Michael Pisaro and Aaron Cassidy in conversation

No sooner do I review Michael Pisaro’s new fields have ears CD than this video conversation between him and composer Aaron Cassidy pops up on YouTube:

The video is part of the build-up to this astonishing concert by the JACK Quartet, which takes place as part of the Monday Evening Concerts series at Zipper Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles next Monday. (Paul Griffiths’ notes for this concert rise to the occasion, and are well worth your time.)

Although from the outside Pisaro and Cassidy might seem miles apart from one another musically, in actual fact they’re much closer than first impressions suggest. Cassidy was taught by Pisaro for a time, and he has spoken emphatically about the importance of his grounding in that post-Cageian experimental aesthetic for his compositional development. (Peter Ablinger, whose name crops up in this video in the context of interesting discussion about American/European ‘experimental’, is a critical fulcrum.)

Listening to Pisaro and Cassidy in conversation it’s abundantly clear that there are much greater areas of musical sympathy between the two than there are areas of conflict.

AC: So much what we do, so much of our training, is about the link between imagined sound and material and notation, and what happens when one part of that is broken – like when you’re inventing a notational system from scratch, the connection between what’s on the page and what might sound is nowhere as reliable as if you’re using a learned, more stable notation system.

MP: I always wonder how reliable the stable notations actually are. To me it almost seems more about what parameter you care about. So if I look at an older string quartet – you know, traditional classical music – I’ll get rhythm and pitch and dynamics. OK, what if I really care about pitch. What if I really care that there are 30 or 40 different possible middle Cs and they’re going to play any of them at any time; you could say that in the register that I’m listening to that’s approximate. That in fact I write a middle C but at that level of detail I still again don’t know what I’m going to get.

AC: I think that’s definitely true.

Sure, this is just a single conversation between two composers already well-known to each other, but it’s a pattern of overlap and common ground that exists to a much greater degree across contemporary music than some observers are comfortable admitting. And yes, there are substantial differences in the music that they write, but those differences are alternative solutions to common problems faced by all sensitive musicians: matters of perception, communication, notation and so on. Starting from that position of common ground the different paths taken to those solutions are the key to understanding. Histories of recent music that seek to deny that fundamental commonality are simply misleading and divisive.

P.S. Speaking personally, the appearance of this video is a neat piece of synchronicity: I’ve got an article on Aaron’s Second String Quartet coming up on NewMusicBox, so watch this space for a link.


8 thoughts on “Michael Pisaro and Aaron Cassidy in conversation

  1. Thanks for pointing this up, Tim – and especially for highlighting, underlining and italicizing the salient point! There is a lot of interesting work going on at the point at which extremes of complexity and simplicity wrap around to meet each other…

    1. “highlighting, underlining and italicizing the salient point”

      Some things deserve just deserve that emphasis. Maybe one day we’ll be able to wean ourselves of words like ‘simplicity’ and ‘complexity’ altogether. (It occurs that both words can be deployed negatively – who wins there, eh?)

  2. Pisaro’s comment on priorities in communication and what I would call resolution (ie level of detail) in notation is illuminating, especially linking it to more traditionally notated music. I think the useful idea is taking hold that a ‘perfect’ realization of traditionally notated scores is just as impossible as it is in the newest of ‘complex’ scores, elevating and acknowledging the importance of the performer, and of live performance itself.

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