New Elsewhere: Michael Pisaro-Liu, Jordan Dykstra and Koen Nutters

Sunday 10 October 2021

Michael Pisaro-Liu (fka Michael Pisaro) walks an eccentric path between conceptual process (cf. ricefall) and free-flowing wanderings that follow a concealed narrative. In Tombstones, this approach is atomised: a collection of twenty “experimental-pop” songs, each made from the slenderest of means. Each song may be concise or extended, to extremes if desired, and arrangements are left open. For this album, the ensemble Muzzix under the direction of pianist Barbara Dang perform eleven songs, the same selection recorded by a different ensemble some nine years ago which I haven’t heard and so can’t compare.

The titles, and thus lyrics, derive from popular songs, but any vagaries or digressions are constrained by the miniaturist approach to each composition. In each song the singer, usually Maryline Pruvost, rarely exceeds a couple of words, a couple of notes. The initial impression recalls Jürg Frey’s 24 Wörter. As often with Pisaro-Liu, his musical language is too inconsistent to induce a ‘minimal’ state of quiescence in the listener’s mind, leaving the song sequence’s success to depend upon the gemlike settings of the instrumentation. This is evidently left largely in the hands of Dang and Muzzix, who alter texture and colouration in fresh and unexpected ways, with an approach that is gentle but firm when making such potentially isolated and disparate elements cohere, yet also prolonging moments of chamber music from the same material. Ultimately, the album as a whole is required by its concentration on single words and sounds to balance between the hieratic artifice of its construction and the expressive substance of its contents, leaving to the mercy of the listener’s mindset whether it aspires to profundity or to preciousness.

I’m sure I’ve never heard of Jordan Dykstra or Koen Nutters before. Their new Elsewhere release is a joint composition by the two composer/performers. This is usually grounds to be wary of an insider’s muso-fest but thanks to recent efforts by groups like Eventless Plot I’m not more hopeful. That hope is rewarded here. In Better Shape Than You Found Me is precisely one hour of music that ebbs and flows as though excerpted at random from a constant, natural process. Like nature, the only readily discernable structure or pattern is what may be observed, an impersonal, consequential logic that creates its own context and meaning as it goes on. A spare duo for piano and pitch pipes or viola is backed by soft drones and noises which drift in and out of focus, eliding between pure sound and documentary. Like Luc Ferrari under heavy sedation. An ascending scale interrupts, from time to time. Perhaps events are grouped into subtly distinguished episodes, or perhaps there are merely pauses. More likely, sometimes there is simply silence that emerges to the fore. A sense of place is created, but one where the mood or the tone never settles and so makes place into a lifelike thing.