp. You only catch its external dimensions.

For example, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, when comparing the one from the ’50s with the one from the ’70s, in the latest one they had the tools to represent how that alien life is actually replicating. In the first one it’s metaphorical. To me, it’s interesting to see how this limitation made the older film more fascinating.

They’re so much more powerful because they’re limited, I agree. In Rear Window, at the end this murderer figures out that Jimmy Stewart – who’s been observing in the neighboring apartment building that the murder was committed – the murderer, who’s played by Raymond Burr, finally figures out that this guy has been watching him and knows that he committed the murder. It’s in two Greenwich Village apartments across from each other. Jimmy Stewart is wheelchair-bound so he can’t get out of his own place, and you know that this murderer is going to come do something to him. The most frightening and strangest moment is when the light goes on in the entryway to the apartment house, and you just see this light go on under the door of Jimmy Stewart's apartment. That’s by far the most frightening thing. It’s so much this. The power is so much stronger because that’s the image of the imminent attack of the murderer that’s so powerful, rather than this huge guy coming into his building and trying to harm him. When that actually happens it’s anticlimatic, because the real moment of uncanny chaos, if we could call it that, is that light going on.

By Lucrecia Dalt on April 4, 2017

On a different note