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.