It’s oh so quiet: Exploring the role of silence in music

Experimental composer and guitarist Michael Pisaro-Liu’s 2013 work, asleep, wind, voice, poe gets its Irish premiere this month

The Buffalo, New York-born composer and guitarist Michael Pisaro-Liu has written a lot of quiet music. Music where silence is not what you get when the music stops, but where the borderline with silence is a key focus. Think of the opening of the solo clarinet movement, the Abyss of Birds, from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, where the softest, most ethereal of clarinet sounds materialises almost imperceptibly out of the hiss of the player’s breath. Focus on that transition as a moment for musical exploration and you’re in the world that interests him.

It's not the kind of music he was trained to write. "Most of what I learnt as a student was dissonant counterpoint, which here – in the US – descended from Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles. I had a couple of teachers who had worked with this system that Charles Seeger [father of Pete, Peggy and Mike Seeger] taught when he was at Harvard. It's kind of the American atonal music school."

Pisaro-Liu says he was always interested in experimental music – he lists Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix and Velvet Underground as early interests – but describes himself as having been somehow "between generations". As a student he was discouraged from engaging with the work of John Cage.

He gives three answers when I ask about the genealogy of experimental music, offering first the idea that "all avant-garde music is basically experimental music" and tracing that back to Ockeghem in the 15th century or "the mathematical works of JS Bach, The Art of Fugue, The Musical Offering, and Vom Himmel hoch". Then he suggests Henry Cowell in the 1930s, embracing his own work and that of "Ives, Ruggles and Becker". And finally, John Cage in the 1950s "with this famous idea of writing music in which the outcome is unforeseeable". Take your pick, he says.

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His own work, "didn't really settle until I started working with silence in music, which would have been the early '90s". The chronological list of works on his website begins with 1994, the year he turned 33. "Then it really started to click for me, where I might fit into this. I happened to meet the other members of Wandelweiser gradually in that same era...moving from a period of being not quite sure how to make experimental music to figuring it out."

The name Wandelweiser, with its connotations of wandering, wisdom and a fragmentary reference to signposting, “just popped into the head of one of the founders, Burkhard Schlothauer”. Pisaro-Liu now links the movement back to Cage’s notorious silent piece, 4’33”, the composer’s death in 1992, and the fact that there was “a lot left to work with” in that area after Cage died.

“I think we all felt rather independently that there was something in silence that made it both a material to work with, compositionally, and something that didn’t behave quite like material, that disturbed material. Somehow or another, Antoine Beuger and Jürg Frey, Burkhard, myself and Manfred Werder, more or less independently stumbled across this concept. And then, not too long after each of us had done that, we met up with each other. That’s how it was founded.”

I had this idea of writing a piece that could be played very early, like four in the morning... That's were this title asleep came from

The score of his 2013 work, asleep, wind, voice, poe, which gets its Irish premiere at Carlingford Heritage Centre on the afternoon of Sunday, May 8th, runs to 16 pages, only two of which contain musical notation. But there are no time signatures, bar lines or specific note durations.

The 90-minute work is for piano, trio, percussion, voice and playback (including field recordings made both inside and outside the performing space) and the score is not really a score, but rather a set of parts. Taking up most space are the nine pages of fractured words from short texts by Edgar Allan Poe and Raoul Vaneigem, all ranged in columns, three to a page, each page making up one of the work's 12 sections of seven minutes and 30 seconds each. Three pages are devoted to general instructions for the musicians, and the percussion part is all text and timings.

It’s one of a series of pieces with “asleep” in the title, and stems from time spent in Neufelden in rural Austria. “I had this idea of writing a piece that could be played very early, like four in the morning. We did it there. That’s were this title asleep came from. Outside of this concept of being half awake, half asleep, it had to do with this particular blending of environmental sound and sort of imagined music you might experience when you wake up. All the works in the series have some perspective on this. They all combine some element of field recording, some elevation of the background, you might say, with the presentation of a kind of music that doesn’t completely take over from the background. You have these two streams, and neither is really dominant. Every piece in the series works with this concept.”

Actor Olwen Fouéré is only the second performer to deal with “the strange, alphabetically distorted language” that he created in the piece. Music is very important for her, she says. “I’ve already put my request in for my next life. It’s music, to be a musician, singer, or singer/musician. I would just love that.

"I'm quite single-minded in what I pursue. I was working towards being a visual artist and I've rarely touched that at all once I started working in performance. I find it hard to diversify. But music is a really important part of my life. I collaborated for years with Roger Doyle. I've just done something for the Finnegans Wake – Suite of Affections album that he's brought out."

She describes music as “the highest artform and the universal language” and sounds relieved about the fact that there’s “a fair bit of choice” in the performance of Pisaro-Liu’s work.

“I could use my heartbeat as a guide,” she says, “but I could very easily drift. The only other time I had to be very strict about timing was when I did Gerald Barry’s opera The Importance of Being Earnest. I was Dr Chasuble. It was a fantastic version directed by Antony McDonald.”

Meeting the rigorous demands of Barry’s highly-energised work is a baptism of fire for any musician. Pisaro-Liu’s vision for both performers and listeners sounds more chilled. “I really want for them to find their own way into the music,” he says.

Fouéré performs asleep, wind, voice, poe with David Bremner, David Stalling and members of the British ensemble Apartment House in Carlingford Heritage Centre at 3pm on Sunday, May 8th. louthcms.org