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Michael Pisaro – Tombstones – CD
HEMK0023

  • Tracks

    • Blues Fall
    • Fool
    • New Orleans
    • I Didn t Say Anything
    • Silent Cloud
    • Tombstone
    • A Stranger
    • Unmoon
    • Stop
    • A Better Way
    • Why

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Voice: soft, pure (no vibrato), more like folk or pop singing than lieder singing. 
-From the book of scores.

"I began writing these pieces with a question in mind: What happens to old political songs?" - Michael Pisaro, 2011

Tombstones reconstitutes the ghost of the voice. Slipping down the inexorable mountain-slope of tones in "New Orleans", or bearing mute witness to the dark octaves that loom over Julia Holter's delicate vocal on "Silent Cloud", you get the feeling that Tombstones, like Pierre Klossowski's viscious spinning Baphomet, wants to draw all histories out into the open, and to make them speak.

MP: "The tombstones take tiny fragments of old and not-so-old songs and put them into an experimental music situation, introducing them to a kind of chaos, where the arrangement of the written out material is up for grabs."

This presents an exhilarating challenge in a culture already saturated by hallucination, paradox, and shadowplay. Each "tombstone", as these tracks are called, is literally a "sampled" bit of structure, tuning, lyricism, beat or phrasing; a mystery moment sourced from perhaps, The Beatles, DJ Screw, Bob Dylan or UGK, to name a few.

MP: "I selected performances with this question in mind: Did the song happen?"

Pisaro boils the archetype of sampling down to a fragment of intention, the groundwork of a sound, and ultimately, a techne at once beyond the reach, and at the origin of the act of editing. In other words, it's the knowledge-seeker's paradox in music: While it is not possible to know all there is in creation, it is quite possible to distill the elegant, simple processes at its heart. With this distillation, Pisaro attempts to freeze one curious tension after another, in which the voice (or the archetype of the voice) is shaken out of a field of interferences, and made to speak as if in song.

MP: "At least one singer and at least three instruments ... Each chord (sustained) for itself with any amount of time between them ... an occasional, vaguely defined noise which occurs two or three times during the chords."

In the band, electronics are conspicuously absent (but not forbidden). Two electric guitars (played by Grier and Pisaro) appear. Otherwise, Tombstones relies on a rather economical spread of acoustic instruments and percussion, some conventional, some not-so-conventional. The pulsating drones of harmonium (Tashi Wada, Julia Holter) and e-bow guitar anchor the field with unwavering strings (Cassia Streb, Laura Steenberge) and flute (Kelly Coats) performed without a hint of vibrato. Percussionist Rob Esler offers a surprising range of naturalistic (sometimes eerily synthsiser-like) performances that aim for halo more than punctuation.

The effect will be familiar to those who frequently listen to like-minded music whose focus is on unmediated experience of the subtlest timbres. However, in Tombstones' zoomed-in context, a double-image is generated: A face in lucidity and a face in suspense. Suspended, as it were, between exhilaration and anticipation, vocalists Janet Kim, Julia Holter, Laura Steenberge and Lisa Tolentino each approach their performances in unique ways.

Lisa Tolentino's performances in "Blues Fall" and "A Better Way" (which bookend the album) are perfectly balanced between storytelling and reverence for the delicate conditions in which her voice must carry only the memory of a narrative. In the former track, "Blues Fall", her confidence holds sway in the midst of a maelstrom of sound. Yet it's this very confidence that lends the ensemble its fearsome character. And as Janet Kim's plainspoken intonation descends well below its range in the similar droning mass of "New Orleans", you can't help but think of a very different situation in the face of the storm: frailty, surprise and collapse.

This brings us to the very nature of Pisaro's composition technique, which preserves the experimental situation (one of probabilities, conditions and descriptions) within a realm of trust and wonder. In "Fool", we have one impossibly protracted line from the hook to UGK's rap ballad "One Day". But a closer look at the score reveals not an act of dissection, nor a state of chance, but a state of trust. The ensemble must feel out for how long to make a sound. They must choose, upon instinct, when to start and when to stop. Pisaro offers only just-so-many-notes, or just-so-few dynamic markings. It's like a blind descent. A release of mourning. A release from mourning. Again happy.

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