My musical instrument consisted of grains of rice and a bowl. I played it by dropping the grains of rice against the bowl at different rates of speed. Some of the other musicians bowed a piece of wood, dropped pebbles on glass, tore pieces of paper, or rubbed sandpaper against stone. At the time, I did not think much of being one of 100 volunteers to play for “A Wave and Waves” by composer Michael Pisaro at the Atrium in Lincoln Center.
At the very least though, I had the thrill of bragging to all and sundry that I had “performed” at Lincoln Center in New York City. And I sure had a marvelous time playing when cued, and slowly increasing my pace or quantity of sounding the grains of rice against the bowl at certain times. Yes, it was fun for all of us performers and audience members to sit in every other chair together (I could glance at the people to my right and left and see their reactions).
But like minimal art, with its monochromatic tendencies, a lot was missing for me. Minor concerns like a melody for example, or God forbid a rhythm. (At one point I fell into a rhythm and the composer walked over to me to remind me of the instructions.) You must think me a philistine by now, but as you can hear on the sample below, you only get waves of sound, represented by individual instruments slowly getting louder, and then quickly becoming softer and softer after hitting their loudest point and then repeating this pattern. Thus the “waves” in the title. And the singular form “wave” refers to the same thing for the ensemble as a whole. The four-minute excerpt is here: https://vimeo.com/151855753 How does this kind of music strike you?
As I say, at the time I was involved, I thought it was just a stunt and not very creative. Releasing waves of sound is just one element of several in a piece of music, and besides, for a composer to make me into a “performer” with an “instrument” seemed as much a fantasy as the Wizard giving the Cowardly Lion a medal for courage and voila! he feels brave. If the composer is reading this belated review, I hope he will have the courage to read on if not already too offended.
This concert was two years ago and I here I am still thinking about it. And as you can see, now writing about it. I don’t know if the audience came away with anything but I myself have. Ever since then I have noticed waves in so many things, including the weather, music, and human behavior in general. Not only that, I see that waves often have a shape, building up gradually until they crest, and then a rapid decline to the trough. To take an extreme example in music, I think of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, where the same melody plays over and over but more and more instruments join in and the volume gets louder and louder, though there is nothing after the crest. With weather, a storm builds up and then “crests” when the rain madly pours and then often quickly tapers off. Looking at human behavior, take for example the numbers of people at an event like a party. A few come in the beginning and more and more people join around midway through the party to form the crest which then diminishes as groups of people leave, ending with just the host remaining. Perhaps you have never thought of a party that way, or is this common? For authors, I am sure you have experienced waves in the number of sales through the days, months and years. Cashiers must notice that waves of people enter stores, or waves of people actually make a purchase as opposed to showing up all at the same time and nobody at all the rest of the time. Applause at a concert builds up and then fades rather than starting and stopping all at the same time. I bet you will now think of many other examples.
So why at least am I myself (and most of you?) intrigued by waves, whether literal ones or by all of these metaphorical patterns of them in our lives? Maybe we are glad to find patterns and explanations rather than randomness or outright chaos. What we encounter becomes more comprehensible. I suppose, too, there is simply an aesthetic pleasure in noticing the patterns of how reality plays out, and that is what Pisaro’s music, like all art, is there to teach us.