Late in the summer of 1999, I sat on a porch in Chicago’s West Side, listening to the typical sounds of an American metropolis – traffic, sirens, airborne engines, doppler’ing car stereos, stubborn insects, birds and squirrels. I brought my saxophone and some modest recording gear outside and, following an impulse that I would say was not strictly Cagean, tried to transparently enter into the rhythms and timbres of the city. The resulting recording didn’t strike me as particularly interesting, and so it was either explicitly deleted or so violently uncataloged (which was my habit with most of my recordings at the time) that it is essentially lost forever.
The impulse, nonetheless, returns to me periodically, often in the form of mundane, urban field recordings into which I insert the tiniest bit of “music”, not to transform the recordings so much as enter them. My follow-through with these activities has been on the whole quite poor, and though I catalog a little better now than I did in 1999, these woefully incomplete works exist on my hard drive under consistently unhelpful titles like “Watchmen” and “Gendyn Glob”; titles usually conceived for an entirely different musical experiment that was gradually eclipsed by this recurring idea.
Enter Michael Pisaro and Transparent City (Volumes 1 and 2) (and, for all I know, Volumes 3 and 4, which I’ve yet to hear). Here we have 12 ten-minute, unedited field recordings of urban environments mixed with waves of harmonically and rhythmically complementary sine tones. All of the field recordings were made in Los Angeles, but, significantly, there is no particular sonic signature placing them there. The environments are sonically mundane, and the recording quality is not distractingly good: this is not an urban version of a Chris Watson project. The sine tones are deeply integrated into the mix, and, while they could potentially act as a transformative soundtrack to the field recordings, they instead reiterate the expressiveness of the environment. It would be a mistake, however, to see that as their only function.
Let me be clear that I very much enjoy Transparent City. I do not at all see it as the execution of an idea that I (and many other musicians) have had and dismissed as half-baked. I see it as perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of what is behind the recurring impulse to engage with this idea. Had the sine tones brought a new form of expression to the proceedings (creating an “alien” or “haunting” or “wistful” cityscape), then we would be speaking of different impulses. That they merely repeat the expressiveness of the landscape yet are deliberately inserted by the composer (arguably the single compositional act of the piece) makes their presence a particular assertion of will, a kind of Spinozan (and forgive me both for making this highbrow reference and for making one so common in today’s academic environment that it is nearly meaningless; it is hard not to like Spinoza) move where freedom/autonomy is asserted not in free choices but in the understanding of all that determines one’s choices: I have no choice but to choose this and so I decide that I will choose it. Whereas Cage set out to allow environmental sounds into his works, to ultimately erase the line between the work and the environment, Pisaro asserts the environment into existence. This is not an act of artistic hubris; it is not Pisaro’s environment, after all. It is a humble and profound insight into subjectivity and also into coping with sonic forces typically hostile to the quiet contemplation often associated with this type of music.
A significant outcome of this compositional approach is that the (urban) listener reenacts Pisaro’s assertion by playing the disc. Surrounded by sounds one has not chosen, one chooses to introduce that same class of sounds into one’s environment. The existing urban sounds are not masked (sine tones have a way of exacerbating instances of broadband noise like traffic and refrigerators), nor is the piece permeable to the environment in the Cagean sense. Instead, playing the disc is akin to pressing play on the world itself. It is a dry, quietly monumental Yes.