Pateras percussion portrait. Shreds.

So I dragged myself away from the drawing board to go and see the Anthony Pateras Percussion Portrait, featuring Speak Percussion and Clocked Out on Sunday afternoon, and boy am I glad I did. This was the second performance of the program, the first having been the previous night and reviewed with typically noncommittal panache by The Age here.

[EDIT: another review of this concert by Steven Hodgson has just been posted by Resonate Magazine – 15 July 2009]

Overall, the music was provocative, at times utterly beautiful, and compellingly performed throughout. The program opened with Mutations for percussion sextet. This piece was composed in 2002, and so represents a much younger Pateras than the remainder of the program. A series of short movements brackets different ‘types’ of timbral processes and collections into sections. This has both a positive and a negative effect. On the one hand, there is a seemingly wanton eschewing of temporality in this music – it is always about the making present of a particular sonic state – but on the other hand this results in an apparently arbitrary distribution of materials. There is no sense that a particular unit should have a duration of 20 seconds as opposed to 2 minutes, or even 20 minutes, and the sequence in which these states are presented seems calculated to undermine the ability of the listener to construct larger-scale formal symmetries. This abdication of time’s mediating force renders the music is effectively a series of separate static panels. But, that being said, the most fascinating bits of the piece for me were invariably when two radically different states were juxtaposed – ie: when the effect of time was most foregrounded – such as ‘sustained single sound’ vs ‘envelope of repeated sounds with instant decay’, or ‘continuous sound state’ vs ‘silence’.

The second piece – the premiere performance of Mutant Theatre – Act III for solo percussionist was performed stunningly by Vanessa Tomlinson. I’m not sure what implications the titles of the Mutant Theatre pieces have (Mutant Theatre and Mutant Theatre – Act II, Sc. 5 appeared on Pateras’s 2004 CD release on the Tzadik label), as there was no program note. I’m not sure if the ‘theatre’ refers to a possibility for performance as a work of mutant musical theatre, or simply the equally stimulating physical theatre of percussive performance. Written in 2008, this work is interesting both in terms of what has changed in Pateras’s language in this time, and what has remained the same. The work opens with a delicate and dazzling play of densities, owing not a small amount to the percussion music of Iannis Xenakis. That’s where the resemblance to Xenakis ends, however, as Pateras makes very clear that his focus is still first and foremost on timbral exploration and juxtaposition.

Mutant Theatre – Act III retains, too, the formal strategies of the earlier work, consisting of a series of vignettes each featuring a significantly (often radically) changed instrumental/timbral pallette. Over the rather long span of the work, the sequential presentation of a series of discrete sonic spaces predetermines the mode of architectural reception – the structure effectively stymies any mid-level cross-referencing and development/juxtaposition of different ideas. The effect is like being transported instantaneously to a foreign environment. You can look around, and the detail is very beautiful, but you are then transported instantaneously to another environment, and then another. This is all very well, but I would have liked the opportunity (to continue the analogy) to walk around a bit, pick up some dirt, or smash some rocks together. I found myself wondering if the disjuncture I was perceiving would have been mitigated by, say, a crack team of two or even three percussionists alternating individual vignettes (dare I call them movements?) so that the break for the obligatory change of mallets and instruments could be a little less disruptive, and a little more pregnant.

The temporal effect of this music highlights, I think, an important difference in perceived musical content between improvised and notated performance traditions. In improvisation, the ‘present’ is something that is intrinsically transitory, and intrinsically dissolved into the broader continuum of sonic activity. Improvising performers are constantly acting and reacting with reference to what they have heard – in real-time – in the past, and instinctive/intellectual understandings of potential combinations in the future. (This is, necessarily, a pretty gross simplification of the extraordinary alchemy of improvisation. Suffice it to say, though, that the elasticity and tactility of chronology are present in improvised performance by default.)

Notated music doesn’t quite work that way. There is a certain rigidity in the way a notation forces sound materials to interract that needs to be negotiated/confronted/combatted/dealt with in some way. If an improvisation includes a section of (what is effectively) timbral stasis, there is nevertheless the sense that that stasis is an imposed one: the music is going from somewhere to somewhere else purely by virtue of its being created extemporaneously, and its trajectory has been obstructed for a given amount of time. Notated music doesn’t carry the same weight of implied progression: when stasis occurs in notated music it sounds like a single moment/idea/sound that is being prolonged. In other words, improvised stasis sounds like the manipulation and suspension of something complex and evolving, whereas in the absence of explicitly implied evolution, notated stasis sounds like a single object multiplied indefinitely.

Perhaps this is a result of the translation of sonic ideal into notation and back again, rather than remaining solely in the aural domain. And maybe I’m talking out of my arse. And thrilling stasis is certainly not out of the question (I think particularly of thinks like Patterns in a chromatic field of Morton Feldman, or the bit in Lachenmann’s Schwankungen am Rand where the two pianos bash away at that high note repeatedly for, like, two and a half minutes), but it’s something that needs to be really carefully worked out in notated music. There’s also the (very high, I imagine) chance that, if Pateras read this, he’d say something like “You’ve completely misunderstood everything I’m trying to do”.

The third piece on the program was Hypnagogics for ‘microsounds’ crotales and tape. The microsounds here consist of a set of very small objects (such as shot glasses, specially-made mini temple-blocks, that sort of thing), amplified. I think this was probably a really fantastic piece. The reason I ‘think’ that is because there was a small child near where I was sitting loudly requesting to go home all through it, and I found it really distracting (said child was making a rumpus throughout the first two works, also, but reached a very special crescendo during the performance of Hypnagogics). I really look forward to having the opportunity to see and hear this work performed live once again.

The final work of the program, Refractions for percussion sextet, was just that: a series of sound states ‘refracting’ across the extensive timbral resources of the ensemble before transforming into something else entirely. I found this piece much more satisfactory for not being a series of vignettes, and the architecture seemed to sit very naturally (and mum had finally decided to take the cranky toddler home). Timbrally, however, this work seemed less boldly exploratory than Transmutations. Perhaps this was a necessary condition for the composition of a work that deals so explicitly with time (refraction is, after all, a temporal phenomenon). The piece raised considerations for me of sonic identity, and the point at which a sound object loses that identity and becomes something else. This is a fantastically interesting line, and one that I wish the piece had interrogated in a bit more detail. It seemed very much a case of opening a door, and then not going through it, although, when the door is as stimulating as this one, it seems a bit precious to be criticising it.

In fact, levelling criticism at work of this calibre seems almost perversely precious. This was one of the most stimulating concerts I’ve been to all year, and was absolutely wonderfully performed. The fact that I felt moved to get off my arse and commit nearly 1400 words to virtual paper, largely focussed on my own ruminations on things arising from these works, says something profound about the provocative qualities of Pateras’s music. Because I’m very lazy.

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