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Michael Pisaro and Greg Stuart: Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds - The Sound Barrier's pick for 2013

The Sound Barrier : Blog

I have, on many occasions, written on this blog, and spoken on The Sound Barrier itself about why I find it pretty well impossible to come up with a "Top Ten" list of releases for any year. So it might seem odd that this year I found it relatively easy to come up with a Top One.

Odd, but not entirely so.

First, when it comes to just one, you don't feel quite so badly about those you exclude. At least not as badly as about the ones you exclude from your Top Ten.

But second, this year, one recording stood out for me so remarkably from all the others, that the question was unexpectedly straightforward to answer.

Not that Michael Pisaro's and Greg Stuart's Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds, released only a few weeks ago on Michael Pisaro's own label, Gravity Wave, is in any sense a straightforward recording.

Its 72 minutes of pure sine tones played against bowed crotales, where you can barely fit a cigarette paper between the pitches of each, but where the interplay of their subtly changing frequencies creates a treasure trove of sonic detail, must surely constitute one of the most richly challenging, richly rewarding, pieces of music to be released not only in 2013, but for a very, very, long time indeed.

But don't expect it to be easy. Those piercingly high frequencies, ringing like tinnitus, at times totter on that threshold where pain and peace meet and attempt a truce; that place where the settled and the unsettled look each other in the face, trying, but never succeeding, to stare the other down.

It is this exploration of sound in one of its most tense, vulnerable and rarefied places that is perhaps the thing that makes Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds so exceptional.

And to explain a bit about how it does that, I need to explain a bit about how the piece itself works.

First, the Gravity Wave recording gives us just four of 250 possible sets of sounds that Michael Pisaro's score provides, a work he created at Greg Stuart's request. For each of the 25 notes of the two-octave crotale range, Pisaro provides ten possible sets of four sine tone frequencies. The performers choose which one of these sets they will play for that particular note. The four sine tone frequencies of the chosen set are then played one after the other, for four minutes each, while the crotale itself is bowed throughout. This makes for 16 minutes, after which there is a two-minute silence, before the performers move onto the next note. The performers also choose how many, and which, notes within the 25-note range of the crotales they will play. In this recording, four notes are chosen: C#6; F#6; D7 and G#7.

Each of the sine tone frequencies for any given note on the crotale, is basically within a range of a major second (that is, two semitones), above, or below, the pitch of the crotale note. That means they are all close to one another and, of course, to the note of the crotale itself. The changes from one sine-tone frequency to the next will be small – sometimes almost indiscernible – but, within each of those sets, they follow patterns and particular "rules" that guided Pisaro as he wrote the score, such as how far the frequencies will vary from one to the next, or how they move above and/or below the pitch of the crotale. This gives each of those sets of four sine tone frequencies its own internal logic, its own structure and, in doing that, gives the realisation of that particular crotale note its own sonic personality.

The effects of these subtle but vital shifts in the frequencies of the sine tone against the pitch of the bowed crotale are infinitely fascinating, as you hone in on the unique character of each of the combinations they create, like you might do if you were studying the patterns of snow crystals where you notice the uniqueness, and the wealth of intricacy and detail, in those tiny little things that, from far away, seem so alike.

This is music that not only takes you into the stratosphere of sound, but invites you to experience all the tiny little wonders that abound there, the tiny things that you never notice when you're not this high, with nothing else to distract you.

Like the ways the sounds pulsate against one another, the ways they create strange and unexpected resonances, and echoes, whole sonic spaces within themselves – spaces that seem to shift and change shape as those tiny differences between the frequencies push the sounds around and about. This is sound teeming with microscopic life.

There are many ways to listen to this piece and I have pretty well tried them all – through my computer, through my car stereo, through the sounds stripped back to MP3 on an iPod, coming to me through earphones, and through a pretty reasonable quality sound system, both through stereo speakers and through surround sound.

Any experience of these sounds brings its own rewards – but the more space you can create around them, and the better the quality of the sound medium itself, the richer those rewards will be. So listening to this broadcast on The Sound Barrier, even through the best possible system, will still fall short of the experience of hearing the actual CD, which you are able to buy through the Erstdist arm of Erstwhile Records.

But if you are playing back the audio archive from this edition of the show, and play it through a good quality system, you will still get an incredible sonic experience if you allow yourself to sink into that huge sonic space the music opens up before you. Try to listen to this and nothing else. It's definitely not music for ironing the clothes to, or cooking the evening meal. Close the door, turn your phone off and listen. Move about the room and hear how the resonances change as you do so. Create and recreate the music, by letting it beam to you from different directions and different angles, changing your relationship to the left and right channels, or your distance from a wall. This is the richness of sound stripped bare, creating a world where music is not longer made through harmony and melody and rhythm, but through the abundance of other things that ring and resonate and pulsate and pierce, the things we never knew were there.

This work is dedicated to Alvin Lucier, who himself has done some incredible work with sine tones and their interaction with other sounds. But even he didn't take that interaction to these depths, to this penetrating insight and focus.

In Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds, Michael Pisaro and Greg Stuart don't only break the sound barrier – they obliterate it altogether. And they do it in the most unexpected, most daring of ways: through the infinitely complex compound of a simple sine tone and a bowed metal plate.

And so it was, for me, an enormous honour to be able to play this exceptional music as the last piece I broadcast in 2013 on The Sound Barrier, and as my personal favourite for the year. It is extraordinary.

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