“A composition is a proposition of what a music could be,” says Michael Pisaro, the current Fromm Visiting Professor in Composition, who performed his composition “Concentric Rings in Magnetic Levitation” on Nov. 13 in Paine Hall with three other musicians. Fromm’s hour-long piece was far from the most accessible “proposition” to grace the stage of Paine Hall, but it revolved around a complex yet fascinating structure that proved to be totally engrossing.
“Concentric Rings in Magnetic Levitation” consists of 13 “rings” of sound focused about a central core. The rings themselves draw from a wide variety of sounds, including sine tones, a piano, percussion, and found objects, all presented in a periodic manner. Pisaro visualizes the piece’s structure as a growing, downwards spiral as each ring is introduced and developed, starting with the innermost ring. As time elapses, the music “thickens,” as Pisaro puts it, and develops into an enveloping, engaging atmosphere of sound.
According to Pisaro, “Concentric Rings in Magnetic Levitation” walks the line of two boundaries: first, between order and indeterminacy and second, between music and noise. These two principles are woven into the piece’s structure itself. The piece, on one hand, is very deterministic. Its core is a sequence of 88 sine tones based on the overtone series of 29Hz, each played for exactly 40 seconds; thus, the piece must last exactly 58 minutes and 40 seconds. Every sound in the rings is marked with a time—down to fractions of a second—for when it is to be played. On the other hand, some sounds are to be pre-selected uniquely for each performance, and one musician is even instructed to play live sounds from a radio.
The organization of the rings also plays a part in the relationship between music and noise. The inner rings are unequivocally musical—sine tones and piano notes. The middle rings are unpitched percussion instruments that are less obviously harmonic. Rings nearer the edge are perhaps included in an extended definition of music—in the Nov. 13 performance, one such ring contained the clicking of a damaged CD player. Finally, the outermost rings would generally not be considered music, as they contain white noise, radio static, and recordings of ocean waves. The piece, then, resembles a gradient where the music is most concentrated at the core and becomes more abstract at the edges.
The piece’s extraordinary complexities stem from a simple idea. Pisaro conceived of the rings when considering the original ensemble for which he was writing “Concentric Rings in Magnetic Levitation”—a Chicago-based musical ensemble called “Haptic.” “We had a music in which people are playing a bunch of different devices,” Pisaro said. “And that’s when I started to formulate the idea of the rings.”
Despite Pisaro’s extremely modern compositional style, he still maintains a traditional outlook on the purpose and function of music in human culture. “There’s no question in my mind that contemporary music has a spiritual function—not necessarily a religious one—but in some sense, the music is still doing what it did a thousand years ago,” Pisaro said. And “Concentric Rings in Magnetic Levitation,” cerebral as it seems when dissected into rings and overtone series, is ultimately very spiritual.
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