Michael Pisaro’s Gravity Wave label has been dormant since the release of 2014’s 3-disc Continuum Unbound set, although the composer’s prolific output has hardly slowed in the intervening years. Nevertheless, this year finds him reviving his own imprint starting with a pair of fantastic, contrasting new albums. Étant donnés is the odder of the two, a seeming outlier in the composer’s catalogue, but only on the surface. Viewed from another angle, the fascinating thing about it is how much it reveals about Pisaro’s core aesthetic. By applying his familiar techniques to unexpected materials, this disc provides an especially clear window into the structures and processes that form the heart of Pisaro’s body of work.
Both of these recent discs (the other is called Shades of Eternal Night) have been in gestation for several years during Gravity Wave’s hiatus, and both are directly inspired by works of visual art. Étant donnés borrows its name from Marcel Duchamp’s final work, an unsettling diorama completed in secret over the course of two decades while he was publicly retired from art. The connection suggests a music assembled from assorted bric-a-brac, meticulously crafting something elaborate and beautiful/strange from the most ordinary raw materials. The song titles suggest another connection, to Duchamp’s descendants in Plunderphonics music: goofy half-puns like “Give Me Your Sines,” “Sympathy for 11,” or “Escape from New Chords” could be slotted into a KLF tracklist without fuss. A few pieces here make mischievous nods in that direction, but Pisaro mostly takes Duchamp’s post-modern encouragement to make art out of other art, or other sources, in very different directions.
As I’ve been hinting, samples are the primary building block here. Pisaro has of course often sampled in his work – from raw material prepared by his collaborators or from field recordings – but here he draws his samples mostly from commercially available music, and does little to hide it. Two of the album’s defining tracks – “Give Me Your Sines” and “Bass Never Smiles” – sample liberally from Curtis Mayfield’s SuperFly soundtrack. On “Escape from New Chords,” probably the most straightforward track here, Pisaro slows down John Carpenter’s score to Escape from New York into a funereal dirge, its buoyant synthesized fanfares eventually sputtering out into low bassy moans and electronic warbles. Album closer “Shosty Riot” interpolates Shostakovich with snippets of punk rock. This is new territory for Pisaro, and it’s exciting both for its novelty and for the playfulness with which he leaps into this material, but he also makes the new approach fully his own.
The album opens with Pisaro sampling and looping a tiny fragment of the bass-and-drums intro to Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love,” suspending a ringing sine tone over the skeletal groove. It’s an exercise in tension and restraint, the tone gradually becoming more insistent until finally the groove’s minimalism relents, allowing in little firework bursts of piano chords and Mayfield’s chiming guitar as the drums accelerate to a rolling crescendo. It’s lovely, building this exquisite miniature groove out of just a few elements carefully sliced out of the original song. Meanwhile, the electronic tone seems to hover above the rest of the music. It never blends in, and the underlying groove sounds muted, washed-out in comparison to this crystalline clarity. Pisaro simply presents these two separate strands side by side, allowing them to coexist without really intertwining – it recalls, oddly enough, the relationship between sine waves and field recordings on his Transparent City albums.
“Bass Never Smiles” is both more radical and the most delightful piece on the album. Another brief track, this one deconstructs Mayfield’s “Little Child Runnin’ Wild.” For much of its length, the sampled music forms a barely heard backbone, its pulse translated into whistling sine wave rhythms, little blips of the underlying music cracking through as momentary glitches. There’s a brief catharsis in the form of a bracingly loud electric guitar loop, and then the track’s second half alternates snatches of Mayfield’s singing with high-register electric squiggles and a muted bassline that faintly maintains the throughline to the original track. It’s playful and affecting, and particularly on “Bass Never Smiles” Pisaro maintains a delicate balance between nostalgic homage and creating something new from his source material.
The really striking thing, though, is the kinship between Pisaro’s approach here and his other music. Many of his previous compositions have taken simple, granular sounds as raw materials, building blocks to be arranged into larger constructions through a combination of the composer’s parameters and the performer’s choices. On this album’s sister work, Shades of Eternal Night, piano chords played by Reinier van Houdt are sampled, electronically processed, and arranged into dense, reverberating clouds. As different as the two albums are in mood and style, hearing them together reinforces this continuity in Pisaro’s work. So many of his pieces revolve around a sublime tension: modular, piecemeal construction leading to music that flows and crests in waves of sounds, or in wave-like alternations of drone and silence. On Étant donnés, the modules are often blocks of sound borrowed from other artists, but the way Pisaro works with them, the primacy he gives to spatial relationships between sounds – even if, as here, they’re only artificial relationships conjured in a virtual electronic space – makes this disc fit comfortably with his other work.
The shorter sample-driven tracks here are interspersed between two longer pieces on which the samples, though presumably still forming the foundation of the music, are less overt. “Rounds Most Pinched, Most Arched” is precisely 10 minutes of humming ambience, with barely audible teases of melody deeply submerged within the hushed electronic fog. At intervals (probably timed out in the score given Pisaro’s past working methods) this hissing backdrop is interrupted by a chiming drone that might be a slowed-down guitar, mournful and beautiful, its contours hinting at a familiar melody but (at least for me) never quite resolving to reveal its source.
“Sympathy for 11” is likely another time-based Pisaro score, clocking in at exactly 11 minutes. It is similarly droning and minimalist, built on a foundation of subterranean hiss and feedback hum, with bright, spacious electric guitar lines that recall Pisaro’s own playing. This is more active than “Rounds,” with sampled percussion providing slow, clumsy beats at times, but each guitar chord is still left room to deteriorate and fade. The piece’s second half builds melody from an ambient haze, utterly obscuring possible source material.
The album closes with its oddest track, “Shosty Riot,” built around samples of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich: martial, pounding drums looped and processed into a trashcan industrial rhythm; strings stretched into melancholy drones; orchestral fanfares that give way to garbled, sped-up chipmunk punk rock. It’s chaotic, some of the most abrasive and deliberately grating music Pisaro has made, and yet even here there’s a sense that everything is in its right place.
In some respects, this album’s namesake seems a strange choice for Pisaro. Duchamp’s eerie final work, with its voyeurism and its ambiguously sinister undertones, doesn’t really seem to resonate with the tone of Pisaro’s music, even on this for him unusual project. I wonder if what Pisaro responds to is not so much the content of the piece as its means of construction: a landscape assembled from bits of detritus and varied textures, a backdrop stitched together from photographs and painting, everything carefully laid out just so over the course of years, within a 3D space where there’s a complex interplay between the different layers of the piece. It’s in this sense that Duchamp’s work seems like an appropriate analogue for the multilayered sound spaces Pisaro constructs from these borrowed sounds.