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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Barbara Dang & Muzzix - Michael Pisaro-Liu: Tombstones (elsewhere, 2021) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

American composer Michael Pisaro-Liu is known for minimalist pieces of long duration with pauses of silence, associated with the Wandelweiser composers collective. Tombstones focus on one of the most exceptional works of this prolific composer, a cycle of songs composed by Pisaro-Liu between 2006 and 2010, journeying into experimental pop with pieces that are "experimental or indeterminate but still a song", or songs that came together more or less by themselves.

Pisaro (he add Liu to his surname after his marriage to artist Cherlyn Hsing-Hsin Liu) took fragments from pop music, country and blues, isolated an idea, cut up the melody, slowed it down or removed it at all, placed it in different instrumental contexts, and allowed the musicians to make their own decisions. With this kind of chance process, he created the cycle of “stolen songs” (his term), and compared this method of work to the one of fellow-American experimental composer Christian Wolff; where sometimes you have the materials, but not the order in which they occur. He released these experimental songs on limited-edition vinyl by the Human Ear Music in 2012 (and a year later on disc), with an ensemble of nine musicians including vocalists Julia Holter (a former student of Pisaro) and Lisa Tolentino and pianist Tashi Wada. Pisaro produced this recording and played guitar on it.

The new version of Tombstones is played by the French, Lille-based six members of the Muzzix musicians collective under the artistic direction of the Lille-based pianist Barbara Dang, who has developed in the last decade a set of experimental pieces by John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier, Jürg Frey and Pisaro. The Muzzix ensemble features main vocalist Maryline Pruvost, guitarist Ivann Cruz (of the TOC trio), drummer Peter Orins and trumpeter Christian Pruvost (of the French-Japanese quartet KAZE). All the seven musicians add vocals, spoken voices and whispering to their arsenal of instruments. These musicians have plated Pisaro-Liu, especially for his composition “Radiolarians” (2018), written for the Grand Orchester de Muzzix which gathers about thirty musicians. The new version was recorded at Théâtre Le Colombier in Les Cabannes in 2020 and the recording was mastered by Pisaro-Liu.

The eleven songs are played in the same order as the original recording. Dang & Muzzix enjoy the high degrees of freedom that Pisaro left for the performs. They blur furthermore the pop, country and blues roots of these strange but arresting songs and dress them in a chamber, sparse, quiet and ethereal arrangements, austere but lush and intimate ones and often punctuated by silent pauses, framing this cycle of songs in line with the works of the Wandelweiser composers. The direct and natural vocal delivery of Maryline Pruvost and the vocal arrangements on songs like “A Stranger” highlight the poetically nuanced fragments of these songs. Christian Pruvost’s trumpet and Maryline Pruvost’s vocals on “New Orleans” sound now like a distant reflection on the plights of this city, and nothing like New Orleans early jazz or blues music. “Stop” sounds now like an exotic and delicate Far-Eastern song. Perhaps the song “I didn’t say anything” captures best the essence of this brilliant cycle of singular songs, the suggestive and highly poetic suchness of every note, each found sound, broken lines or melodic fragment, as this song repeats the line: “You never say anything, but you keep coming back to it”. Dang even says that she wanted music close to “something natural… no voluntary sound event, no climax, no drama, everything could appear as accidental”.