Dimensions in Music: Michael J. Schumacher's Sonic States
Michael J. Schumacher’s new release, Four Stills, finds the composer/instrumentalist operating with a concentrated ease that gets one wishing he played out on the town more often. Times do find Schumacher in a club, improvising a Powerbook installation or droning a Hohner electric guitar with e-bows or a resined cord, and he has plans to stage live instruments within his installation music. But the surest way to hear his evolving sound is either in environment settings such as his midtown gallery, Diapason, or on the more intimate channels of your home hi-fi or Walkman.
This restriction is by no means a bad thing, for Schumacher is aiming, as even a cursory listen to the quartet of new tracks demonstrates, for the stairway to your skull. Four Stills was recorded direct to stereo from an ever-intriguing trove of sonic devices (this reviewer accompanied Schumacher and his tape deck onto the Brooklyn Bridge one night when bridge work diverted traffic across a series of raucous metal plates). Arrayed sound bits were sampled by number systems application software, resulting in Stills both unnamed and accurately titled.
Coursing and static, highly detailed and unsettlingly sumptuous, each track becomes the aural equivalent of a genre scene: self-contained, highly referential, at once freighted with and disassociated from levels of interpretation that give way to the pleasure of pure music in sound.
Going before it even gets started, the opening track takes a quarter-hour to reveal that it’s been hurtling in place. Quiet [sic] a journey: ultra-high frequencies slipping across the vault; warbles teeming within ribbons of sound; beseeching inner voices that lurk in wait of occasional withers from the cello of Charles Curtis. Over-populated and bizarrely mundane, things are sounding like this all around us, out there where it’s not emotional and it is inherently strange.
The second Still leaps in with subtle abruptness, then utilizes a disarming gambit, card-shark smart. This will take words longer to describe than the musical impact does to transpire, but here goes: urgent signals (a communications HQ?) molt to disparate colonies (insects? androids?) that are then situated in a creaking space felt with the urgent pull of a dream.
Appearing in the first minute, this succession of impressions is in fact a distinct, rapid denuding of the imagination’s reliance on visualization, and it happens while tuners depth-sound or seek a frequency. Levels of listening experience give way to the place that operates, not with the presumption of music’s poetic triumph, but towards its profound relation to blindness and the enormous wealth of chaos. After this bracing transition, the piece arrives and then is steadily revolved in a sustained proving ground, with melody traces mounting a distant piano.
At the 11th minute, swirling and probing components drop out and quiet reigns, infiltrated by canned jabbers and electronic scraping like someone’s fidgeting a bad socket. Then the piano alone remains, along with a hum like a freighter in an uninhabited city (think of a soundtrack for the night video of Bruce Nauman’s studio).
Another hum drops in and the piano drops out, leaving distance and timelessness. One hum holds then lingers over into the third Still, which features a swishing scrape as if a gritty stylus were about to ride out of the LP groove (for those who recall the quirks of turntable technology). Other components include a sustained exhalation like didgeridoos, squeaks, and settling harmonic cushions, with twangy spring-loaded guitars quavering a repeated chord and sine waves sweeping over clicks like Teflon shoulder joints. Delicate and washy, very somber and very playful, this track suggests Schumacher’s installation music on his engrossing ’98 CD Room Piece.
Four Stills culminates with panting, clashed and swirled and dangling tones that saw incessantly, the plashing of a washer in a tremendous vat of metal skin (Tim Barnes’s percussion is the core of the mix). Places come to mind when listening to Schumacher’s music, and this last track seems a chasm, the gully of oblivion. Crashes over swelling harmonics, a deeply muffled vibe gropes a skeletal melody, a gong is chopped in to the mix like Cyclops’s high-hat cymbal, lower rumbles brush, brush then shimmer, before the CD’s longest track eases out and … shimmers.
In some simple, urgent fashion, Four Stills is the experience of listening to the world. Beyond the music world’s sweeping themes and passing hits, there is the vastly larger world that (given ears to listen) may well be extraordinarily musical. This musical world is both tremendously probable, and difficult to locate for habitual allegiance to the music world’s restricting familiarity. Appropriating Planck’s juxtaposition of physics and reality to limits in human perception (and substituting “the world of familiar musics” for his “world of the senses”), listening outside of the envelope would “compel us to assume the existence of another world of reality behind the world of the senses; a world which has existence independent of man, and which can only be perceived indirectly through the medium of the world of the senses.”
To accommodate the indirect perception of listening large, Schumacher has honed a special resolution between what he describes as two ways of hearing: the environmental scope of attention one brings to installation settings, and the more delineated attention given to music that is prerecorded or preformed. It’s de rigueur to announce that installations sharpen musical perception, and mediate our choices in listening in a way the concert stage does not (concerts reward the program’s start and finish). Listening environments, where arrivals and departure are the very context of the music, strive to improve the audiences hearing on returning to the world, while relying on the distinction of environment/outer world.
Getting this structure on CD with minimal compromise to either the music’s integrity or the listener’s attention is another matter altogether. On Four Stills, Schumacher has shaped and limited the tracks to enhance accessibility and reveal their content. His musical approach involves something at once challenging and healing, something willing to be as avoidable (by utilizing subtlety, persistence, and the whisper’s delicate risk) as it is rooted in depth of feeling. Morton Feldman’s modern music comes to mind: faint, solemn, intricate, and nimble while dangled in vast duration.
So does the music of La Monte Young, classical music’s living master of sustenance and dynamic extremes. Schumacher (as pianist) is a fine interpreter of Young’s instrumental music, and his installations are deeply informed by the seminal accomplishment of Young’s Dream Houses (developed since the ’60s with visual artist Marian Zazeela). In ’96 he presented “Monologue” in Young’s Church Street Dream House; Schumacher’s sonic tsunami took maximum advantage of four enormous bass cabinets that ground Young’s immense and nuanced aural environment.
That same summer, “Monologue” played for a weekend at the Kitchen, and it was during this period that Schumacher began operating his sound gallery, Studio Five Beekman. Over four active years, Studio Beekman showcased installations by sound artists including David Behrman, Phill Niblock, David First with Patricia Smith, Maria Blondeel, and Ben Manley, as well as avant-rock musicians Lee Ranaldo, Alan Licht, and Steve Tunney. Among Beekman highlights was Inside, a collaboration between Schumacher and video artist Ursula Scherrer (co-founder of Studio Five Beekman). His delicate piano music (one facet of his work as yet unavailable on CD) played as several black-and-white screens molted at various speeds through Scherrer’s close-ups of rolled wire mesh.
In the spring of 2001, Schumacher moved the gallery to a larger space in midtown and renamed it Diapason (Greek for a harmonious outpouring of sound, it’s at 1026 Sixth Avenue, #2S). This past March, he presented the last track on Four Stills as an installation during its five-month run at the Contemporary Art Museum in Lyon, France, where the piece, “Room Piece Lyon 2002,” played in a separated, soundproofed room in an exhibit of sound art curated by Stephen Vitiello, including work by Schumacher, Vitiello, and Laurie Anderson.
For the Diapason installation, “Room Piece Lyon 2002” played in an apocalyptic mien, the loop shifted into repetitions with variations, the gallery dark, its big speakers pushed to the brink. Three light sculptures of Schumacher’s design rotated slowly at the ceiling to accompany the ominous, surging sound. Pin beam lasers defracted through each sculpture’s glass shards, heaving glints and blurs of effulgent crimson onto Diapason’s long walls.
In Diapason’s isolated rear chamber, “Dust Theories,” a computer piece by Kim Cascone, ran random samplings of rushing electronic figures, interwoven to varied sequences and imagistic patterns. On reentering the main space, it was as if Cascone’s piece were a transport’s gyroscope or battery plant, with Schumacher’s “Room Piece Lyon 2002” as the guts of the galaxies, awash in formations and destructions.
This November at Diapason, Schumacher curates a series by composer/musicians who will perform in their own installations. Featuring Schumacher, David First, Monika Weiss with Stephen Vitiello, James Fei, and Charlie Morrow, the series juxtaposes two “modes of listening.”
The first mode is that of the traditional audience/performer dynamic, with the listener’s orientation towards the continuous activity of person(s) playing music. The second mode highlights the increasing presence of installations in the art and music worlds, where the listener has nothing to observe that is generating the music. Schumacher describes this experience succinctly as “listening in the present tense,” with the music progressing from one sound to another in the static interface of architecture and sound. The series also provides the composer/musicians a forum for experiment, with musical form varied according to the context of its presentation (check out www.diapsongallery.com for schedules and additional information).
Schumacher is also involved at Engine 27, a sound gallery in a converted firehouse (www.engine27.org) presenting multi-channel sound works, concerts, and continuous sound installations. Working closely with directors Jack Weisberg and Eric Rosenzveig, he also provides computer programming expertise to artists and residents.
Installations at Engine 27 include sitarist Khrishna Bhatt, Ellen Christi’s “Breathing Sound,” pianist Joseph Kubera playing Cage’s “Variations,” and manipulated field recordings from New York Phonographers Union.
In addition to his November performances at Diapason (and live music for choreographer Liz Gerring next spring at the Kitchen), look for Schumacher’s double CD forthcoming on XI, the label of Phill Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia. One full disc is tailored from his installation music, with the other segmented into more Stills (one features violinist Jane Henry). It will both vivify the inside of any listening space, and articulate your hearing’s acute link to the incredibly broad musical world.
A Michael J. Schumacher discography
(available at Diapason Gallery, Other Music on East 4th St., Kim’s on St. Marks Place)
Four Stills, 2001 (sedimental CD 032, www.sedimental.com).
01-01-18, An Improvisation, 2001 (Quakebasket, firstname.lastname@example.org): computer improvisation.
Guitar Electrica, 2000 (Quakebasket): prepared electric guitar.
Fidicin Drones, 1999 (Colorful Clouds for Acoustics 019): plays like Schumacher’s reordering of the Divina Commedia into three sustained guitar pieces. The first hits like the divine realm, splendid and singing with broad choral decays. Torment follows on the title track, a sort of speedboat cut loose at full throttle on the Lethe, Charon’s lost the tiller and fallen overboard and the only way to cling is to latch your ear lobes under the outboard’s cowling. Purgatory concludes, wafting, somber, monumental, a slow, rolling inner rhythm-as-asylum.
Room Piece, 1998 (self produced): samples a 70-minute chunk of the softer side of Schumacher’s installation work. The cover notes that the music is “intended for low level listening,” and features the architectonic photography and graphic design of Ursula Scherrer, who is responsible for Schumacher’s sharp CD covers and whose abstract videos often appear with Schumacher’s installations. Vast in scope with a fluctuating structure, Room Piece might be a pianissimo symphony, with Four Stills as contained string quartets (Schumacher has a doctorate from Juilliard, and his musical resourcefulness reflects broad training and exposure to musical forms).
Here Below, 1998 (Klang Industries): an LP documenting a Springfield, Massachusetts gallery gig that Schumacher and Donald Miller (from Borbetomagus, the hellhounds of free-jazz-meets-the-outrage-of-amplification) played as a guitar trio with Charles Curtis.
Flood, 1997 (Warpodisc 04): Schumacher in guitar duos with Donald Miller. Fraught and caustic, it features a gorgeous 30-minute dirge recorded live at the Cooler in ’96.
Solo Guitar, 1991 (self-produced cassette, out of print).