The chaos of construction on Western Ave has finally passed Constellation, but the subdued dread of the urban experience has only migrated inside. A modestly-sized but dedicated audience sat in deep contemplation last Sunday as Michael Pisaro’s Concentric Rings in Magnetic Levitation was not so much played as suspended in midair by the trio of Christopher Narloch, Chris Sies, and Isaac Stevenson. Comparisons to the sound world of Feldman are no doubt familiar to Pisaro, but ultimately fall flat, because the latter can only recreate the mystic experience of Rothko Chapel by transposing it to the secular sphere of technology; like the feed from a security camera supervising the entrance to a bank downtown, Concentric Rings is patient and dispassionate. The composer has occasionally evoked naturalistic imagery in his work before (fields have ears, Six Stones, A mist is a collection of points), but portrays only the readymade city here. The piece is all the better for it. This view of smooth concrete and electrified metal reflects society in its alien coldness far more accurately than that other inheritor of Feldman-like textures: the pleasant ripples of commercialized ambient.
This is not to say that Pisaro can altogether escape the grasp of naturalism. The structural “rings” of the piece take their inspiration from those of Saturn, and in this sense, Pisaro does relapse into uncritical awe of planetary forces. But even if he shares his object, nature, with practitioners of New Age ambient, he takes for granted the inclusion of humankind in the category: urbanity is the constitutive part of his landscape.
The point is not self-evident. It is in fact far more common to oppose the artificial to the natural, than to grasp them dialectically. Isaac’s introductory drone set, for example, appeared more verdant with its bird and wind samples, its lush guitar chords; the stoner metal climax had a grand, volcanic sweep before it settled down to a forested hush. But these environmental tableaux deal in the hyperreality of nature documentaries, and Isaac had the sense to recognize this: Ceci n’est pas une paysage.
The manipulation of sound through distortion and delay already bears the mark of industrial processes, as does the recording and playback of audio itself, “natural” or otherwise. Isaac’s set, fluid as it was, revealed its rationalism by fulfilling its function: it worked perfectly as an opener. Hence, the real was not privileged over the abstract, as much as the abstract was recognized as granting access to the real. This thought alone reveals the radical aesthetics at the heart of Pisaro’s Concentric Rings: Artistic production can never hope to reconcile our alienation to the world, since it is founded upon it.
New music as a performance practice is thus opposed to ambient as such; the reason for critical distance is so we don’t miss the forest for the trees. Brian Eno, widely recognized as the founder of ambient music, once claimed that his music is “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Were people to take his dictum seriously, by striking up a conversation in the middle of a concert, heads would surely turn. But this is not a bad thing: the function of critique implied by the stage only heightens the aesthetic effect of the artwork, only helps in interpreting the world.
Eno’s Music for Airports fell prey to its own cheekiness by wanting to make airports pleasant: it was a commercial object, designed for consumption, and the culture industry incorporated its insights all too eagerly. Nevertheless, Eno can hardly be faulted as an artist for expressing a truth about the world. The same could not be said of those, inspired by his ambient work, who would rather pretend that the market doesn’t exist. They are already incorporated. The aural component of the consumer experience has become a fact, from the intimate ambience of vapid Rom-Com conversations to the manicured playlists of corporate storefronts. This is surely the definition of ignorable music. But if Eno’s version of ambient has become the mythic prototype for its continuation today, Pisaro points to another category entirely, by taking for granted the disjointed experience of music in industrial society.
Concentric Rings is the photographic negative of the ideal shopping trip. Contained in the piece is the lonely excitement of after-hours wandering through a mall or airport. Independently operating sounds combine in novel ways, just as two pop songs clash in the atrium of a strip mall. The truth is that both Macy’s and Pisaro are selling something. The difference is that Macy’s must pretend that the sensory experience of shopping is the point, while aesthetic production is free to question the commercial basis of the experience itself. As it stands, both will decline to mention the exchange of money until it is necessary to do so, a sleight of hand forced upon the contemporary artist as petty bourgeois entrepreneur.
The fault lies with us in treating the former with contempt and the latter with apologetics. It is not the case that commodities sold at Macy’s are “empty” of something which composed music in turn provides, but precisely that Pisaro’s products, in their emptiness, reveal the basis of the commodity form itself. Pisaro, Narloch, Sies, and Stevenson; the store clerk and the garment factory worker; and indeed the buildings in which they all perform their business, stand mutely by while money does the talking.
These two themes, the opposition to naturalism and the alienation of social production, are most apparent in Pisaro’s treatment of the voice. Over halfway into the piece, a robotic speaker starts counting upwards in an irregular fashion, occasionally repeating itself. Its entrance is not treated with any particular fanfare; although the voice is unsettling because it lacks human characteristics, it is fundamentally textural like the rest of the non-vocal elements. It only speaks numbers in the international language, and it is as cold as the stock market. There is no reason, then, why this should unsettle us any more than the other machine noises, and yet the corruption of meaning --that which constitutes our separation from nature-- fills us with unease.
The constant changing of our urban world is easy to get used to. But language, being older, has dug its roots deeper: the origin of aesthetic production must be the voice, conjuring experience from thin air and ordering the chaos of natural existence. The voice, in general as in Pisaro, has been violently transfigured through industrial production. Infinitely reproduced and infinitely reproducible, contemporary singing is divided in two. Down the commercial path, vocals approach perfection asymptotically, ever more dull and uncanny. No less guilty than the android superstars, the more astute DIY scenesters --if they want to make it big-- sculpt their sound with an eye on the market. On the other hand, critically composed music wants to renounce all that. It seems the Chicago new music scene has decided it likes its vocals undeciphered and un-hummable. This stoicism certainly contains a truth: themes of miscommunication, panic, fracturing --in short, the failure of language to be understood-- are socially meaningful. But mass market pop is also “true”: in fact, it is the real world of the culture industry, and one which constantly needs something to talk about.
Pisaro does not choose between the two, but takes both: his vocals are artificially perfect, yet insist on their incoherence. In this, they truly reflect industrial production, which has perfected the song by reducing it to chatter, or what incantation already was. Long ago, manic words rushed forth and lost meaning, ending in ecstasy; this is pornographic to bourgeois culture. The radio teases, and in no more friendly fashion than the rest of our talking machinery; the desolation of walking through Union Station in the middle of the night, as robotic voices interrupt each other, is its own sort of radio. What’s unsettling is language as texture; the ATM repeating its instructions only appears hostile because of our inability to reason with it.
Naturally, the spiritual function abandoned by music-as-texture (Feldman) reappears in texture-as-music. This is the slippage that Pisaro resists, grasping both without the crutch of spirituality. Even the galactic metaphor can be dismissed: the piece’s sine tones might be modeled on the rings of Saturn, but we know this has nothing to do with the planet and everything to do with the scientific capacity to distinguish those rings. Pisaro’s main achievement in this piece is problematizing the idea of nature and showing the human relations supporting that illusion. The issue becomes one and the same: our environment, made by us, remains changeable.
Pisaro constructs artificial nature. The elements of the piece are distinct from each other, but do not develop individually; only the audio mass develops in a true sense, and in this, bears a truth to lived experience. The aesthetic contemplation of a changing soundmass helps us see what is constructed. The trio performing the piece, in a deep concentration specific to works of such length and quietude, achieved both unity and individuality through their labor. Trying to match sound with gesture was more difficult than usual, but also more rewarding. As a single work encompassing seemingly unrelated phenomena, Concentric Rings in Magnetic Levitation points beyond itself, to social transformation. After all, the recitation of numbers is only creepy to a culture not yet equipped to regard the strange with aesthetic pleasure, and the calculations lording over society are inscrutable only because we lack the means of their control.