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In Performance: music to his ears



It's a long climb to the rehearsal room where Michael Pisaro is scheduled to play his new composition, Pi--four flights up in the second-oldest building on the Northwestern University campus. There's no elevator to this space from another century, a high-ceilinged octagon with half-moon windows and stenciled walls, dominated by a shiny black baby grand. At six o'clock, just 14 people are scattered in the rows of chairs facing the piano, waiting for Pisaro to begin his five-minute performance.

Pisaro is friendly and informal, a regular guy with a good-natured face. He doesn't seem like the kind of person who would haul us up here to hear five minutes of the same note. "There will be a moment of silence before and after the performance," he says. He sits at the piano, carefully laying his watch in front of him. A plane, low overhead in the already black night, flies into his silence, stealing it. And then the music--that's what he calls it--begins.

The note for tonight is the third highest on the piano keyboard, B flat, a high, hollow "plink" devoid of resonance. Pisaro hits it repeatedly, pauses, then hits it again, tapping out a code. The machinelike regularity invites a count: one two three, pause; one, a longer pause; one two three four. No plink is longer or louder than another--a performance in Morse code would be deeply expressive in comparison. Soon the plinks become background, making us acutely aware of external noises, welcome, familiar sounds: the wind buffeting the old building, moaning against the windows; a train rumbling past; a car horn. Plink plink plink plink plink plink, pause. Pisaro never looks up. At the end of the appointed five minutes and 20 seconds, he stops for the closing silence. Then he's on his feet, thanking us for being there, hoping to see us again--at the next performance perhaps, two days hence, or any of a dozen others this month. The performances increase from 5 to 54 minutes in length, and each features a different solo note.

Pi is based on our old friend from geometry, generally known as 3.1416 but actually counted off to something like 50 billion decimal places. Pisaro, an NU faculty member and new-music composer, decided to tap out the numbers behind the decimal point from the first decimal place to the 2,594th, using a period of five seconds for each digit. Then he thought to himself, "Boy, that's going to be a really long piece." To avoid a three-and-a-half-hour concert ("Which might be interesting, but really, who cares after three hours?") and explore the impact of performances of various logarithmically determined durations separated by intervals of various lengths, he broke the composition into 15 sections, each to be performed on a single note from one of 15 regions of the piano keyboard. "You could think of this as a 15-note melody that lasts a month," he says.

Perfectly clear? No? Well, don't blame him. "It's not what most people think of as music, but it didn't start with me," he says. "There's a long tradition of experimental music in this country. For me, it starts with John Cage. The tradition itself has more to do with exploring the fundamental nature of sound than it does with trying to communicate something through a performance. The audience is like a coconspirator, exploring with you. What counts is that something happened. It might not matter if it's an hour or if it's five minutes."

Pisaro started out as a classical guitarist. After majoring in music at DePaul, he went to grad school at NU. "I've always worked with the most reduced means I could find," he says. "When I first started I was writing in the tradition of Schoenberg and Webern. Then I got more interested in what everybody knows as minimalist music--people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. And then, at some point, I and some other composers thought, well, we can take this much further. What I've learned is that with every piece, you take it further and then you experience it and think, boy, I think I can take that even further. At the time I wrote Pi, a year ago, this was the furthest I could imagine taking this. Now I'm working on something with a visual artist who writes text and then erases it and mounts the erased paper on the wall. Fantastic stuffâ because there are these huge white sheets and you can't tell what happened there but it leaves a trace--and that's very close to things I'm interested in, this idea of a trace."

Pisaro continues his performance of Pi at 6 PM Sunday (for 9 minutes), Monday (10 minutes), Tuesday (12 minutes), and February 19 through February 22 (14 to 31 minutes), concluding February 26 (54 minutes). Performances are in the School of Music Administration Building, room 413, 711 Elgin Road in Evanston. Admission is free. Call 847-467-2034 for more information. --Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michael Pisaor photo by Drew Reynolds.

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