To the moon with Pierrot Lunaire
Lincoln drone-zoners Bus Gas released their sophomore cassette last fall on German label SicSic Tapes (last copies at the Bus Gas BandCamp), and one day last winter I found myself browsing the label’s discography. I recognized a few artists in their catalog whose work I’ve heard on other labels and enjoyed like Guenter Schlienz and Hobo Cubes, and I was mesmerized by the bizarre artwork for a double-cassette release by Pierrot Lunaire, “This Love of Mine.”
As it turns out, this is one record you can totally judge by its cover, with deep appreciation to Frédéric Cordier for his fine work on both sides of the mega-j-card gracing this wild double-height Norelco case. In fact, let’s pause for a moment and admire this art:
Amazing artwork and unusual packaging aside, a quick scan of the music itself made it clear that I needed “This Love of Mine” in my brain. As luck would have it, this solo project of John Denizio has produced a large number of recordings in the last few years, most of which have now found their way to my cassette decks/turntables. Having spent a few months with this music, all of the recordings feel marvelously interrelated. Together they function as repeated iterations of a grand modern-urban-entheogenic ritual, resonating emotionally with Giraud’s original “Pierrot Lunaire” poems more closely than Schoenberg’s Op. 21 of the same name.
The sonic palette is modest. One finds saxophones and effects, usually with an emphasis on fast lines and short bursts of activity, looped and layered into plaintive sections. Occasionally a round of melancholy vocals gets treated to the same process. Other sections are made of old song fragments, mostly 1950s and earlier, where short phrases are repeated, contrasted, blended in reverb, filtered, and sped up and down. And there are sections of synth/oscillator sounds that can range from tonal to textural playing.
I perceive three fundamental levels of activity in Pierrot Lunaire: At the “individual composition” level, these are collage pieces in which the different “blocks” of activities (sax/found-sound/synth/voice) are pushed against one another, but they stay within their own boundaries, rarely blending into one another simultaneously. Within the sound-specific blocks, small bits of sound are looped, layered, and manipulated, drenched in reverb and delay, and captured right at the edge of distortion and microphonic feedback.
The third level runs across all of the releases so far. Pieces tend to function as full sides of C30s, staying close to 15 minute durations each. Even “This Love of Mine” only runs a touch over 45 minutes altogether, making it clear that having one piece per cassette side was a conscious decision worth pushing the release onto double-cassette. But similar kinds of “blocks” are pushed into and around one another, piece after piece, tape after tape, creating a singular and very recognizable style. Though made by combining improvised sections, the final edits feel very controlled, each block worked and reworked thoughtfully. When new kinds of audio sources or different approaches enter the mix, or on an occasion where saxophones and thrift store cassettes cascade together into a block, they feel very significant as alterations of familiar terrain: the reverb is totally off, lots of long tones on the saxophones, some guitar playing, etc. It’s an effect that reminds me of early Jandek, like a “Nancy Sings” epiphany.
Let’s look at the project in literary terms: Denizio compares his improvisation/editing process to the Gysin/Burroughs cut-up techniques, and that’s precisely the vibe I get from the collective output of Pierrot Lunaire. Set aside those funky Material albums: this music is the real audio equivalent of the Word Hoard, establishing its own weird boundaries and imploding into near-infinite variations. Like the Nova Trilogy, Pierrot Lunaire evokes moments of acute emotional intensity while distorting your perception of time—are you experiencing a memory or a premonition?—and forms twist and repeat, and moments of familiar sounds, with their attendant cultural symbolism, anchor you momentarily, and they’re gone as quickly as you can identify with them, and the cycle repeats.
Also like Burroughs, I think it would be a mistake to become too fixated on the formal implications of Pierrot Lunaire and miss its emotional impact. In terms of surface form and sound, this kind of collage/montage work feels very postmodern. The emotional message, though, is closer to modernism, or even “amodern,” to use the term in Timothy S. Murphy’s “Wising Up the Marks,” which identifies the intent of the Burroughs oeuvre as collectively railing against societal degeneration, seeing through the masks of the bourgeoisie, etc. Burroughs saw through those flaws and pined for a more innocent time, though “other times” rarely turn out to be innocent in their turn. I’m sure the Symbolists like Mr. Giraud and others associated with the Fin de siecle movement would look for their conception of “innocence” still further back and further forward from their own position in history.
As for me, these Pierrot Lunaire recordings are powerful stuff toward the remembrance of “innocent times.” They alter my dreams when I listen to them late in the day, and they draw out weird childhood moments that haven’t entered my mind since they happened, like being scared and attracted simultaneously whenever this tripped out clip would come on Sesame Street in the early 80s:
Try to remember everything you pass
But when you go back, make the First thing the Last.