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Nature Denatured And Found Again

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Antoine Beuger (flute)
Jürg Frey (clarinet)
Marcus Kaiser (cello)
Radu Malfatti (trombone)
André Möller (electric guitar)
Kathryn Gleasman Pisaro (oboe/english horn)
Michael Pisaro (composition, field recording, sine tones, noise, mixing, mastering)


≈ A Still Breathing World

The artist and social activist Joachim Eckl grew up in the 60s near the Great Muhl river in Northern Austria. Eckl has been entrained to the great river, a tributary that wends and flows into the Danube, for decades; his great-grandfather constructed the first hydroelectric power plant on the Great Muhl, which is in operation to this day.
Following the completion of academic studies in psychology, Eckl entered into a decades-long artistic practice of installation projects tied to a variety of rivers, including the Great Muhl, and what Eckl calls social engineering, a concept with a strong affinity to Joseph Beuys’ notion of social sculpture. Eckl, like Beuys before him, expands the idea of art and the artist via direct action into the public, social, quotidian realms of everyday life. Eckl’s actions in the social sphere have included engaging hundreds of his fellow citizens in an encampment in dry river beds of the Muhl river, resulting in the power company improving the flow and course of the great river.

Eckl has observed that through the practice of spending time in nature with active and intensely focused senses, we discover what Michael Pisaro describes as “the infinite density of small events that make up a situation”. Eckl found, for example, that as he became intimate and familiar with the Great Muhl, it became differentiated from all the other rivers he spent time with. The extraordinary nature writer Robert Macfarlane hints at this intimacy when he writes “We lack-we need- a term for those places where one experiences a transition from a known landscape…into another world. They exist even in familiar landscapes.” I would offer a slight amendment to Macfarlane’s sentence-particularly in familiar landscapes.

In 2007 some of the Wandelweiser composers, Michael Pisaro among them, were invited by Eckl to visit Neufelden, Austria, the site of Eckl’s four-floor converted warehouse venue for exhibitions and performances. Following that visit- which turned out to be an auspicious encounter- Pisaro dedicated his 2008 Ascending Series 2.1 to Eckl, and returned to the idea of further, deeper collaborations. Their meeting had a resonance and a pull that neither could foresee would unfold over the ensuing decade.

Returning to Eckl’s natural boyhood milieu repeatedly between 2011-2015, Pisaro made field recordings along the Grosse Mühl River, during what the composer came to call  the flussaufwärts project, collaboratively created by Joachim Eckl, Marcus Kaiser and Pisaro.  The recordings of the river, as it flows down from Neufelden to the Danube, were subsequently woven together with in situ performances by Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Marcus Kaiser, Radu Malfatti, André Möller, and Kathryn Pisaro: eight years in the making, Nature Denatured and Found Again, a four hour assemblage of the infinite density of small events, is an immense achievement.

The span and scope of the composition are its most obviously impressive aspects-the recording of the project, with its considerable travel requirements, was sustained for five years, a remarkable fidelity by the composer to contingencies of place and personnel; the assemblage and mastering by Pisaro required another two years, undertaken, as will be made clear, in a situation in which, Pisaro writes in the liner notes, “it is easy to feel despair.”
“My bulwark against depression is an attempt to hear another world in the midst of the one that is sounding an alarm. Consider this an amplification of an almost inaudible, but still breathing world.”


≡ A Different Realm

Nature Denatured was released earlier this year; while I was living with this music a while, the composer Fergus Kelly recommended to me the British writer Robert Macfarlane – I was unfamiliar with Macfarlane, whose books take up, in beautiful prose, the matter of place, nature and language. His practice as a writer, like Eckl and Pisaro, has been to wander and wend along paths and rivers throughout the wild territories in England and Ireland, observing with keen attention and an openness to being transformed by the experience. “You pass…the river’s bank-and in doing so you arrive at a different realm, in which you are differently minded because differently bodied.” I was struck by differently bodied, as it linked in my mind to a passing reference by Pisaro in his notes for Nature Denatured to Deleuze’s term ‘becoming-imperceptible’; “I understand this as a partial vaporizing of our body-oriented selves”, Pisaro writes, “in a way that our mind-directed senses can fit into spaces and expanses where our body could not go.” Differently bodied. Becoming-imperceptible. Entering another world.
It is my surmise- one long informed by Dogen, whose writings serve as the headwaters of the Soto Zen lineage- that there exists a way of being in the world that values sustained and loving attention to what is; a habit that, contra mysticism and it silly claims, enables us to perceive both what is beautiful and what is hideously awry in our world. In musical terms what Pisaro calls “a discrete hearing of the continuum”-becoming –imperceptible is a process enabling the listener to enter into the river, the birdsong, the city, the incoherent and disparate realms we’re surrounded with; it is how, to my way of listening, Pisaro and his fellow musicians situated themselves along the Great Muhl. It is a significant cooking of the seeds found in Cage’s 4’33”, which Pisaro reminds us was originally entitled Silent Prayer.


≠ To Become Imperceptible Oneself

Nature Denatured includes a 24-page book that outlines with considerable detail the structure of the five year project and the five individual pieces that comprise the work. I am interested here in a different process- composer Pisaro’s way of situating himself in the sound world of the locations recorded (the Muhl’s watercourse way), the remarkable playing of his cohorts, and his own subtle choices, in the assemblage of the piece between 2016-2018, of filtered noise and sine tones.
The latter elements are prefigured in Pisaro’s earler works- the sprawling Transparent City (2007), July Mountain (2010), and Continuum Unbound (2014).
Continuum Unbound shares several affinities with Nature Denatured; long-form duration, multiple musicians responding to the wild locations recorded by Pisaro (and, in Continuum Unbound,  also by Greg Stuart), and-strikingly- the composer’s attunement to how place can be perceived as various, incoherent, chaotic, containing “an infinite density of small details” that are shaped and reshaped into a different sound realm entirely.
Pisaro worked on completing Continuum Unbound in 2014-interestingly, he refers to that year as the “silent year” where Nature Denatured is concerned, as it is the one year between 2011-2015 in which it wasn’t possible for him to make the trip to Austria.

The process of becoming-imperceptible can be heard in Pisaro’s location recording-based compositions going back at least 15 years (Transparent City’s recordings date to 2004); Nature Denatured is an assemblage of dynamic elements- aesthetic, social, operating both in and out of linear time- with the composer becoming, as much as possible within specific circumstances and contingencies, nearly nothing, enabling the listener to process and assemble the resulting work in their own mind, in their own time. The composer, the musicians, the wildlife milieu in totality, the listener to this strange, generative music- all can enter into the process; “…to become imperceptible oneself…but this precisely is a becoming only for one who knows how to be nothing” (Deleuze).

The conditioned, contingent and increasingly imperiled worlds documented and en-chanted (Macfarlane’s term) by Pisaro brought this listener to a whole other realm of consideration-the continuum of hope and despair that we move along, faced with the increasingly dire conflagration of a still breathing world.


 There Is Another World

In Nature Denatured’s liner notes Pisaro writes that he has been guided through some of his thinking and feelings about the destruction of habitats and life by Arundhati Roy’s guarded optimism for the planet; he cites this text from 2002, in which Roy sounds a contingent but nonetheless sanguine note: “Another world is not only possible, she’s on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen carefully, I can hear her breathing.”
Another world.
Contingent and sanguinary, like poet John Ashbury’s “a haven of serenity and unreachable”, in his poem A Wave. Conflagration and natural disaster, byproducts of late capitalism, situate us all on the continuum along Beuys’ utopian aspirations, Eckl’s social engineering, Pisaro’s attempt to hear another world in the one sounding alarms of increasing urgency, and abject surrender and capitulation.
“There is another world but it is in this one”-Paul Éluard’s  koan points to the possibility of repair within the bleak landscapes of disaster capitalism.

The Great Muhl river, to return to where we started, has suffered measurable setbacks in the past decade; one aspect of Pisaro’s incredible journey in revisiting the upper Austrian area over eight or so years is the opportunity afforded him to listen anew to a place and its living, breathing nature across time.

In the two years in which Pisaro assembled and mastered Nature Denatured, the deadliest, costliest wildfires in California history destroyed habitat, homes and lives – the summer of 2018 was particularly devastating. Pisaro resides in the Santa Clarita area of Los Angeles County, where wildfires are increasingly near, frequent and consequential. Of course the complex interface between the management of urban and natural areas in the composer’s part of the world are only one part of the disaster scenario. While voices from every quarter, contaminated with the hubris and venal greed of their various political agendas debate the matter, the world is on fire.
Pisaro completed Nature Denatured in relatively close personal proximity to a landscape engulfed in flames. I have no doubt this informed his final editing and completion of this generous work.

There are likely some readers who visit this site expecting a description of the sounds of the music under discussion; an overview of my writing about music should offer a course correction where that’s concerned. I have never seen it as my undertaking to describe to you what you might hear entering this world.
I can offer this: the four hour sound-world of Nature Denatured owns an immense power, the realization of an immense imagination. Nature Denatured offers music of great scope and infinite density; all of the musicians involved contribute their sounds with a single-pointed and improbably subtle care and clarity. There are sections of fragile tonality, clouds of noise organic and electric, the delight of drawing the listener into teasing out the draw of horsehair from the whir of cicadas and the thrum of low brass. There is a section foregrounding Katherine Pisaro’s double reed melodic inventions that drops into the flow of things a ridiculously beautiful refuge for the listener. There are canons and river-sourced chord changes and a world of other sounds you’ll only find in Pisaro’s world, the imagination of a composer issuing forth what Eckl calls “the river in the human being”.


○ Epilogue: So This Is The World

“What does the world
Mean to you if you can’t trust it
To go on shining when you’re
Not there?”

Artists are not consulted by the powers of empire for solutions to the disasters of empire; neither is Dogen nor you nor I. This makes Nature Denatured, with its small collection of artists intent on making another world within this one, an essential act, at least to my fatigued ears. There are authentic hints and pointers to how to care for the world as it is in Pisaro’s notion of becoming-imperceptible and Eckl’s life-long commitment to acting as if art and ordinary life are seamless and Antoine Beuger’s repeated infusion into the digital streams of social media the clarion call of John Holloway’s video address “Now is the moment to learn hope”, and in Mary Oliver’s lines above and below, from her poem “October”:
“So this is the world.
I’m not in it.
It is beautiful.”

We need another world, and it is in this one.


Afterword: for Michael Pisaro

We are living in a dark age. And we are not going to see the end of it, nor are our children, nor probably our children’s children. And our job, every single one of us, is to cherish whatever in the human heritage we love and to feed it and keep it going and pass it on, because the Dark Age isn’t going to go on forever, and when it stops those people are gonna need the pieces we pass on. They’re not going to be able to build a new world without us passing on whatever we can – ideas, arts, knowledge, skills, or just plain old fragile love, how we treat people, how we help people: that’s something to be passed on…and all of this passing things on, in all its forms, may not cure the world now – curing the world now may not be a human possibility – but it keeps the great things alive. And we have to do this because who are we to decide that it is hopeless?
If you wanted to volunteer for fascinating, dangerous, necessary work, this would be a great job to volunteer for – trying to be a wide-awake human during a Dark Age and keeping alive what you think is beautiful and important.

Michael Ventura


Michael Pisaro quotes sourced from the booklet included with the Nature Denatured And Found Again box set
Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot 2012
and Landmarks 2015
Gilles Deleuze / Felix Guatarri  A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1980
Arundhati Roy An Ordinary Person’s Guide To Empire 2004
Paul Éluard Répétitions, 1922
Mary Oliver October from New & Selected Poems, Vol. 1 2005
Michael Ventura (with James Hillman), We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and The World’s Getting Worse 1993

(credits found here: http://www.flussaufwaertstreiben.net/fotos/index.html)
≈ Marcus Kaiser
≡ Antoine Beuger + Michael Pisaro
≠ Michael Pisaro
Northern California wildfire aftermath detail / Summer 2018
○ Joachim Eckl



This entry was posted in music writing on September 12, 2019.

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