An Interview with Michael Pisaro
Michael Pisaro is an American composer, guitarist, and early member of the Wandelweiser Group. He teaches music composition at CalArts, where he is the founder and director of the Experimental Music Workshop. His 75-minute immersive work “A wave and waves” (2007) for 100 performers will be featured at the Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart Festival on August 9, 2018. I spoke to Michael via Skype from his hotel room in Düsseldorf. We discussed the history of Wandelweiser, the musical potential of silence, and the prohibitive nature of the new music market.
VAN: What is Wandelweiser and what does it mean to you to be a Wandelweiser composer?
Michael Pisaro: Wandelweiser to me is a group of people that has actually changed quite a bit over the last 25 or so years. Initially we were mainly brought together because we shared some interest in experimental music, more specifically post-Cagean experimental music. There’s a core group of composers who have been with Wandelweiser ever since that point.
There are basically three levels to Wandelweiser: One is this small group of people that came together around post-Cagean music, specifically dealing with silence. Then there’s a publisher which people can look up easily if they want and see what’s going on with that. And then there’s an uncountable group of people that sort of fall under an undefinable umbrella of concerns of Wandelweiser and nobody knows exactly who that is. And we like it that way.
Do you perceive some more or less cohesive sound world when listening to the core members? Obviously you’re all different in your own ways, but it does seem like there’s a philosophy that everyone more or less supports.
That would have been more true 20 years ago. Back then, it would have been relatively easy to say it was a group of people who were interested in silence, who tended not to write loud sounds, and often wrote works of long duration. But that would absolutely not apply as a description now. There are people who never use silence, like André Möller, who’s been associated with Wandelweiser now for over a decade and writes very loud music. Back in the ‘90s there just weren’t that many people involved. And that made it easier to define.
We have to remember that in, say, ‘92 it seemed like hardly anybody had these interests at all. The fact that there was a small group of people who had the same interests in silence seemed like kind of a miracle.
20 years ago, did you see yourself as being kind of reactionary, pushing against the status quo of contemporary music?
Reactionary to what?
To, let’s say, the busy or complicated music of the time, especially in Europe, that didn’t approach silence as an essential and potentially rich musical material?
To me it didn’t feel reactionary at all. To be honest with you, I never had much interest or concern for the European avant-garde. I was remote from it; I didn’t feel like I had anything to react to there. Europe-based members might have felt differently. But for me it’s much more of this question of, Why had things that had been started by that first heyday of experimental music, from roughly the ‘50s to the mid ‘70s, stalled? How to go forward from that was really the most present thing in my mind.
At the time of Wandelweiser’s founding, how did you see yourself as extending Cage’s late aesthetic? What was it about long durations, low dynamic levels, and treatments of silence that interested you philosophically?
The thing about silence that struck me, that is still striking to me, is that with a piece like Cage’s “4’33”,” you find silence treated as if it had become a part of the compositional material. Where else can you find that? It was a kind of riddle: What was it about that experience of silence that seemed to resist being dealt with in a compositional way? And I don’t think the answers were there in Cage’s music, actually.
If you’re going to start somewhere, ask the question: Can I use that? Can these long silences, that are not rhetorical, that are not just put there to break up two sections or phrases, be considered as rich in musical potential as anything that is created with sound? As soon as you start to think that way, you realize that you had to compose the music that did that. There wasn’t really music that engaged with these ideas in any significant way. There’s a difference between accepting that premise and continuing to work with it and making an occasional foray into incorporating a silence in a piece somewhere. So this commitment to exploring that material exhaustively, as far as I know, was a new thing. And I didn’t know how to do it.
I think that some of the other questions kind of started to emerge from that. You can probably see already that if you’re going to deal with longer silences as a kind of musical material, then questions of duration emerge almost immediately as critical.
So how did you begin to work with something as intangible as silence?
I was most interested in the border between sound and silence. There’s something fairly rhetorical about, let’s say, a normal or louder music that stops suddenly and then has a silence. You create a certain kind of rhetoric that will tend to view the silence as a comment or as an opposition. Personally I was more interested in how this thing we call silence would permeate the music. For most people, when they hear that earlier music of mine and my colleagues, the border is often very unclear between sound and silence. And so you have a general situation you could call silence, which sometimes has musical sound in it. And this is actually the state that the lower levels of sound seem to be best suited for. I definitely don’t think about it the same way now. But in retrospect I think that’s why low dynamic levels, long durations, and an interest in silence went along together.
How has your thinking changed?
One of the things that attracted me to silence initially was rather than being easy to define, simple and singular, it’s nearly impossible to define and multiple. The consequences of that can go in so many different directions. At some point, I felt like, OK, I explored the initial region of interest to me well enough, and I want to find out other things that can happen when you’ve already accepted this kind of basic orientation. In my case, I became much more conscious of the performance environment as an environment, as a landscape, and ultimately that led toward a lot of work with field recording, which I still consider to be recorded silences. We know that depending on where you are, a field recording doesn’t even have to be quiet. They can get quite busy. So to my mind this is where silence had led to—a sense of the environment as a really crucial aspect of making music. I wanted to deal with this in a kind of a hands-on way rather than just assume it is a given.
Your investigation into silence broadened to encompass the “silence” of the performance environment.
That’s right. I think once you’ve begun to allude to or recreate or duplicate, once you’ve begun to deal with the actual environment of the concert halls as a thing, or alter it in ways, it does something to the boundaries of the composition as well. If you make people conscious of their environment, you begin to wonder what the transition is between listening to a piece and not listening to a piece. For me all kinds of interesting questions arose from that.
You’re actually prodding at perhaps one of the most successful aspects of Cage’s “4’33””—making listeners aware of their surroundings and questioning modes of listening, questioning what it means to be a listener, and what it means to be in a space at a concert.
Drawing your attention to this makes you aware of how artificial and strange the Western classical music environment is. It’s extremely rare compared to just about any other kind of music. This isolation from any kind of external sound, the elevation of the stage, the dress codes, the conductor if there is one, the audience behavior—it’s a highly formal and evolved system. And nearly all composition in that mode submits to those conditions. As soon as you start to not accept them, everything that went into that package begins to come into question.
So you see yourself and your work as more and more prodding these things in recent years?
I wouldn’t say I’m trying to prod them. I don’t actually have an axe to grind. I just feel like it’s an extremely interesting and rich field to deal with. All these things that we’ve been talking about, for me they don’t end in themselves, they keep leading to other kinds of compositional questions, and they also stimulate ideas for ways to make pieces that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
It’s more an acknowledgement of the absurdity of the performance environment that’s opening up questions that are rich in potential?
Yeah. For me that’s the kind of ur-aspect of experimental music. It’s always seeking out some sort of boundary that might be hidden. As soon as you look at that boundary, it turns into a highly complex, basically unknowable thing, until you start to work with it.
Do you imagine how an “ideal listener” or even more broadly, how a listener might be experiencing the music that you write?
If I’ve learned anything over the years of doing this, it’s that I’m not sure I can imagine a single listener. I’ve found all kinds of different people listening to concerts for all kinds of different reasons that you could never anticipate. My educational background was quite different in the sense that most people I knew, most other students, most teachers, were very concerned about this question of knowing our audience—dealing with questions like, “why is music not engaging a large enough audience,” and on and on. It seemed to me that the basic assumption was that you could know the answer to that question. But of course it’s an impossible question to ask because it assumes that somehow you could know how other people are going to respond. And I think if that’s where that question leads then, it leads to market research and commercial music, ultimately.
So I took the complete reverse angle—I assumed that since I’m human, not so different from other people, audiences might find a way to engage with something that, to me, is already engaging. Of course that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody can engage. It just means that it’s an open possibility. I’d rather leave it that way than try to imagine how somebody should respond to something like this. The only thing that I know—well, I can’t say I know this—but I sense that when a performance environment gives off the indications that something different is going to happen, that in itself already changes the way people listen. There are so many variables there that I think it would take a kind of social research scientist to have any idea what we’re dealing with. I just don’t think that’s how music gets made.
Do you think about your role as a composer in our society and where you fit in? Do you see yourself as quietly subverting or pushing back against norms?
I think a lot about how the various communities I’m in relate to each other. This could mean performers that I work with, or people who are composers and performers. And a question that a piece might pose is something like, How do we how do we relate? How do we function together, work together, in all of our multiplicity?
Those are very basic political questions that I think a musician could address only really at a local level. I have basically no faith in the idea that a pronouncement made by a composer at a general level will have any political impact. There’s a sense that this pronouncement is easy to misunderstand when it’s applied to a large general group of people who have no idea what the composer might be talking about. Whereas if you’re dealing with a group of people that you know are organized to play something, you’re dealing hands-on with relationships between people and how they are managed. For me this is already a political act. And I think it’s the one we’re most capable of as musicians.
How would you say your ensemble Dog Star Orchestra relates to this?
Dog Star Orchestra began as something I did in the summers because I was aware, by teaching at CalArts, that there were a number of students, former students, and friends who wanted to keep playing experimental music. And at that time, around 2002 or so, in L.A., there weren’t that many opportunities. So initially I thought, OK, there are all these people around wanting to do something; we should do something.
I always thought it’s mainly about doing the thing, rather than trying to make a mark on the scene or trying to get a lot of publicity for it. The main focus was on discovering how everybody could be involved in a way that they are satisfied with their involvement. Over the 14 or so years, the group has grown much larger than that, but almost always incrementally. It’s not a paid group, people volunteer. We put on concerts that individual people decide are worth doing. Everything about it is just kind of grassroots. Things like that, when they’re done in a way that considers individually and as a group all the people that are involved, they have a tendency to flourish, because their involvement is on different terms than say a contract, or others sorts of capitalist models.
So you deliberately removed the group from the new music “market”?
Right. Occasionally we do get funding from here and there, just to be able to rent spaces so that the performers or the curators don’t have to pay out of their own pockets. We operate at that level—there’s no other kind of payment for people. And we’re comfortable with that, in a sense, because it has worked so well over all these years. Also nowadays most of the concerts fill up. And it happens I think just because people sense that there is commitment involved in a different way than this festival contract arrangement.
This is such a beautiful utopian kind of idea. It’s just sad to think that the musicians of Dog Star Orchestra must, by necessity, all have other things to make money because this type of artistic community music-making isn’t a thing that our society values enough to compensate monetarily.
When you imagine the kinds of things that would exist if most of our activities were understood to be supported already, as opposed to activities that needed to generate support, you could imagine what a different world we’d live in. For me there’s a larger political question right there, which is, “Do you just accept that the capitalist-democratic or capitalist world is the only one and therefore compensation has to come through that means, if at all?” Or do you say, “Of course I live in that world, but I can create things that that don’t apply the same rules, that actually have a glimpse of a different set of supports?”
I’m sure we could try to think of political means that would basically tell people that their basic expenses, living, and so forth are already included in the social contract. Capitalism is always telling us it won’t take care of itself unless the people at the top organize the whole system of support. If not, everything will fall apart. And that’s the thing I think I reject the most. Of course it would be a better world if anybody could engage in art without thinking about compensation—the amount of imaginative power that would potentially release…but I don’t think we have to wait. Some of that exists already. ¶