Tombstones, a collection of songs guitarist and composer Michael Pisaro describes as “an indeterminate, experimental piece for voice,” has been a work-in-progress for the past six years. Nine of the 20 songs by the CalArts professor and leading figure of the Wandelweiser Group (an international group of experimental composers who pick up where John Cage’s explorations of silence and minimalism left off), will see a vinyl release by HEM Berlin in November. At Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral in Brooklyn on Wednesday night, seven Pisaro associates, including the vocalist Julia Holter, the guitarist Jason Brogan, and the clarinetist Katie Porter, form an ensemble to perform select pieces from Tombstones.
For Tombstones, Pisaro used small fragments of popular songs — a melody, a few words from the lyrics — as the base for each piece. Treating them as found objects, he spotlighted and stretched a particular part from each song in order to deeply examine these sliced moments. The function of a tombstone is to express the death of something, while also serving as a memorial for that thing so that we do not forget it. In this case, Pisaro’s objective is to express the death, and to (possibly) resurrect, the political quality contained within the song fragments.
“I chose pieces that say something about the current political situation when they were written,” Pisaro explains. “No matter what political moment they responded to, and no matter what political momentum there was, those moments are all dead. The chosen lines are epitaphs for a period when there was some sort of political interaction between the songwriter and the world. Whatever situation it was responding to is no longer in the air, and what we know about the situation comes from the song itself.”
The first piece Pisaro wrote was “Blues Fall,” which uses the mysterious bluesman Robert Johnson’s 1937 recording of “Hellhound on My Trail” as its source. “It represents, in this highly fragmented, poetic way, the situation African Americans found themselves in at the time,” Pisaro says. On the recording, the phrase “Blues Fall” is repeated numerous times while (mostly) acoustic instruments drone, swarm, and disappear. Although not on the recording, Pisaro constructed one piece from a fragment of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” using the lyric “Like I see through the water that runs down my drain.” Pisaro says, “He’s referring to how he can see through the rhetoric of the people proclaiming war, but there’s no obvious political content in that line.”
Pisaro’s most intriguing source material, which also leads to the most haunted of all the recordings, is a version of the rap duo UGK’s song “One Day” by DJ Screw, the Houston pioneer of the Chopped and Screwed sound. Screw had already slowed and throwed the tune using his own time-warping technique, similarly exploring the forgotten, concealed ghost moments of the original, and Pisaro pays homage while simultaneously magnifying Screw’s already magnified version.
“DJ Screw’s a great inspiration for this work,” Pisaro says. “He was doing the same sort of thing years ago, but his methods were much different. But there is a process by which he’s attempting to resurrect that which has been given to him, I think. I’m a huge fan of his, so I had to involve him in some way.”
Julia Holter, who appears on the Tombstones recording and is part of Wednesday night’s ensemble, is a former student of Pisaro’s at CalArts. The vocalist and multi-instrumentalist, whose 2012 release Ekstasis has been celebrated for its sophisticated merging of pop and experimental music, was also a member of the Pisaro-led Experimental Music Workshop, for which fellow students performed their own work and the work of big guns like Cage, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff. “I was immediately drawn to Michael’s music because it opened up the opportunity to perform something not necessarily based on a particular virtuosity,” Holter remembers. “But more so on the particular piece of music.”
“I’m scared to talk about it because I don’t know if Michael wants me to give it away,” she says when I ask about the source material from her favorite Tombstones piece, “Silent Cloud.” But then she makes the mistake of singing the melody to me through the phone. It’s clearly “Julia,” by the Beatles. She laughs when I call her out on it. “I know that song really well, but I didn’t know the part came from it when I first sang it,” she says. “It’s really not about the actual songs, but capturing and stretching out a moment of a song you might not normally experience in order to experience it in a different context.”
The most precarious part of “Tombstones,” it seems, is whether this different context will somehow raise the original song’s supposedly dead political sentiment. “It’s a very fragile thing, because whatever new life they get has to happen in the performance, because it doesn’t exist in the composition,” Pisaro says. “This kind of resurrection — giving one of these events a chance to live again — has to undergo that kind of transformation where you cannot predict what will happen. This is what I’m trying to do.”