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5 September 2008

Configuring Music

Anthony Pateras in conversation with Cat Hope

Anthony Pateras Image: Anthony Pateras  

Cat Hope and Anthony Pateras like to talk about music because they are both classically trained performers and composers. They both make noise improvisation performances, as well as writing more academic 'new music', in amongst other things that make up the life of a contemporary musician/artist. In this conversation, Anthony Pateras talks about his way of creating music, and the limits of appreciation for new music in Australia.

Cat Hope: Though your background in music is a classical one, you have ventured into territory that investigates free improvisation, noise and electronics. How do you see these fitting together to define you as a 'composer'?

Anthony Pateras: As Edgard Varèse defined it years ago, composing is organising sound. The thing I like about that definition is that it immediately opens up possibilities rather than shuts them out. Already we're talking in terms of these areas 'fitting together' as if they were massively different. I, like you, love Whitehouse as much as Scelsi, Parmegiani as much as Hanatarash, Cecil Taylor as much as Xenakis and so on. The key thing with my stuff is that it tries to relate to these areas – composition, improvisation, electronics, noise, whatever – both contemporary and historical, with the same amount of weight. I don't think a big deal should be made when a composer uses improvisation or an improviser structures something or whatever – they're all just strategies, and, as with notation, you need to know as much as possible about these strategies before you use them.

'I used to write on my bio composer/improviser or whatever, but I'm most comfortable with musician, it turns out. Just writing composer down makes people think in a certain way.'So in terms of definitions, I used to write on my bio composer/improviser or whatever, but I'm most comfortable with musician, it turns out. Just writing composer down makes people think in a certain way. Some people have an immediate reaction of distrust – including myself! I agree with Keith Humble when he talked about people using this term as a way of self-aggrandisement...

CH: I agree. Personally, I call myself 'artist' nowadays – just to get rid of the 'musician' tag, which almost implies a gigging cover band or violinist in the orchestra! I even enrolled in a PhD in Fine Art instead of music to avoid that problem.

AP: Well that's one way of dealing with it. As the area of what we do becomes more wide-ranging, it becomes harder to define, but that's fine. Definitions or 'genrefications' of artistic practice have principally come out of the marketplace's need to sell and make a profit. I'm sure you know as many people as I do, who do audio-visual work, installation, performance, writing, teaching, curation all at the same time to various degrees.

CH: Many of the composers who have inspired you explored graphic notation. How do you notate the more complex integration of elements – such as computers – into your works? Do you even notate at all?

AP: For the computer material, I just write, 'press button'. It's pointless to transcribe what's in software onto the page – that's a linguistic hangover. On the Max/MSP programming side I work with Robin Fox, simply because he is one of the few computer musicians I know who is inherently musical in his practice (even though he constantly says how much he hates music). I say to him what I want (which admittedly, is based upon my experiences in our duo), and he makes a performable version for me to play with very simple, direct triggers. We communicate well. This was the case with [working with] both the Melbourne Symphony and the Australian Chamber Orchestra last year, for example. For myself, I tend to improvise when playing with orchestras, and therefore use a more flexible form of notation. I have sections that say 'do this here on this sound', but pitch/time specificity varies greatly.

So my works are very idiosyncratic – which means they don't get played very much, because generally it's necessary for me to be present if they are to be realised correctly (my percussion pieces are the exception to this rule). However, I can explain concepts to the technician and players much better in person, and I'm happier with this situation. I find the notion that you have to get everything absolutely right before you send it off places a huge amount of counterproductive pressure on you. What if you want to change something? Experiment with the sounds in real time? One of the main issues I've encountered is that this kind of relationship is often discouraged rather than encouraged, simply because it takes more time, and therefore costs more in players' wages for whomever is putting it on. Any musician with a clue knows that good music takes time. The standard rehearsal period for a new work these days is generally three calls (if you're lucky). This is hugely disproportionate to the amount of time a new piece takes to write, and I think in some cases it can have a direct impact on compositional decisions – you know: 'I can't do that because the players won't be able to execute it'.

To get an ensemble to really understand every nuance of a piece takes a lot of work – especially in pieces that are genuinely trying to discover new territory. The current rehearsal structure allows for recognisable territory, but is unsympathetic to exploration. When I see under-rehearsed premieres repeatedly I have to ask what is the purpose of commissioning new music without giving it the time it needs? Look at history: some people sit around bemoaning the fact there hasn't been an orchestral masterpiece since Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring. But to get that riot, that genuine impact, that unmistakeable progress in the language of music, they had over one hundred rehearsals! Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire – another turning point – forty rehearsals…this kind of situation is impossible today.

CH: So how much of your pieces do you score? Do you ever use conventional notation? Are you ever interested in that sort of control?

AP: I score all of my pieces predominantly with conventional notation. Graphic notation is occasionally used to initiate a particular timbral world or performance energy...but it always comes with specific instructions. For example, I would never give a violinist a picture and then tell them to play it. It just doesn't wash, and anyway, lots of improvisers I know can play something far more effective and genuine than a classical player struggling with a couple of squiggles. Additionally, with this approach you then get the whole problem of who wrote the piece when the performer is just improvising anyway. I hate composers who claim techniques or interpretations of performers and put their own name on it. Outrageous!

I guess in using notation at all, one is fundamentally interested in control, but I prefer to think about it as employing the resources at hand to achieve outcomes impossible through other means. For example, the level of structure and organisation in my Chromatophore would be very difficult to achieve with eight string players improvising together for the first time. Eight great string improvisers could get close, maybe even something better, but they wouldn't get that outcome.

CH: I sort of waive between not being bothered and being reluctant to write it down. It has to do with the fact that you yourself are involved; you can explain and demonstrate better than any notation can serve you. I feel that any possible notation just doesn't get the finer details, or even worse – complicates something that can be equally effective if the players themselves make certain decisions each time the piece is performed. This is why the composer/performer thing is so interesting – it opens a new world that is not limited by notations or idiosyncratic improvisation styles.

AP: Yes – composers who perform have experiences and aesthetics informed by this aspect of their work, and you can try to communicate this to performers, but I am careful not to assume that performers are interested in making their own creative decisions that extend beyond interpretation. I would say a lot of performers trained in 'classical' music shy away from this…it's not encouraged – this distinction between composer and performer still remains today. This is best articulated in Derek Bailey's book Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music: 'the biggest handicap inflicted by that (classical) training is the instilling of a deeply reverential attitude towards the creation of music, based upon the physical and hierarchical separation of playing and creating'. For people like you and me, it's always been very similar, but in education, and in the concert hall, the distinctions remain very strong.

It's a question of evolution. Simply, the kind of situation we are living in now is vastly different to the one that we started with. For example, I'm writing something for The Song Company at the moment. For research, I'm not only listening to motets, chorales, Joan la Barbara and Cathy Berberian, but I'm pulling out Jaap Blonk, Phil Minton, Jerry Hunt, Henri Chopin and traditional music from Burundi and Bulgaria. I'm also going to grindcore shows – some of what those singers achieve is amazing. I'm finding that to create anything close to new, you have to at least try to deal with what is happening today and the broader array of techniques being presented…and not crassly appropriate them either. By simply taking them into account, you're miles ahead…

It's strange to me – other art forms, such as visual art, absorb progress, both technological and ideological, much more readily. It's not uncommon in an installation, for example, to have aspects of drawing, sculpture, painting, video and sound all together side by side, contributing to the one outcome. Whereas a piece for an orchestra incorporating electronics, improvisation, or some kind of rarefied technique, is seen as a novelty, or even controversial. I went to the Cybec young composers' concert recently by the MSO, and a student of mine, James Rushford, wrote this beautiful piece that split the orchestra into two ensembles and used electronics. And you know the drill, right? Before an orchestra does anything slightly outlandish, the conductor gets up and talks about the 'weird percussion sounds' or 'strange noises from the violins', under the assumption they're helping the audience understand the nuances of the work. This always comes across to me like an apology – sometimes even patronising - and I think this strategy immediately places the audience in a different mindset towards what they're about to hear. At an exhibition or experimental film screening, you're never expressly warned about supposedly 'weird' content. You go in, experience it and make of it what you will. Why orchestras don't take the same approach, is beyond me.

'It's like trying to build progress on quicksand: everything heavy sinks, and everything light stays afloat'. To exacerbate the issue, there is not a strongly instilled culture in ensembles and orchestras to perform new music regularly. What results is the weird situation that world premieres are more common that repeat performances. Because of this, the ideas presented in a new work, no matter how innovative or challenging, fail to take hold within the culture because they are not reinforced through the repeat performances that earlier repertoire receives. Thus what is considered groundbreaking in classical music, increasingly fails to equate to what's being achieved in other art forms. It's like trying to build progress on quicksand: everything heavy sinks, and everything light stays afloat.

CH: Not a good sign. The whole premiere idea in music is sort of dead anyway. Every performance should be a kind of premiere if you ask me.

AP: Ideally, yes, and that's what non-idiomatic free improvisation theoretically gives us, but this practice is not invulnerable to ideological lethargy. But that's a whole other discussion.

CH: How did your interest in prepared piano come about?

AP: Basically just getting sick of playing piano repertoire, and trying to figure out what to do with all of these years of training I had, in a creative way. Of course John Cage was one starting point, but it's not like I ever studied the Sonatas and Interludes. I get more excited by people like Cor Fuhler, Erik Griswold, and Chris Abrahams, as well as the early keyboard music of Ligeti; music that re-configures the fundamental approach to, or result of, the instrument. With the Sonatas and Interludes, Cage still required the piano to be played like a piano, and even though it sounds great and opened a whole new world (although it must be said that Erik Satie first had the idea around thirty years earlier – something which is oft forgotten), some of these newer guys suggest fantastic solutions to the problem of the instrument.

CH: I think Henry Cowell's contributions are also often forgotten here.

AP: Sure, absolutely. Cage is the convenient, broadly known weirdo to quote, or name-drop, for people who don't know about the whole experimental world out there. Don't get me wrong, I love some Cage, but I think he tends to be deified because he seemingly had an answer for everything. Well, he had his answer for everything. Some of the answers are very helpful, and some of them are ridiculous! It was very important for me to realise that. The same with Morton Feldman, if I read him too much I begin to think he's a genius, which of course he was, but he was a genius with a very specific point of view – one which barely addresses electronic or improvised music that was happening around the same time as he was active. You have to watch how your models influence you.

CH: I love both of these artists, because they are real mavericks. Not interested in how things should be done, but rather how they can be done. Sometimes this works, other times…

AP: …it doesn't, but it's great that they still went for it. I'm still trying to write a piece that 'works'!

CH: Like you, I sort of straddle this dot-writing and improvisation/composition/performance area. I find improvising a much less arduous process (unless it's on some long tour, which is when you really test your creativity), and in the back of my mind I am almost guilty about it, like I've failed as a musical craftsperson because of it. Do you suffer similar struggles?

AP: No, not really – to be a good improviser is very difficult! It requires just as much skill, precision, timing and technique as it does to perform Ferneyhough – and that's not taking anything away from his music – it's just that improvisation in classical music circles so often gets dismissed as mindless dross.

CH: But sometimes it is mindless dross. Is that part of the problem?

AP: Well, sometimes composition is mindless dross, but what makes it worse is that someone's taken the time and effort to write it down!

As I said before, they're all just strategies, each with their own problems and advantages. The real issue here is not composition versus improvisation, it's music education and all of the baggage that comes with it. When I was at LaTrobe University, in one day you would have a 20th century repertoire class (it was still the 20th century then), then you would go down to the studio and learn about miking, then go learn some computer music, then go and play in an improv ensemble or sing in a choir … that's impressive when I think about it now.

CH: The new Bachelor of Music – Music Technology [course] that I wrote, and that has just started at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University, does something like that, and was very much inspired by the LaTrobe course. The idea is to train you in all the ways music can be made, and start from NOW instead of three thousand years ago.

AP: Absolutely. That's good! Start now and go backwards and see what kind of perspective that provides on earlier repertoire and practices. In my view, music education should be geared towards discovering new ways to empower musicians through creative music pursuits, and reinforce this with a broad knowledge of different kinds of music. I mean, this is all very utopian, but now we have the situation where if a musician in a conservatorium wants to learn improvisation, there is always some point of grappling – like they have to allow themselves to do it.

CH: Well, you hit the nail on the head there. I hated my time studying music. I loved music but somehow my ideas about it didn't fit with their way of teaching it. I didn't have years of playing behind me, and struggled with learning harmony the way they taught it. Though I studied performance, not composition, I felt like I never knew the right answer. It wasn't until I got away from university and into life, and I began to learn my own way, that I felt able to compose. I didn't have to do it in any way anyone told me to. As you said, I allowed myself. Having said that, I was conditioned to understand real 'The whole idea of written music being the most valuable while everyone is file-sharing millions of MP3s per second is a hilarious anachronism to me.'music, a sort of quality in music, was in it being written down. Even though I now know this just isn't the case, it's as if four years of classical music at a conservative university drummed it in. Do you have a similar problem?

AP: When I think about it, I did, initially, but then the Internet came along and completely reconfigured the value of music. The whole idea of written music being the most valuable while everyone is file-sharing millions of MP3s per second is a hilarious anachronism to me. Here I am, in my study, sweating over a bar of percussion while billions of bars of all kinds of music are traded, bought, deleted, loved, hated and forgotten in an instant, online. So, to write music relevant to today's culture in the slightest, the idea of new or contemporary music in the Western Art Music sense has to be very different now. If everyone has the potential to hear everything, you have a much greater challenge in achieving 'newness'. I mean, I try to visit UBUWEB at least once a day but it just freaks me out so much what's been done that some days I can't go there…!

CH: That's right, more people listen to music than ever before, and frankly they don't give a damn about how it was made. If it works for you as a listener or performer, then that's great. As for information and art…we may never know.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Cat Hope is a sound artist: composer, musician, performance, academic and video artist. She runs the composition, music technology and postgraduate music programs at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Edith Cowan University. She is currently working on creating music with low frequency sounds that move around the cusp of audibility.


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