17 April 2014
Anthony Pateras Alone
The 40-year-old Synergy Percussion starts its anniversary celebrations with a mighty 2-day event (Sydney 22-23 April), perfoming two major works: Pleiades by Iannis Xenakis, followed by a world premiere by Anthony Pateras. Andrew Aronowicz talked to Pateras about his composing and tried to resist too obvious comparisons between Pateras and the master of the European post-war avant-garde. (See also: New Music Network events 24 April and 28 April.)
Anthony Pateras has a lot in common with Iannis Xenakis. Both composers look for a sense of isolation in their music making, neither are interested in connecting musically with what came before them, and both are concerned with writing what is quintessentially 'new'. And yet the Berlin-based Australian composer is extremely hesitant about making too strong a connection between his own music and that of Xenakis. Indeed, the last thing he wants is to be considered some kind of 'antipodean counterpart'.
And fair enough: all composers have a very personal and complex relationship with what's come before them, and making unfounded comparisons can betray that complexity. But the name of Synergy Percussion's upcoming concerts, 'Xenakis vs Pateras' (22-23 April), begs for some kind of cross-examination (It wasn't Pateras's idea - marketing is 'not his department'). It's a bit like the line-up for a boxing match - a showdown between two musical heavyweights, with Pateras's new work, Beauty will be Amnesiac or will not be at all, up against Xenakis's Pleiades.
How deep the connection is remains to be seen, but Pateras wasn't really thinking about Xenakis's work during the writing process - it was more about seeing what else he could do with the same instrumentation. For Pateras, any link basically stops after the staging: 'This was one thing I borrowed from Xenakis', he says. The Synergy percussionists will be arranged in a hexagon, communicating across the Carriageworks space with electronics thrown into the mix during Pateras's piece. 'It's basically the stage plan from Persephassa (a circle around the audience), except there's a speaker between each player for the sound spatialisation, with the instruments from Pleiades. So I guess it's a conglomeration of his two sextets on the level of basic materials.'
As an engineer and architect, Xenakis was acutely aware of space as an influence and a feature of his music making. Pateras is too: 'I like making the room live as much as possible', he says. 'This is a Xenakian idea, that the architecture and placement of sound is important in a work's realisation and should be thought about as much as any other parameter. He was already experimenting with these ideas in early pieces like in Terretektorh, and being an architect he had even designed a few concert halls, I think, including a rejected conical design for the Cité de la musique [in Paris]. Would've been amazing to hear something in that!'
Percussion writing has become something of a home ground for Pateras (to indulge the competition analogy further). But a home ground is the last thing on his mind: 'I think, in a way, the most dangerous thing for a composer, or any creative individual, is to feel at home', he says. When he had the initial discussions with Synergy's Artistic Director Timothy Constable, Pateras was a bit hesitant about writing another percussion piece: 'I thought I'd said everything I wanted to say with percussion.'
He's almost afraid of things becoming too easy or predictable: 'If you start repeating yourself because you've become too comfortable, there's no real point, just repetition', he says. 'You become a thing, a product, and this happens to most artists, because it's very, very difficult to maintain a position of permanent invention for all kinds of reasons.'
He turns to Xenakis to articulate his way of negotiating this quandary: 'In his writings and interviews, Xenakis often talks about forgetting, waking up everyday and discovering new things through working, as if for the first time (I think he goes as far to say, "as if like a child"), while simultaneously being informed by one's experiences. This kind of duality, oscillating between remembering and forgetting, is something I find very powerful, which is why I embrace things that are both systematised and intuitive.'
Pateras was forced to leave his comfort zone while writing this piece. At one hour in length, it's the longest piece he has ever composed: 'The main issue', he says, 'was to develop strategies for approaching that kind of scale. When you have a commission of a certain length, it's very difficult to navigate freely, to let the materials exhaust themselves naturally, because you know the duration you're contractually obligated to fill. You can start making all kinds of crazy decisions that have nothing to do with the music or the acoustic reality of the situation. I think this is dangerous and is the reason why one hears so many pieces which sound so safe, so predictable, so suffocated by polite proportions or weird programmatic/narrative representations.'
Further challenges presented themselves while Pateras worked on the electronic element of the piece. He highlights a major issue with balancing the live and electronic components of the performance: 'It's very hard to use electronics in combination with instruments that isn't somehow too obvious or superficial', he says. 'To successfully give equal weight to the two in the same context is rarely achieved, so that's always a concern for me.'
He describes the placement of the speakers between players as creating 'a sort of ghost/mirror image of the live sound, consisting of manipulated acoustic materials'. His initial intention was to create the electronics using recorded material of Synergy playing, but he eventually went in a different direction: piano parts and an old tape recorder.
'I was living in Brussels, missing my piano frame and Revox in Melbourne because I was thinking how perfect it would be to use those for the piece', he says. 'As my wife Natasha pointed out (she has an amazing ability to clarify my musical ideas) the piano frame provides a simultaneously tangible and abstract link between percussion and electronics. There's something in the recognisable alien-ness, the combined transience and resonance of the sound, and in combining that with the Revox you can achieve an excellent saturated, industrial quality.'
'I visited my friend Jérôme Noetinger in Rives, which is near Grenoble, and improvised with him for around three days on piano frames, analogue synthesiser and whatever else was lying around his garage, while he recorded and processed it live with Revox B77. Rives is a small town, no distractions. We recorded hours of stuff, which I then spent quite a while editing into the tape accompaniment for the scored component. Doing this after the score was finished will hopefully provide a sense of two concurrent breathing things that sometimes match, sometimes have an odd relationship, sometimes simply smash against one another.'
This eclectic approach to composing is the norm for Pateras: 'My working methods are always changing', he says. 'Sometimes they're systematic, sometimes they're impulsive.' He also claims 'in most cases, my favourite music rejects analysis'. His thinking is almost always primarily musical - inspiration might come from philosophy, art or film, but ultimately he likes to 'work with his ears'. Music making is intrinsic to his way of life: 'I feel I can be the most useful by playing music, talking about music, making and teaching music', he says.
'I don't understand many things outside of music - I love a few filmmakers and visual artists very much, but I'm not like a sponge, constantly absorbing from all creative quarters and synthesising them in different ways. Basically, I try to read as much as possible, and generally I stay with a few things for a while, going over them, trying to understand them. Maybe I'm slow, maybe it's a reaction to how cheap the creative act has become in the digital age.'
These sentiments both recall and distance the composer further from Xenakis. Experimentation was also at the core of Xenakis's work, though as an accomplished architect and engineer he would draw on his professional understanding of science and mathematics to aid his composing, in the hope this might lead down some new, unforeseen path. Pateras's intersections with the extra-musical derive more from a personal interest and fascination.
His work for Synergy Percussion draws its inspiration from an essay by Sylvère Lotringer, titled The Dance of Signs. Pateras likens it to 'a great album, something you go back to and find new things each time'. Featuring an extended critique of the psychoanalytical method of Sigmund Freud, Pateras suggests Lotringer uses Freud's interpretation of Gradiva (a story of a man plagued by his memories of a woman from his past) as 'a launching pad for his observations, the majority positing the idea that not everything has some kind of hidden meaning and is influenced by one's past experiences. He contextualises this, very powerfully, with materials from Nietzsche and Cage - and his choice to use Cage is particularly interesting because, as he points out, Freud had an enduring hostility towards music simply because it was the one thing he couldn't analyse!'
This had a profound effect on Pateras: 'I've not read anything else recently which so articulately points out that if we're not careful, we can be led into situations where you are told what to think and feel, even therapeutic ones', he says. 'This is what analysis can do: it says, "you are this", and "this is why" - because your dreams tell us so. Lotringer calls for dreams to 'coexist in all their richness within dissonance', and this is how I approached the integration of the percussion and electronics - co-existing temporalities rubbing against each other.'
For Pateras, this wariness of past influences extends into his philosophy on composing: 'I don't see myself as an extension of a grand lineage or anything', he says, 'that's a pretty dangerous path and can lead to some strange decisions and perceptions in and of oneself'.
His relationship with the past is a complex one: 'American composer and theorist James Tenney said something very useful about this: that we need to know what has happened in the past, and we as humans need to know our histories, but from there we go on to explore what is exciting to us, now. I think his point is that, in music, that's all anyone was ever doing. Artists get so hung up on pandering to imaginary hierarchies to do with what supposedly came before, and everyone has their own version of history, right? What's important to me is not going to be the same as what's important to you, and the past is very oppressive for everyone. We all have to figure out a way to deal with it, how to deal with the accumulation of knowledge.'
'So, my ultimate goal is to be as alone as possible when making', he continues, 'to be alone with the materials. Everyone has an idea of what music should sound like. Everyone has ideas about what certain combinations of instruments should sound like. How does one stay free within that? How do you write new music that doesn't sound like "new music"? How do we as composers and musicians, as Sylvère puts it in his essay, not give in to the "demands of resemblance"?'
Pateras's preference for independence, for intentionally distancing himself from other composers' works, is echoed in one of his favourite quotes by Xenakis:
The musician, the artist, must be absolutely independent, which means absolutely alone. You must be convinced that you're doing what you must be doing, with the means at your disposal, at that particular time. If you had other means you'd be doing something different.1
Pateras strives for loneliness with his materials, and in his performances: 'If you sit at your desk worrying about whether you're going to be as good as someone else, you never get anything done and you have a miserable time. (I highly recommend reading Thomas Bernhard's Concrete and The Loser on this kind of thing). I also think this is useful advice when one is distracted by the horrors of professional life - you can make music in a lot of different ways, with lots of different kinds of musicians in many different contexts, and there's no point sitting around at home getting pissy about something. All you can do is get on with the work, that's all there is.'
Pateras's desire for autonomy is echoed in his aversion to the pack mentality of the online digital world: 'In Paul Virilio's book, The Administration of Fear, he talks about the gradual loss of chronodiversity - put simply, he posits that because everyone is hooked up to the web, we are emotionally synchronised to an extent, therefore we lose a kind of diversity of existence.'
'Composition is similar: if we all use the same software, certain temporal expectations and working methods become ingrained through constant exposure to a particular interface. This is one of the reasons some of my methods are so impractical and slow - I like doing the things the long way round, editing electronics in time itself, not units of time, shifting things around to achieve unexpected occurrences. Different things come up this way and one can respond accordingly.'
While their styles and compositional processes are completely different, Xenakis and Pateras both share an unwavering reverence for work - and share the feeling that nothing is more important than the creative act. Pateras holds Xenakis's approach to music making in high regard: 'From what I hear, he had a particularly striking sense of creative ethics', he says. 'How to proceed as an artist, how to maintain one's integrity, if it ever existed in the first place, how to remain curious and refuse complacency. He was very supportive of his colleagues and students in a kind and genuine way. I think he had figured out a way to get through all of the extraneous "other stuff" we have to deal with as composers, all of the distractions that can increase and magnify as you proceed through life. He worked extremely hard at achieving the results he did - I respect that approach a lot.'
Looking back on the legacy of Iannis Xenakis - one of the truly modern composers of the 20th century who redefined percussion writing - it's hard not to make comparisons. But it's also important not to deny a composer his or her creative autonomy. And this is the conundrum: not to get caught up in issues of 'legacy', and 'influence'. There is enough trouble for composers as they negotiate their place in the musical world, without getting involuntarily placed in the shadows of other great composers who did similar, or otherwise dissimilar, things.
A program like the upcoming Synergy concert invites you to explore the potential connections and differences between the music of those featured, but ultimately it comes down to the individual convictions of the artists. How curious that a concert with such a provocative title should feature two composers otherwise completely uninterested in artistic comparisons.
Pateras is somewhat subdued when it comes to how the concert's going to go: 'I haven't heard it yet, but apparently it's sounding good', he says. 'I don't use notation software or samplers or anything, so I only have my internal impressions and instincts to rely on, and they tell me it should sound OK.'
For a piece that's been two years in the making, by one of Australia's most regarded and internationally successful composers, it's likely to come off a bit better than just, 'OK'.
Pateras - AMC profile
Synergy Percussion: 'Xenakis vs Pateras' 22 April 2014 (AMC Calendar)
New Music Network event with a new work by Pateras 24 April (Sydney) and 28 April (Melbourne)
Anthony Pateras - homepage (http://anthonypateras.com)
Synergy Percussion (http://synergypercussion.com)
© Australian Music Centre (2014) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Subjects discussed by this article:
Andrew Aronowicz is a Melbourne-based composer, teacher and writer. He completed his MMus in composition in 2013, and was in Sydney early in 2014 as the Australian Youth Orchestra Music Presentation Fellow, working at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Limelight Magazine and ABC Radio National (The Music Show).
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