Lawrence Kumpf speaks with Michael Pisaro, Julia Holter & Jason Brogan

Michael Pisaro's foray into experimental-pop, Tombstones, reconstitutes traces and fragments of the voice— finding it 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 vocals on "Silent Cloud". ISSUE Project Room curator Lawrence Kumpf speaks with Pisaro, Julia Holter and Jason Brogan about Tombstones in anticipation of their performance on October 3rd.

Lawrence Kumpf: How did the Tombstones project come about?

Michael Pisaro: As you know, I often work with a group of composers, called Wandelweiser, and for some reason I started getting asked by them to write pieces for voice—songs or something like it—for concerts they were producing in Europe. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time and was initially tempted to say no, because I didn’t like the idea of taking some traditionally poetic text and setting it to music in the way that concert composers usually do. But then the idea raised another question—a really interesting question, at least for me anyway: Can you write experimental or indeterminate music that is still a song? So that’s really where the project of writing the pieces began.  With this kind of music, what would make it hard to sing in a normal circumstance is that you might not be able to predict where melodies and harmonies and rhythms and so forth come in. This is a situation that is quite common in Christian Wolff’s music; where sometimes you have the materials, but not the order in which they occur.

LK: I know the pop songs that you’re using for the compositions are not public knowledge but can you speak  to how you work with them? Can you elaborate a little on how the pieces are put together, how much interpretation is left to the instrumentalist and how chance functions in relation to the score?

MP: Virtually all of the melodies and the texts are what I would call found sounds—maybe a less polite term would be “stolen songs”. They consist in basically every case of a tiny fragment of some kind of popular, country or blues song.   Nothing comes from classical music, but these songs could be by anyone really—Robert Johnson, UGK/DJ Screw, David Bowie, the Beatles.  That was one answer to the question I had posed: I wouldn’t write a melody and text, but simply lift a tiny bit from another song and then place that in an experimental music context. So, what happens in the score is that you have this line of music that the singer is given, always somehow asked to be sung in a way that’s not really at all like what happens in the original song. In fact, most people don’t recognize them. It’s cut up into pieces or the order is changed or slowed down; sometimes the actual melody is removed—anything can happen. But then it’s placed in an instrumental context. It’s different every time, but in general the musicians are given material that they can play at just about any time over the course of the piece. It’s not really chance procedure, but much more like indeterminacy in the sense that what’s being asked of the musicians is to make some of the decisions. That is, certain information is given to them about what they can play, but other things are left open for them to decide in the performance.

LK:  Did you write these pieces with particular performers in mind?

MP: I’d rather say that I wrote with a certain kind of performer in mind: those engaged in performing music from the experimental tradition. For me the more challenging question was whether there would be people who would want to sing this music. There I have been lucky. The first person to sing these was Lisa Tolentino (who is also on the Tombstones record). She is a percussionist and had been a member of ‘red fish blue fish’ in San Diego when they performed my piece ricefall. When I was looking for a singer to do the pieces in 2006, just as I was getting started, my frequent collaborator Greg Stuart told me that Lisa was also a great singer. She came up to LA to perform the first couple pieces and it was this experience that convinced me to keep going.  Afterwards Antoine Beuger (one of the founders of Wandelweiser) sang them, and then the number of singers began to grow. I was thrilled when Julia Holter decided to join us for some performances in June of 2010 and then for the recording sessions a few months later. ‘Silent Cloud’, the very last Tombstone written, was destined for Julia.

LK: Julia, can you speak a little about collaborating with Michael, your history together and performing his work?

JH: I was studying with Michael Pisaro for the two years when I was at CalArts, and the first time I met him was when I was performing one of his pieces. James Orsher, a friend of mine at CalArts,  immediately had me involved in performances of various peoples’ music—students and teachers at CalArts, including Michael. We would just show up and look over a score and discuss it for an hour and then perform it. That is the way the Dog Star concerts—and the Experimental Music Workshop that Michael has at CalArts— are, this very open thing inviting all people to get together to think about a piece and not necessarily plan a virtuosic performance of it, although sometimes, I guess that happens. That’s kind of been the attitude, and I really like that attitude—jumping into things, at least that’s how I’ve done it.  The first time I performed Michael’s music I hadn’t seen music written like this before—music that gave such thought to every note. I’d only seen music that is busy and gave all these assumptions to how you perform in a formal classical setting, so his work was really exciting to me. It works out that I was involved in Michael’s workshop the two years I spent at CalArts, and we were performing all kinds of stuff.  I’ve been performing  Michael’s music ever since.

LK: What was the first piece you played with Michael?

JH: It was some piece which I played on harmonium.

MP: I can’t even remember what it first was (possibly the harmony series?). We have probably been involved in 50, 80 or even 100 performances together?

JH: Yeah, probably.

MP: It’s actually hard to keep track because it’s a close community in Los Angeles, and essentially if you live here, you work with this group of people and are playing with them all the time in one context or another. So whether we did Cage’s Song Books together, whether we did music of Julia’s or other students of mine, after a while it just seems like it’s one endless stream of stuff that we’ve done.

LK: I think it’s sort of a similar situation in New York.  You’ve spoken about position or space being perhaps more significant than time in music, and through the incorporation of extended silence, prolonged tones, your use of field recordings, and now samples of pop music - pop music as raw material - your work opens up the audience to a particular resonance that seems psycho-geographic in nature. Pop music plays such a significant role in the collective imagination; it’s very loaded with meaning for people.  

You’ve described Tombstones as attempting to place pop music in an experimental context. Do you understand this process as having a neutralizing function in relation to the original material,  similar to the way somebody like Guy Debord or Godard understood their appropriation of popular imagery?  That is, are you interested in exposing larger structures or systems at play by decontextualization or denaturalizing the source’s songs?

MP: In my work, it comes from a very different place and I should say I’m using popular music in the broadest context, because some things that Robert Johnson recorded in the ‘30s were not even popular at that time.  If you take it in this broader context, what I love about the recordings is that they capture singular, seemingly impossible moments. It is these moments, out of their context, that fascinated me. I’m not really interested in the idea of cultural reference and certainly not neutralizing what happens in the music, in fact I’d say it’s just the opposite. What you get in, say, a particular song by Bobby “Blue” Bland, Hank Williams, The Mekons, Bobby Womack, or Bob Dylan is an unaccountable intensity that doesn’t seem to arise from the structure or the composition. It’s just something that happens in the performance, and this is really what fascinated me about this music.  In the songs that I wrote—of course you can’t predict what will be intense and what won’t be—I was really interested in the isolation of a tiny moment and then seeing if the song could stretch something that might have occurred, in most cases, in three or four seconds, into something that is four or five or ten minutes. So it’s like in each case I’m taking a magnifying glass on this tiny thing and seeing if I can expand it so that the entire song is nothing other than that one moment from that other thing.

LK: Can you elaborate a little bit more on what you mean by this moment of intensity and how you are imagining that within the original song?

MP: It’s probably a mystery how and why it occurs. I guess it is the result of an intersection of things. Whatever the actual song is, in terms of its words and melody, the singer, the players and the situation must go beyond it. I’ll make a reference that hopefully makes sense: in soul music (as I learned from the poet Douglas Kearney), there is a concept of a groove and then there’s this thing called the pocket. A groove means that you are playing in time, everything fits in as planned. But then something happens, and though nothing has really changed on the surface, everybody knows that there’s suddenly a pocket, which they describe as a kind of depth. You can’t find the bottom of the rhythm at that point, and it’s probably as much biological and chemical as it is rational and technical. So I can say that in a song like New Orleans which takes a line from “Blind Willie McTell” —and the line is “All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem”—a very strange line because they’re not contiguous geographically. But there’s something in the way that he sings it that seems to fall outside of the rest of the context of the song: it feels as if an entire world is shutting down. You forget that it had anything to do with Blind Willie McTell, whoever he might be. I would start with this line—that would be my access to the new song—and then try to create a set of conditions where something might happen.

LK: So the moment of intensity would be a hyper-personal, hyper-individual reaction to a song?

MP: Yeah, I don’t know if everybody listens this way, but I think that we can probably all listen to our favorite music and pinpoint moments where things come together for us. What I like about this is that it isn’t really analyzable, you know?

LK: Yeah, and do you see that as being a theme throughout the work that you’re doing—this reliance on the autonomy of the audience, position, presence and individual interpretation—as being really essential for your work?

MP: Yeah, I think that I do ask an audience to listen. I mean we all do that, but I try to create situations where focused listening can occur, usually that requires some kind of duration or some other kind of change from a “normal” situation. It’s hardly ever the case that I feel like the music that I’m doing is easy to comprehend in a casual way.  But honestly it’s hard to say what the conditions are for this kind of listening. Another example might be field recording—you know, we’re hearing field recordings all the time; we are right now, actually. But something happens when you turn the switch in your brain and actually decide to listen. I’m really not sure how different my music is in that way. Maybe I just draw more attention to it because of how long sometimes these things go on or how many layers there are.

LK: I’m interested in this quote that you mention in the liner notes for the album which said you started these pieces with this question in mind: what happens to old political songs? I’m wondering if you can elaborate on that a little. Do you come up with any answers to this question.  

MP: I’ll try to get into this in a way that makes sense. It’s actually fairly complex. I guess I feel that whatever is political in music is not something that comes by way of a direct intention. You might think about Bob Dylan again and how he switched from becoming essentially a protest singer who wrote songs about specific events, criticizing specific events, and then at some point totally abandoned this way of making music.  After that he would say in various interviews that he really started writing political music when he wrote all of these hard-to-comprehend lyrics that started with Bringing It All Back Home.  I was intrigued by this because in a sense, it’s the opposite of how most people think about how politics and music function together. So, I had been feeling something along those lines—that most of the music that I was interested in was a kind of political event in and of itself. I mean, we’re not talking about politics in terms of presidential elections or anything like that; we’re talking about a kind of micro-politics where the relationship between the singer and her audience or amongst the musicians themselves changes somehow. Perhaps the hierarchy disappears or is at least altered. I had the feeling that some music can actually accomplish this. But I also had the feeling that there are periods in time where this kind of event seems more possible and periods where it seems less possible. So the title Tombstones refers, in my mind, to an event which you can call political that once occurred, but which is now buried in the past--whether it is distant or not.  My intuition was that we would never rediscover this event by simply repeating it, but rather by giving it a chance to resurface in some totally different context. The songs are meant to be like epitaphs that contain hidden, potentially explosive, messages.

LK: This year, as you know, is the John Cage centennial and I’m wondering if you can comment on your relationship to his work.  Wandelweiser is often described in terms of a continuation of a Cageian politics/aesethetics in music.  I wonder if you can comment a little bit about how you understand that lineage and how you see your work differing from it.

MP: It is complex because first of all, I would say that Cage for most of us in Wandelweiser is absolutely crucial, but he is far from the only person who’s been an influence on this way of thinking. Christian Wolff, who I already mentioned, is (I hope) as present in my practice as John Cage is. Then also for us in Wandelweiser there are various influential visual artists, writers, filmmakers, and so on (i.e., Marcia Hafif, Mauser, George Brecht, Agnes Martin, Mallarmé, Hölderlin, John Ashbery, Oswald Tschirtner, Robert Bresson, etc.). I think that the main reason why Cage and Wandelweiser seems like a natural association is that the music, especially the music we were doing 20 years ago or so, dealt in a very confrontational way with silence. There isn’t really anyone in my lifetime who is more associated with the use of that as a material or non-material in music as Cage, especially 4’33” and many things that follow from that, including 0’00” and the number pieces. So I think that’s why the association exists and in part, we made it ourselves because we love performing Cage’s music. But times were obviously very different; I mean I had the feeling 20 years ago that 4’33” was just the tip of the iceberg with what you could do with silence as a material—and it was not just me, we all sort of had this feeling. So if you look at Wandelweiser’s work from that time, you’ll see silence appearing in so many different contexts—in the durations, how it impacts the structure of the piece, what the performers do during this time. I feel that there was a change of emphasis from Cage. You could say that after he wrote 4’33”, silence was implicit in his music, but it wasn’t necessarily something that he investigated in piece after piece. Well, that’s pretty much something we started to do in the early and mid ‘90s. Now, I think things are different again; as I’ve written about, I think that what silence as a musical idea or material is, is now a very different thing–for me and probably everybody else who’s been working with it. The times are again different and we’ve all had much more experience with it. Silence to me doesn’t mean non-action any longer.  It has come to mean “that which can be uncovered in a situation”, and this may or may not have something to do with whether you’re hearing a sound.

Jason Brogan: I would like to return to the methodology that used with regard to these pieces and open this up a bit to Julia as well. The three of us share this interest in abstraction via a number of methods—either appropriation, cloning, sampling, transcription, translation, and so on. For instance, Julia, we’ve discussed your use of phonetic translation, and I’m intrigued by how you isolate your material down to an abstract variable like the phoneme. And then Michael, with the Tombstones you sampled these moments from popular music and placed them within experimental music situations, so I’m kind of curious about why each of you use these kinds of methods and what attracts you guys to sampling, transcription or translation, and how they function in a piece of chamber music or a song.

JH: I think that everything is a translation of something else. It’s kind of like the way Michael sees a moment in something that he wants to bring to light, I will hear something and want to focus on that aspect of it. I guess in the case of the phonetic translations, which can vary from hilarious and silly to something I take very seriously, the process is really illuminating—the process of seemingly taking the meaning out of something, but the meaning somehow remains even when you take out the language because there’s this mysterious thing that’s still there. I don’t know what they’re singing about because it’s another language, but I take the sounds of what they’re saying and make it into English. For some reason for me, I’ve found out that every time somehow what I’ve come up with does relate to what was said before. It’s weird. If I find out that it did really mean what I was thinking—I’ve had a few times where that has happened—it gets conveyed through the music, the sound of it.

MP: It’s interesting, I mean if I think about Julia’s music, sometimes I feel like the process she undergoes, whether it’s phonetic transcription or her own sampling of say, classical music or something, it always makes me feel like instead of being one step removed it actually allows her to get closer to the source of the thing that she’s taking from. In other words, if she were to be faithful and try to sing in the language of the person from which she borrows from then it would be less direct than this process of re-appropriating it.  Maybe since you raised the issue of translation, I was reminded of a project that Julia and I have been working on recently that deals with the work of Oswald Egger, the Austrian poet: a piece called “The Middle of Life (Die ganze Zeit)”. Oswald writes and speaks in incredibly complex German, but he’ll often say that audiences that don’t understand German understand him better than the ones that do.  It’s a very strange thing to hear from a poet. After an hour-long reading he gave at the German department of an American university, he said to me, “There was somebody in the audience who I think didn’t speak a word of German, and she was nodding and smiling the whole time, whereas the Germans were absolutely perplexed.”

JB: Yeah, the sound of the language can really be something that hits meaning more than the language’s actual meaning.

MP: And I do think that often how we hear pop music is that we hear words and we think we understand what somebody is saying, but that’s not what we’re relating to first.

LK: That’s what I feel. It functions through pure sensation, as the best music does, and not necessarily transmitting a message.

MP: Yeah, the ideas are really in the sound; that’s quite an old thing to say, but I really feel  that it is every bit is as true for great popular music as it is for the music we do.

LK: I like this image that you invoke: the field of ears. One of your scores is like a grid of ears, a great metaphor for not only spatialization, but presence, interpretation, and also inviting this idea of a non-human listening—the event as something that is occurring whether or not you’re aware of it; simultaneously with your awareness there are a plethora of other perceptions surrounding you that you don’t necessarily have access to but are still there.

MP: Yes, sometimes you get access to them when those ears that are in the fields speak back to you.

JH: That happens to me a lot.

JB: I remember going to the Dog Star festival in Los Angeles in 2008 and that’s when I met you, Julia; I met Michael prior to that. I was really intrigued by this collection I encountered, this kind of community there. In general, how might you guys describe your experiences with the experimental-pop music community in Los Angeles, and also, in what ways have they overlapped or do they overlap and differ from the experimental music community around CalArts?

MP: I’d love to hear Julia’s take on this.

JH: I don’t know, because I’ve performed in different groups, different settings throughout Los Angeles kind of fluidly. There was a time when my friend Jason Grier was around—I was helping him run the Human Ear label, which was a group of people doing some concerts and releasing some things. While I was at CalArts we did a couple concerts with Michael Pisaro’s music. Jason put together these shows that took place on this roof; there was this one eight-hour long piece. What was the piece Michael?

MP: “Ascending Series (3).”

JB: Yeah, so we did this piece on this roof, and it was cool because a lot of friends of mine who’ve never looked at  a score before—they’ve always performed just listening to each other—got involved in this performance. It was this eight-hour piece where there were these different things that would happen within brackets of time, and then certain parts would overlap. It was really fun because people felt free to choose when to be involved and when not to and it was a cool intersection between trained musicians and musicians who were usually doing pop music, pretty experimental pop—recording a lot of their own music at home, like I was at the time. The way that Michael wrote this piece made it open for people who didn’t actually read music. So for me, that’s a good example of the situation.

I’ve performed for years now with a lot of composers like Mark So, Cat Lamb, and Laura Steenberge. Laura and Cat have moved out of LA at least temporarily; hopefully they’ll come back. They’ve organized this singing group of people that get together and sing sometimes particular pieces, sometimes we just get together and sing motets; there’s no particular agenda for the group unless there has been a performance we’ve planned. Some of the people involved in that group also don’t necessarily read music—it’s open to different singers. Some of them are pop musicians or folk musicians. I’ve lived in L.A. most of my life so I can really just speak for L.A., but it seems like these things can be really fluid. People are really open-minded; they’re not freaking out about what they should label themselves as. They’re not worried about trying something new because they’re comfortable with what they’re doing. I see a lack of fear of new things in my friends, whether they are composers that have worked primarily with written scores that are performed or people that have played music and recorded and performed with keyboard just based on the ear, not having any formal music training.

MP: Well, you have some people who can move diagonally through these scenes. I was thinking, of course, of Julia, who’s got regular composition chops the way people who are trained in music school do. So she, in a way, does both experimental and pop music and is known in both worlds. I was also thinking of John Maus, who was also a student of mine at CalArts, and comes from very much that background—somebody who was studying to write classical music.  John, almost immediately before he started playing with Ariel Pink, was playing pieces by Cage and Feldman with me. I don’t know why that nomadic character exists. Maybe it exists everywhere but it seems especially pronounced in L.A., where you find out that musicians who you would not normally associate with one kind of music know all about it or are completely interested in it. Julia, John Maus, Ariel Pink, Nite Jewel and Jason Grier (all associated at some point with Human Ear Music) are examples of that, but again, I’m sure it’s not limited to that; there seems like there’s quite a lot here. To me it’s very different than somebody who’s really, in a sense, just a classical musician trying to do popular music. We’re talking about people who really do this thing.

JB: It doesn’t seem like this kind of kinship or mutual understanding exists somewhere like Darmstadt.

MP: Right. I mean, I don't know how you feel about it, Julia, but it was probably a surprise to you the first time somebody called you a pop musician. Maybe you didn’t think of yourself that way.

JH: The point at which I started recording when I was in college, it started from nothing but started gradually—I’m thinking of a hairpin crescendo right now—it was very gradual. It wasn’t like suddenly one day I was like “I don’t want to be a composer any more. I want to be a famous pop star. I want to write tracks like this instead because I’ll make more money.” Obviously, it wasn’t like that, but it wasn’t this really obvious choice. It was just that one day I was working on a piece and it was Easter Sunday and I really just wanted to work on something else and I decided to try Audacity, which is this audio editing software that you can download for free. So I downloaded it and started to play some harmonies on my keyboard. I had some friends at the time who were recording a lot and I was curious about recording.  I did stuff like messing with the voice; I really enjoyed the voice and I never worked with singing, except I sang in an early music ensemble for a little bit. So, I never really took my voice very seriously, but I really was curious about that without actually any references I can think of except for my friends at the time. My friend who goes by Martes Martes was recording stuff. I was very inspired by him and my friend Sean who goes by Jib Kidder. These people were people I was around at Michigan and they were recording music. I wouldn’t even say it was pop music, though; Jeffrey was also a composer who was moving away from the kind of stuff they were making us do at Michigan or at least indirectly making us. He was moving into territory that was something you could describe as simply beautiful, and that was something the teachers didn’t take so seriously.  I started experimenting with recording and somehow that led to the voice and my use of the voice, and wherever the voice led me, whether it was a melodic melody or some weird sonic soundscape with speaking and creating an atmosphere, it was just about where the voice really led me.