Improvisations and realisations of indeterminate scores by Michael Pisaro and John Cage
Tom Chant - saxophones & bass clarinet
Angharad Davies - violin
Benedict Drew - electronics
John Edwards - double bass
1. Michael Pisaro: Reader, listen: harmony series no.10 6:32
2. Activation (improvisation) 10:38
3. John Cage: Four 6 30:05
4. Michael Pisaro: La voix qui dit: harmony series no.8d 4:50
5. Decentring (improvisation) 13:15
6. Michael Pisaro: Flux: harmony series no.8a 3:12
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“This is a gorgeous and well-recorded disc that brings improvised and composed forms
together in a satisfying way. These four musicians introduce eclecticism and insight
to pieces by John Cage, California-based composer Michael Pisaro and to two purely
improvised structures; the best part of it all is that their respective vocabularies
are so distinctive and versatile that each work is delivered with insight and spontaneity.
The two quartet improvisations certainly contain many clichés of the Euro-free improv variety, but these are just as often supplanted by the lush electronic drones more often associated with EAI. Witness the rather chatty but still sparse opening of Activation, with its pointillist dialogue gradually falling silent as jagged high-frequency sustains come to the fore. The much more restrained long tones then become an integral part of the piece, informing the quicker exchanges on their return.
This permeability of tempo and dynamic boundaries is reflected in the juxtaposition of individual timbres and motives in all of the music on offer, whether improvised or composed. The album's centerpiece, the quartet's performance of Cage's Four6, has a structure open enough to incorporate both Tom Chant's rich multiphonics and Benedict Drew's remarkably varied and emotive electronics. Premiered in the summer of 1992, it constitutes one of Cage's number pieces, which were constructed of time bracket notation. Four6's score stipulates that each player chooses twelve sounds, with fixed overtone structure and amplitude. The freedoms inherent in the score can be abused—witness Sonic Youth's rather juvenile version which relies more on repetition and novelty than on the subtlety and interplay that defines Cage's music. This quartet adheres to its choices while also embracing the silence where appropriate, but each musician finds enough diversity to ensure that the music develops over its thirty-minute duration.
The Cage and Pisaro works complement each other beautifully, both relying on the use of indeterminate structures, developing sustains and relative silence. The three Pisaro duos presented here are taken from his Harmony series (2004-2006), which was initially inspired by James Tenney's Swell Piece. Comprising 34 pieces, each using a poem as inspiration and to determine its structure, the series is a vast and stunning exploration of the intricacies of sound relations that we call harmony, for lack of a better term. As with the Cage, the scores are meant to allow freedom of choice, but the instructions are quite detailed regarding the sorts of timbres that should be used and their placement. The results can be startlingly diverse, as with the brief Flux which ends the disc. It's a stark series of quasi-pitched alternations joining Drew's electronics with wispy utterances from Edward's, the two performers even managing to match pitches despite Drew's white noise! The duo realizes the last line of the verbal score effectively, matching noise and pitch with astonishing subtlety. By contrast, Reader, Listen presents declamatory pitch complexes that sometimes give the illusion of more than two instruments at work, exactly the intricate overtonal relationships that imbue so much of Pisaro's work.
The disc is well programmed, the constant contrast between the busy improvised pieces and the slowly morphing compositions lending unity to the whole. Better still, there is a sense of discovery throughout; as with Pletnev's recordings of Beethoven piano concertos, the composed material is presented with the freshness of improvisation, and I find these solutions engaging and persuasive.” - Marc Medwin, Paris Transatlantic
“The album, is a combination of three Michael Pisaro scores taken from his Harmony Series folio, John Cage’s composition Four6 and two improvisations. It begins and ends with a Pisaro piece, with the half-hour long Cage realisation at its centre and the other tracks spaced between. The three Pisaro pieces are all scored for two musicians playing sustaining instruments. I am a big fan of Pisaro’s Harmony Series. There are thirty-four compositions in the set, each based upon a poem, or a fragment of it. The scores usually involve only part instructions for the musicians, rarely indicating particular instruments or pitches, but often describing the type of sound that should be played, with parameters set for how and when they might be used. Not all of the pieces are scored for duos, but the three pieces chosen here are for just two musicians.
The first, based on a William Bronk poem is performed by Davies and Edwards. Their realisation is a dry, sparse piece with a vaguely Malfatti-esque tone to it, slides of grey tones spaced apart by silences, sometimes coinciding with each other. Angharad has worked quite a bit in this area of composition, indeed she is one of the music’s most respected musicians, but the interesting thing to me is the involvement of John Edwards in this track, and in the album in general. He plays the piece beautifully well, as one would expect from such a skilled musician, but the piece seems so far away from what we know him as, a powerful, expressionistic bassist whose heart is rooted in improvisation. At the danger of sounding very boring through repeating myself, the fact that Edwards (and to some degree Chant) are involved with this project is testament to the current feeling of openness and cross-fertilisation prevalent in London right now. The second Pisaro piece is similar but different. Played by Davies and Chant the score asks one of the musicians to play a single pure tone for at least two of the piece’s five minutes while the other is given rough instructions on how and when they should play a certain number of pure sounds themselves. Davies takes the role of inserting the two minute sound, which she elects to play right from the outset, a quiet, hissing sound played on the violin. When she stops after a couple of minutes we are suddenly very aware of the sounds creeping into the recording from outside the church in which it was recorded. They are faint and unobtrusive, but after the continuous sound their presence is suddenly heightened, interrupted by Chant’s occasional additions to the music. This track is so very simple, like the short poem (by Beckett) that inspired it, just a few lines carefully placed in white space. The final, short (three minute) piece, based again on Beckett’s words is played by Drew and Edwards, and again the soft ambience of North London is framed by a series of short, quiet tones picked out in turn by the musicians. For me the beauty of this music is in the simplicity of it, tiny forms created with simple raw materials. The three Pisaro pieces work very well weaved around the busier Cage score and the improvisations, little interludes of calm, carefully constructed music that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but are certainly mine.
The performance of Cage’s Four6 is maybe the highlight of the album though. The score asks the musicians (all four here) to select twelve sounds, which they then place into time brackets dictated by Cage, or rather by a randomising computer programme he used to write the piece just before his death in 1992. If the score is taken literally just about any outcome is possible. Here though the musicians work together in a gentle, yet occasionally tense and abrasive manner. The question for me here is if I would be able to guess this was an improvised work if I did not already know. Certainly it would be difficult to tell. The music has a spacious, slow feel to it because of the way the sounds are distributed amongst the thirty minute duration, but otherwise there are few giveaways. It is lovely music throughout. At times it feels very obvious that the musicians are not playing ‘together’ as they come and go at abrupt moments, but elsewhere when two or more sounds combine it feels all very natural and determined. Its a really nice piece though, a well balanced combination of sounds (presumably not discussed in advance) just enough to give the music an edge, but also to allow it all to gel together in a natural manner.
Any question about how improvised the Cage piece may have been are answered when you hear the two improvisations here though. In comparison, they sound so much more busy, wild and obviously unplanned. I have no idea how I can justify this claim, but the musicians also seem to relax when they move into the improv pieces. Maybe this is just a feeling sensed through the freeform method of playing, the restriction of the score removed, but there is almost a sense of relief audible in the first moments of each improvisation. Drew and Edwards in particular sound much more alive, boisterous and busy. Drew has often been the self-igniting firework of so many improv performances I have seen this year, and although he remains relatively restrained throughout this album it is in the improv pieces that his tense energy shines through, met well by the other musicians around him. Both of the improvisations sound alive when placed beside the compositions around them, and like Wedding Ceremony, a similar release from this year that asked a group to mix modern compositions with improvised sets the contrast between the two is marked.
It is not that one way of making music is necessarily more valid than the other, certainly not, and I enjoy all of the tracks on Decentred. The album works well for me though in highlighting how a score, however loose or simple usually results in music so very different to improvisation. The intriguing elements of this album, for me at least come through listening to the different ways the musicians respond, how those that are rarely involved in anything like this react to the constraints that composition places on the relationship they have with their colleagues, and then how they change when those restraints are removed. Decentred is a fascinating CD that probably reveals more about the musicians than the scores they are playing (something Cage and Pisaro would probably like). It is also full of beautiful, engaging music.”
- Richard Pinnell, The Watchful Ear
“Working both sides of the fence between notated and improvised music is second nature to the four accomplished British musicians featured on this CD. The session’s powerful appeal lies in the sensitive maneuvering the quartet uses to personalize one long piece by John Cage (1912-1992) plus three short indeterminate scores by Michael Pisaro (b.1961). An added bonus is two mid-sized improvisations.
Buffalo, N.Y.-born guitarist Pisaro teaches composition at CalArts. A member of the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble, his harmony series translates into sound that leaves most sonic decisions to the musicians. Similarly “Four 6”, the last of Cage’s number pieces, utilizes a computer program to distribute the 12 pre-determined sounds to four musicians playing any instrument.
As the centrepiece of Decentred, this 30-minute track takes some of its shape from pulses produced by the electronics and objects of Benedict Drew, a radio artist and soundtrack composer. Also on hand are bassist John Edwards, known for his work with saxophonist John Butcher; reedist Tom Chant, who plays in drummer Eddie Prévost’s free form trio; and violinist Angharad Davies, who plays with harpist Rhodri Davies.
Rattling objects plus Drew’s adagio signal-processed crackles and splutters set the scene for “Four 6”, with the exposition developed through intense, chromatic string plucks, wood-wrenching sul tasto lines and reed-biting slurs. With the instrumental voices closely packed, a sense of impending menace is advanced until interrupted by Chant’s wide, atonal vibrations. Pushing the abrasive string-scratching aside, his overblowing purposely almost drains the oxygen from the studio until a vibe-like ping and a whirligig shrill introduces a percussive variant from scrubbing strings. These continuous unison reverberations chug along until challenged by the saxophonist’s ear-wrenching split tones. The final variant regroups the strings’ strident textures with expanding electronic wave forms from Drew, which are patched in for split-seconds until the piece dissolves into silence. .
Chant’s bass clarinet figures prominently in the two improvisations, exposing altissimo whoops as often as chalumeau growls. On “Activation”, his tone repetitions bond spiccato string tugs, a patterning percussion beat and quivering signal processing. The title tune is more cohesive in its interaction. Characterized by radio-tuning static, sul tasto bass runs, abrasive treble-string responses and isolated reflective reed vibrations, it evolves with unexpected wide-screen-like characterizations. Spacious sweeps from both string players and mallet-like patterns from Drew plus counter-tenor-like parlando from Chant eventually synchronize despite Davies’ irregular shuffle bowing.
As for Pisaro’s indeterminate compositions, each is played by a different duo. Alternating intense interludes – which often expose affiliated nodes and partials – with protracted silences. Chant’s diffuse bottom-scrapping pitches impress the most.
Reflecting on the first-class work here, the strength of the tracks is a direct result of transforming improvisational freedom to notated scores.” -- Ken Waxman , JazzWord
“When the Another Timbre label was launched in autumn 2007, proprietor Simon Reynell expressed his desire to release contemporary composition alongside improvised music, with the understandable proviso that it was more expensive to release. To date, the label's releases have been dominated by improvised music, though there was a fine release of compositions by Frank Denyer, played on shakuhachi by Yoshikazu Iwamoto.
All of which makes Decentred a particularly welcome release. On it, four first-rate improvisers turn their attentions to "Four6," a scored work by Cage, and to three pieces by Michael Pisaro from his Harmony Series, interspersed with two improvisations. So the album is exactly the imaginative mix of composition and improvisation initially envisaged for the label.
Each of the Pisaro pieces is a duo for a different pair of players\Angharad Davies on violin and John Edwards on bass, then Tom Chant on bass clarinet and Davies, finally Benedict Drew on electronics and Edwards. The pairings are well chosen to emphasize the contrasts between their instruments' pitches and timbres. The pieces evolve slowly and deliberately, with occasional silences, giving them an air of tranquil beauty.
With a duration of thirty minutes, "Four6" dominates the album, although not at its centre\yes, the album is true to its title. "Four6" is scored for four players who can use "any way of producing sounds." Each player chooses twelve sounds and these are played within a structure of time brackets given in the score. The time brackets and distribution of sounds were determined randomly by Cage. As the actual sounds used are the choice of the players, no two performances of the piece need ever sound the same. Nonetheless, the time brackets organize the sounds, preventing the players getting in each others way or masking each other. The end result is not dissimilar to a free improvisation produced by experienced improvisers.
That point is highlighted here by the inclusion of two excellent improvised pieces in which all four players participate. They are skillfully controlled and focused to the extent that hearing "Activation (improvisation)" in sequence between Pisaro's "Reader, listen" and the Cage piece, it becomes impossible to distinguish scored from unscored music. Maybe one of the intentions of this album was to emphasize that.
As observed, "There are two types of music: good and bad. I like both." However, the distinction between good and bad does not coincide with the distinction between scored and unscored (or vice versa). Scored and unscored, this album is full of good music.” - John Eyles, All About Jazz
“An intriguing smorgasbord that hits home a few times and just misses some others.
Three of the six pieces are by Michael Pisaro, each a duo (violin/bass, violin/bass
clarinet and bass/electronics). They're quite spare, often near unisons of held tones
hovering in space. I found the first and second of only moderate interest but the
third subtly wonderful, perhaps merely due to the instrumental combination, but it
clicked far more forcefully and movingly for me. The two improvisations fare better,
"Activation" an engaging mix of ethereal drones and everyday pops 'n' squeaks that
remains solid and colorful throughout, "Decentring" a fine mesh of thin tones flitting
past, the quartet again finding great variety in a fairly circumscribed area.
I've heard several versions of Cage's late "number" pieces; I don't have nearly a good understanding of them, I'm sure, but I've tended to enjoy them greatly. "Four6", presented here, is no exception. There's just a certain kind of openness in play, an unforced breadth, that makes it a joy to enter, each instrument really penetrating the aural space in a corporeal but delicate manner, like tendrils hanging from an eave. Really good work.” - Brian Olewnick, Just Outside
“This usefully blurs the lines between Improv and new composition. Two of the pieces are improvised, the others are realisations of composed works by John Cage and Michael Pisaro. The most striking of them is saved for last, a version of Pisaro's intriguingly Braxton-like Flux: Harmony Series No.8a, realised on double bass with electronics. Like La Voix qui Dit, also based on a Beckett text and numbered 8d in the same series, it has all the sparseness but also all the warmth of the original text.
The second piece is for violin and bass clarinet, a glorious interweaving of two similar but nicely differentiated voices. The CD opens on Reader, Listen, the tenth piece in Pisaro's cycle and this time based on the work of William Bronk. Drawing something from Cage, but taking it aong a very different line, Pisaro has used silence and durational ideas a good deal in his work. These are short pieces. By contrast Cage's Four6 plays out at just over the half hour, and outstays its welcome by a good third of that. The improvisations – Activation and Decentring – are pretty much what one would expect of these players, which isn't to suggest that they're formulaic or slack, simply that a familiar cast of personality emerges: mostly quiet or understated, unhurried, more concerned with detail than with grand architectonics.”
- Brian Morton, The Wire
“Releasing long-term opinions in relation to certain types of music is getting increasingly
difficult, especially when dearth of events and undetermined scores are parts of
the equation. On the one hand, there’s nothing but the utmost respect for the restricted
core of musicians and composers who constitute the veritable spirit of a scene; and
nobody more than this author appreciates – make that “needs” – peacefulness, an absolute
rarity in a world where the noisiest or, at the very least, the most grandiloquent
characters get followed (which, unfortunately, seems to be an ideal tactic for the
feeble mind of easily influenced individuals). Yet it’s become obvious that canons
and formulas have been quickly developing even in such a supposedly unpolluted area
and that, amidst the few legitimate artists, nondescript bandwagon joiners find using
a note (or two, or total inactivity) irresistible, not in response to a genuine instinct
but because this Zen-ish attitude is cool (incidentally, is there anyone around who’s
not an alleged Zen practitioner yet?) and, furthermore, saves a lot of time and mental
exhaustion when the acts of composing, practicing and performing a piece are hypothesized.
Not to mention costs. Numerous debates about names from this circle of sound art
flourish in well-known forums and magazines, which is both positive and negative.
The feel here is that a mere handful of significant entities (and recordings) are
worthy of consideration.
As of now, Simon Reynell’s Another Timbre belongs, without hiding feelings, in the tiny pool of my favourite labels. The sonic aesthetics and the sheer quality of the published documents speak for themselves. This notwithstanding, after spinning Decentred for six times in resolute isolation, the rave reviews read everywhere didn’t receive a complete authentication under this roof. Not for defects of the instrumentalists, who behave splendidly throughout; and not due to excess of hush, for this disc is mainly made of concrete occurrences. The instrumentation (reeds, violin, objects, electronics, double bass) is practically perfect for the scope, juxtaposing the warmth of wood, the thin-skinned liveliness of fingers and the droning capacities of an arco on diverse string gauges, the strength and the suggestions of an instrumental/human air circulation system and the merciless chilliness of an electronic apparatus (which Benedict Drew manages to interleave in the ongoing acoustic conversation with appreciable intelligence ). The rendition of John Cage’s “Four 6” is a valid reason for owning the CD, a fantastic amalgam of dynamically fickle insertions and decisive, if respectful gestures underlining the magic of sympathetic interplay. The factual improvisations – “Activation” and “Decentring” – don’t represent a truly devastating affirmation of originality, nevertheless are an indication of the stability of the distinct voices and their collective connection, a symbol for the constant attempt of avoiding the musty aroma that systematically creeps through when even a single member of a group is not in full control of his/her lucidity in a specific creative frame.
That leaves us with the bitter root of the matter, directly linked with the “silent” issue in the opening paragraph: what lowers this record’s overall value is the trio of excerpts from Michael Pisaro’s Harmony Series. Episodes that, putting it mildly, do not stand at the same level of the rest of the program: excessively simplistic, almost insubstantial. I couldn’t manage to sense any sort of enlightenment in the placement of those notes into utter quietness, the outcome of basic combinations (three duos: violin + double bass, violin + bass clarinet and double bass + electronics). The care applied by the players struggling to attribute a minimal degree of weak grace to the (rare) succeeding pitches represents the lone commendable aspect of otherwise inconsequential music, destined to last in the memory exclusively for the limited duration of each track. That won’t prevent your reviewer from celebrating this composer’s materials in different occasions, when they will hopefully result better adjusted to the need of unspoken intensity that these scaled-down drawings absolutely failed to fulfil. I won’t forget, for example, that selected chapters from Harmony Series 11-16 on the Wandelweiser imprint are nothing short of breathtaking, much more satisfactory to these ears than the bulk of, say, Radu Malfatti’s reductionist output heard in the house. In spite of everything this particular instance - in conjunction with various exalting write-ups seen on the web - generated a classic case of “overhyping doubt” in this head-scratching complainer; conversely, my positive reaction to Pisaro’s sounds in the aforementioned circumstance is also a valid rationale for distrusting a review’s contingent judgement. Conclusion: following this set of substandard instalments, the jury is still out.
However, the musicianship is first-class; that alone is a good motivation for stamping Decentred with a good mark. It might not be a new Another Timbre’s milestone, but does feature a number of incontestably fascinating sections, enriched by the participants’ heartfelt concern. Fine enough, in the zone where pseudo-inventive mannerism remains a perilous common denominator, frequently overcoming our interest in listening to the tangible tones - or lack thereof.”
- Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes
“Tom Chant, Angharad Davies, Benedict Drew and John Edwards deal with compositions that demand improvisational acumen. Three compositions by Michael Pisaro, aural interpretations of specific poems, are duets serving up hovering long tones of various density, while Four6 - one of John Cage’s late Number Pieces - directs the musicians to use twelve predetermined sounds of their own choosing within time-brackets Cage had determined randomly with a computer program. Needless to say, these works, as well as two superb group improvisations, rely heavily on the spontaneous invention of the performers.” - Peter Margasak, Downbeat