Wallace Stevens wrote “July Mountain” in the last year of his life, suffering from stomach cancer. A recognition of mortality and imperfection hides in his poem’s first eight lines. They gently and beautifully remind the reader that life on earth is a fragmented thing, and that there are no conclusions, no full and final stops that shine a light on all the dark corners in the world. Instead we are all “thinkers without final thoughts in an always incipient cosmos,” forever watching the world and the stars spin themselves into new configurations. The poem explicitly uses music as an image for that interminable metamorphosis, and Michael Pisaro’s composition of the same name demonstrates just how apt an image it is. July Mountain (Three Versions) illustrates Stevens’s contention, combining field recordings with incredibly stealthy musical contributions provided by Greg Stuart. Bowed snare drums, piano, bird calls, jet engines, and numerous other sounds, from sine tones to insects, unexpectedly coalesce over its 21 minutes, forming a quivering and effervescent peak for anyone willing to make the ascent.
July Mountain first appeared as a single piece on a limited edition CDr released by Engraved Glass. To the “California Version” presented on that disc, the Gravity Wave release features two additional performances. One of them, the “Austin Version,” is a complete rendition, combining 20 field recordings unique to that city with 10 layers of percussion recorded by Greg Stuart. Instructions for how the field recordings are to be obtained are minimal (make 20 of your own, or get them from the composer, just make sure to point the microphones at mountains or valleys if possible), but their durations and their arrangements with respect to one another are very well defined. They are all ten minutes long, and there are only ever ten recordings playing simultaneously.
On the percussive side, the featured instruments include resonating surfaces teased by sine waves, vibraphones wrapped in tin foil, and “seed rain,” a steady stream of seeds, rice, or beans poured over crotales or a glockenspiel (the score gives the performer plenty of choices). Their timings and durations are specified by time markers—four bowed wooden blocks at nine and a half minutes, one projected sine tone at five and a half minutes, lasting for seven minutes and thirty seconds—and the methods suggested for playing them, including the exact qualities to be elicited from them, are described rather than strictly notated. For example, the instructions for the bowed snare drum read, in part, “Sounds may be created by bowing on any part of the instrument and by bowing on a drumstick or doweling with its tip pressed against the drum.”