The most recent CD release of composer/guitarist Michael Pisaro's Melody, Silence is a pleasure to experience. The CD takes its name from the sole work included on the disc, which Pisaro calls "a collection of materials for solo guitarist." Performed by Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear, the work is made up of 12 fragments that can be arranged in any order allowing for unique versions of the piece to be played by different guitarists, or by the same guitarist in different performances. Pisaro composed the work in 2011, and Alvear developed his forty-six minute realization over several months in 2014. Alfonso Pérez recorded this particular realization on July 1st 2014 at Estudios Madreselva in Santiago, Chile.
Compositionally, there seems to be three main types of fragments: one being a series of changing chords or single tones with long durations, one consisting of an extended silence, and another being a long tone, gradually rising and falling in amplitude. The latter of these types of fragments startlingly occurs for the first time only four and a half minutes into the recording. Lasting for more than eight minutes, I began to consider the possibility of a defective CD. But the long sound is completely intentional, and as the amplitude increases, the micro-pulsations within the tone are revealed and a rich array of overtones can be heard. It is likely that this effect is enacted through the use of an E-bow, but I cannot say for certain if some other technique for extending the duration of the sound was employed. The sections of chords/single tones change throughout the piece, but also maintain an open quality with lots of space, a healthy dose of wide and perfect intervals, and formal repetitions of passages. Often the phrase is changed subtlety upon repetition, adding a note of dissonance or changing the chord voicing slightly keeping the listener on his or her toes. The long periods of silence should not be understated either. In my first listening to the piece, these moments took on a very personal, and structural role in my experience. During these periods of space, the sounds of the changing chords lingered in my ear, as I had heard them many times before and knew I would hear them again in new form. But when the fragments began again, I found myself hearing them with a new freshness due to my mind's transformation of the ideas during the silence.
The open sensibility in choosing a mobile form is reflected in Alvear's interpretation on a nylon string classical guitar. The slow pacing of his realization not only highlights the beauty within and between gradually changing of sonorities, but also displays a quiet virtuosity in Alvear's ability to play in such a legato fashion at a slow tempo. The sounds of nail buzz, the muting of the strings, unwanted overlapping of sounds, and other hazards of playing in such a bare texture, which can be distracting to the listener, are almost non-existent. Perez's engineering of the sound and micing of the guitar are also commendable and not to be overlooked. The generally soft volume of the guitar in this piece could be at odds with the powerful attacks required to combat the fast decay of the instrument. But nowhere in the recording does this potential difficulty make itself apparent. The only minor critique of the mastering might be that during periods of silence, faint voices and shuffling can be heard if the recording is played at a high volume. No doubt the recorded silence of the space, including the barely noticeable background noises, is much preferable to a sudden, unnatural deadening on the track.
The only thing wanting of the CD is more information about the nature of the score. As the piece is explicitly a mobile form, one is confronted with many unanswered questions: what qualifies as a fragment? How much repetition is notated and how much is Alvear choosing to add? How are the fragments presented to the performer? How much does improvisation factor into this performance or any given performance? It would be wonderful to see at least an excerpt of the score included in the sparingly designed CD jacket to give a sense of the process.
Melody, Silence marks an excellent addition to solo guitar repertory, and this recording sets the bar for interpretation high. The use of space and gradual development of ideas invokes a minimalist aesthetic, but combined with a mobile form congruent with early-Cagean mode of music making most associated with Earle Brown. One might be reminded of Cornelius Cardew's Piece for Guitar (for Stella) with its mobile form, or the slow changing procedural works of minimalist composers, but this piece is distinctly Pisaro.
Jay M. Arms l Tempo Vol69-Iss273 l July 2015
Making circus mimes look like the brutal clowns they are is Michael Pisaro – last noted for his Wire-wowing 3CD set Continuum Unbound – who diverges from that field recording-cum-musique concrète monster for this ‘collection of materials for solo guitarist, written in 2011’. This time Pisaro delegates duties to Chilean guitarist and Wandelweiser labelmate Cristián Alvear, whose involving interpretation of the composer’s instructions that ‘up to 12 fragments… can be played in any order and which allow for various transformations, cuts, extensions and silences’ doubtless arises from his appetite for singing his teeth into the likes of John Cage and Alvin Lucier, as he has been wont to do.
Truth be told, little need be said about this recording that isn’t encapsulated in the title. There is so much silence here that I’ve often thought the CD had ended, yet ample in quantity are the super-minimal, vibratory vignettes – some consisting of but two notes that dissolved into pure, tonal feedback – which Alvear must have watched tapering off into cool dawn air. I’m just guessing of course, as I have no idea at what time of day (or how) these segments were recorded, though it did take place over a number of months. More clear however is that within them can be discerned an esteem for the work of Morton Feldman; one equal I daresay to that of like-minded peers like Ashley Paul, whose sub-skeletal compositions have also earned the unequivocal approval of this journal. While I’m not often taken by these silent-type CDs, seldom is the morning I’ve not been reassured by this intriguing recording; a similar state of mind perhaps to that from which these notes and pauses first rang out.
Stuart Marshall l Sound Projector l July 2015
Guitarist/composer Michael Pisaro is a well-known figure associated with the Wandelweiser group, a fluid collective of composers and musicians interested as much in the spaces in between sounds as in the sounds alone. This interest is conveyed not only in the title of this single long work for solo guitar, played by Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear, but in the structure of the work itself.
Melody—or more frequently, harmony—and silence are the two fundamental states between which the forty-six minute long piece oscillates. The piece is largely a sequence of discrete chords or notes played individually or clustered together in packets of a few, separated by silences. Each chord or tone is allowed to linger and decay at its own rate. Some chords work together like progressions with more or less expected cadences, while others eschew any allusion to resolving, sounding instead like juxtaposed aggregates of tones, some of them combined into dissonances of varying degrees of pungency. At about four minutes in, an unexpected, recurring third element is introduced—a prolonged sine tone (or ebow?) that in its initial occurrence here lasts for nine minutes or so.
Because Melody, Silence is made up of a set of components to be arranged by the performer, the piece as played on this recording is a reflection not only of Alvear’s fine touch, but of his structural choices as well.
Daniel Barbiero l Avant Music News l June 2015
Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear’s Melody, Silence is a realisation of the eponymous composition by Michael Pisaro, a member of the Wandelweiser collective. It’s performed on solo acoustic guitar, though there are some sustained tones placed among the more traditional plucked string timbres, perhaps achieved using an e-bow or somesuch. As one would expect from Pisaro, the notes are well spaced out, with longer silences marking out transitions between plucked and sustained sections, or two different clusters of plucked notes. At 46 minutes it feels relatively short for a Wandelweiser album, many of which seem designed to fill an entire CD.
At first, most of the plucked notes (single, or in chords of two or three) seemed to me to ring out in isolation, a series of unrelated snaps in a slideshow. After a few listens through, however, they began to form faint, tenuous lines, and something approaching a contour, sometimes branching into multiple contours, made its presence felt. This seems as much to do with Alvear’s performance as with the composition: since Pisaro chooses to leave the timing of the piece very much open, it’s down to the performer to decide how to pace the notes, how much air to leave between them, and hence how precariously to position the events of the piece between melodic phrase and singular occurrence. Too much precariousness, and the events seem detached, unrelated and wholly arbitrary; the question, “why should I listen to these sounds in this order, rather than any other?” becomes difficult to answer. Too much surety, on the other hand, and the melodic shapes appear clichéd and rote.
I think Alvear’s judgement of this precariousness makes for a very compelling performance, though undoubtedly other equally valid judgements are imaginable (along with a whole bunch of invalid, disastrous ones). What I find remarkable about this recording is the way in which the notes, having formed a line, which then forms a contour, don’t stop there: they continue to gain substance and voluptuousness in what I can only describe as a sort of becoming topology. They stop just short of landscape, with the associated heavy baggage; for me, they haven’t yet tipped over into symbols.
It could be argued that this tendency towards symbolism, with its direct fixed equivalences between symbol and meaning and the attendant all-encompassing dominance of the one-who-interprets, has contributed, consciously or unconsciously, to a downplaying of melody in much recent music. We are used to, and perhaps tired of, hearing particular melodic shapes and knowing immediately what they ‘mean’; we get the vague sense that we, the listeners, are being afforded too much privilege, as if the whole point of the musical exercise was to reassure us that we do indeed ‘get it’. If, however, the aim is to remain faithful to an event of melody (and of silence), rather than paying lip-service to its symbolising simulacrum, then to my ears Melody, Silence is a strong success: something very beautiful emerges through repeated followings of the paths marked out by Alvear, without necessarily offering an exact sense of where, on the great map of tones and relationships between tones, one might be.
Nathan Thomas l Fluid Radio l April 2015
A stunning recording though what to say, how to describe beyond the piece's basic structure...difficult. Pisaro writes, "There are up to 12 fragments (or pieces) which can be played in any order and which allow for various transformations, cuts, extensions and silences. Each guitarist makes their own version." So clearly, the credit for the work's success is pretty evenly distributed and, of course, I'd love to hear other versions. But from what I've heard previously from Alvear, my guess is that his realization (on acoustic guitar, by the way) will be one of the strongest.
The twelve sections seem to fall into one of three types: quiet, melodic, "traditional" playing, drones and silences. As I chart it, the sequence here is M-D-D-M-S-M-S-D-S-M-D-M, with each section lasting between three and five minutes. The melodic sequences vary slightly from each other though all are quiet. They also have a certain rhythm, though very slow. The "melodies" range from slightly sour near the beginning to a very tonal, almost processional feel in the final episode--each one is crystalline and beautiful on its own, clearly and profoundly played by Alvear. The drones, achieved I assume via ebow or similar device, are also fascinating, varying both inherently (though super-subtly) and in one's listening environment when shifting one's head. The three silences last about three, two and four minutes and, as ever in fine realizations of Pisaro's music, are superbly placed, pools of contemplation.
Everything is laid bare, even stripped, the disrobing revealing a pure, taut and sensual skeleton. Like some object, maybe an old pine cone, simple and complex, examined from three angles, each opening a different history of the cone though each, of necessity, connected to and part of the other. Very hard to describe except to say we're fortunate to have yet another fantastic example of Pisaro's conception, exceptionally realized by Alvear. An absolute must for anyone interested in this area of music, truly beautiful.
Brian Olewnick l Just Outside l March 2015
Here’s a solo guitar composition from 2011 by Michael Pisaro, performed with great sensitivity by Cristián Alvear, a Chilean guitarist who’s quickly establishing himself as one of the great interpreters of modern avant music. This piece is fairly typical of Pisaro’s work in that it is, paradoxically, serene and spacious yet dense with ideas. This is a work of seemingly simple beauty and elegance, but hidden in its structure are complexities and gentle twists that prevent the music from being merely a placid background listen.
This piece’s structure is deliberately loose, with a great deal of choice left to the performer. The score consists of 12 “fragments” – a few lines of well-spaced chords and single notes – that can be played in any order, repeated, omitted entirely, and interspersed with silences, held tones, or improvisations, as the performer chooses. The score thus provides a general framework for the study of melodies, silences, and their relations, encouraging the performer to examine these elements in a way that’s personal to him or her.
The result, here, is 46 minutes of lovely music that possesses a constant questing, searching quality, doubtless encouraged by the openness of the score. The piece opens with a few minutes of crawling melodicism: a chain of single notes separated by enough space so that each note decays before the next one appears. Despite the languid pacing, the sense of melody persists. It’s an intriguing sensation, as the line seems to just barely hang together; if the gaps between notes were just a little longer, I suspect that the feel of a coherent line would collapse entirely, leaving each note stranded.
With the conclusion of this section, a humming, buzzing sustained tone fades into being, pulsing relentlessly for the next nine minutes. The tone isn’t abrasive, exactly – the score explicitly discourages playing loud – but it is rather oppressive and eerie in its monotone insistence. By placing this disruption so early, and allowing it to linger for so long, Alvear cancels out the few minutes of spacious melodic playing that had opened the piece, replacing it with an absence of melody in the form of a single “note.” When this anti-melody finally recedes, Alvear begins playing a spacious line once again, and the contrast against the humming tone heightens awareness of every note, every minute variation in his attack, every little quiver or burr at the edges of a tone. At one point, in the pause between two notes, barking dogs can be heard in the distance, barely audible, a trace of the neighborhood outside the studio where this was recorded.
This section is followed by a few more minutes of silence – though not pure digital silence; occasionally, slight rustling and even muffled voices can be heard when listening on headphones – then another segment of patiently paced melodicism. The remainder of the piece alternates in this fashion between delicate guitar figures, long silences, and sustained drones, though none of the latter are as long or as intrusive as the first one. The overall feel of the music is relaxed, and certainly the playing is gentle and tasteful throughout, but the simple structure creates a sublime tension within this small set of elements.
Alvear has done a phenomenal job of arranging the pieces available to him into a sequence that’s full of implied questions and challenges. The recording even bristles with low-key, low-volume drama, which seems consistent with Pisaro’s intent. The piece’s title poses an ambiguous relationship between two elements, and it’s up to the performer to probe that dynamic, to complicate it with the possible additional materials and changes suggested by the composer. The music is always calm, even meditative, but it’s also possible to hear it in oppositional terms: challenging, in various ways, the idea of progression that’s always implicit in a melody.
This is tranquil music that nevertheless holds the idea of disruption close to its heart. The melodic lines that form the piece’s primary musical material are continually being interrupted with materials that are explicitly to come from the performer, not the composer, and which form oppositions against the melodic elements. The composer provides the melodic material, then invites the performer to introduce ways to frustrate that melodicism. The opposite of melodic progression can be heard in both the humming drones that hold a single “note” for minutes at a time, and in the silences, the periods of waiting when nothing seems to happen at all. Of course, both of these states are only opposed to progression in superficial terms: the drone is never entirely static, but is constantly alive with miniscule shifts and pulsations, even wave-like movements between differing tones, while the silence is hardly complete, containing tiny hints of the world beyond the music. And throughout both of these stages, time keeps flowing, progressing towards the next passage of gently melodic guitar. In this way, the piece’s structure both provides challenges to the progression of melodic lines and suggests that different forms of progression can be found in sounds (or non-sounds) that avoid melody.
It’s a cliché at this point to discuss the Wandelweiser composers’ preoccupations with silence and sound. Certainly the various members of the collective, including Pisaro, have repeatedly demonstrated that their music is far more multifaceted than the stereotype that has sometimes adhered to it. But Melody, Silence demonstrates, in its undemonstrative way, that there is still more to be said on this well-worn topic, still new ways of exploring one of modern music’s most basic but essential questions.
Ed Howard l reddy brown objects l March 2015
About four minutes into Melody, Silence, Cristián Alvear plays a chord on his guitar and it resonates accordingly. What isn’t immediately perceptible, however, is that the resulting hum is from both the guitar and a sine tone. The tone then extends for nine minutes before leading into another passage of sparse guitar plucks. What once seemed clear in the record’s first passage is now ambiguous: are there sine tones here? Is this going to be the final note of the section? That there exists any sense of mystery within this skeletal composition comprised of sine tones, guitar, and silence is a testament to its understated beauty. Funny enough, this five minute piece only segues into one with silence. But in the careful examination of each plucked note comes a larger appreciation for them and an understanding of their weight. Sure enough, the final chord in this portion of the recording is dissonant and it feels potent.
I was initially disappointed that Melody, Silence was a single track; that I couldn’t participate in the reordering of its twelve parts seemed less than ideal. Now, that notion seems silly. Pisaro composed these twelve parts such that they “allow for various transformations, cuts, extensions and silences” so not only is Alvear’s realization wholly unique but the recording is specifically edited and sequenced to allow the listener to engage with it in the way Alvear sees fit. Case in point: a sine tone plays for six minutes around 26 minutes into the record. This time, there’s a deeper warmth and serenity to it and it can clearly be attributed to 1) the fact it’s simply played for a shorter period of time than the first 2) is at a relatively lower frequency and 3) is bookended by periods of silence. As with other Wandelweiser compositions, silence is understood as both “material and a disturbance of material”. These passages of silence function as more than repose; there’s a depth to them and they interact with the listener as well as the other instrumentation. Because of this, each guitar pluck and sine tone is sensed to their fullest capacity.
Joshua Kim l Tone glow l February 2015
The irresistible rise of Buffalo-born composer and guitarist Michael Pisaro has been an ongoing phenomenon since the turn of the millennium. Initially, his recordings and scores were released on Edition Wandelweiser, fitting as he is a significant member of the Wandelweiser group. Gradually, like-minded labels such as Another Timbre, Cathnor, Compost & Height and Erstwhile also began issuing Pisaro recordings. More recently, his own Gravity Wave label has been issuing the lion's share of his music, culminating in the release of the highly-praised three-disc box set Continuum Unbound (Gravity Wave, 2014).
Now, Potlatch joins that distinguished list of labels with Melody, Silence, a collection of materials for solo guitarist, written by Pisaro in 2011, here realised by Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear in a studio recording made in Santiago, Chile, on July 1st 2014. A sleeve note informs us that there are up to twelve fragments (or pieces) which can be played in any order and allow for various transformations, cuts, extensions and silences. So each guitarist makes their own version. As a guitarist, Alvear has focussed in particular on minimalism and Wandelweiser works. (On the YouTube clip below, see his version of Jürg Frey's "Relikt.") He developed his own version of Melody, Silence over several months in 2014.
Alvear's version certainly took full advantage of the opportunities to include silences; he repeatedly pauses for prolonged periods, sometimes to allow the listener to fully savour a decaying note uninterrupted. In addition, on one occasion for about nine minutes, the sounds of plucked guitar give way to a sustained low level droning tone—on first listening, long enough to prompt a technical check of one's equipment. After such an interval, the much-anticipated re-entry of the guitar comes as a welcome relief. Therein lies one of the great pleasures of this music, that of delayed gratification wherein the listener is made to anticipate the arrival of notes and so appreciate them all the more for having had to wait. As so often with Pisaro's music, it is a model of control and taste, with nothing liable to surprise, shock or jolt the listener. Time and again, when its forty-six minutes are done, the only sensible option seems to be to repeat the experience. Yes, beautiful stuff.
This release will surely enhance the reputations of Alvear, Pisaro and Potlatch itself. It is early days yet, but be prepared to watch it appear like a rash across music writers' best-of-2015 lists.
John Eyles l All About Jazz l February 2015