So often when you see experimental music performed live, the motivations of the performer and the outcomes that they’re trying to achieve can seem totally alien to the audience. I always assume that the musician is very clear about what they are doing and if I don’t comprehend it then the problem most likely lies with me. Yet the liner notes, penned by Anthony Pateras, all dark, witty and self depreciating, a little like a Fear and Loathing account of the toils of life on the road for an experimental ensemble, make it clear that bandleader Anthony Pateras himself had no idea what Thymolphthalein was – and in fact it was this lack of certainty that continued to inspire him.
“Improv heads hated it, composers found it crass, even we, the ones playing it, were confused,” he offers early on, discussing the ensemble’s initial performances.
With Natasha Anderson (contrabass recorder/computer), Will Guthrie (drums), Jerome Noetinger (Tape machine/ electronics), Clayton Thomas (double bass), and Pateras himself (Piano/ Wurlitzer/ Modular synth), they had a pretty impressive arsenal at their disposal. They’re also all seasoned improvisers, which may explain why no two tracks on this album sound vaguely similar, or are approached using the same or similar gestures. This is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand it demonstrates the agility of the ensemble, almost becoming a new ensemble for each piece – self consciously erasing their collective past each time they sit down together. But then what is their sound? What makes them special? What is it that they do? What do you go and see them to see? “Even in avant garde music,” offers Pateras, “the implicit agreement is to deliver to the expectations of the market.”
These kinds of musings are fascinating, and Pateras’ introspection and reflection is interspersed with conversations with all of the band members. It doesn’t shy away from some of the inherent issues with commerce and experimental music; Pateras is honest and vulnerable in his musings and recollections. It’s the kind of document that should be on the syllabus for university students studying composition.
The music is everything and nothing. It’s an improvised electro acoustic fusion. It’s the sound of a collision. It can build and be relentless, brutal, and aggressive, where it can feel that the players are just piling on top of each other as the momentum of the piece seems to carry them towards an inevitable crescendo. Yet there are also subtler, more soothing moments, though they don’t tend to last long. Structurally it all moves on at a fair rate of knots, nothing is predictable, pieces evolve and change quickly, any musical rule you thought you learnt thirty seconds ago is no longer relevant. It’s prickly music designed to provoke. It’s never overtly musical, fissures of sound can erupt unexpectedly, drones can operate at difficult frequencies, and the ensemble can take an abrupt right turn at any moment without any warning. It has the feeling that anything is permitted, free music, without rules, which is both exciting and problematic. Pateras himself identifies that due to this precise combination of instrumentation having never been performed together before, and the fact that it sounds neither composed nor improvised, there isn’t a lot to hang your hat on.
“Permanent invention is the only way to breathe,” offers Pateras, and it’s a great descriptor of this beautiful bold unwieldy beast. This ensemble ceased working together in 2013, precisely because he started to understand the band and there was no way he was having that. I personally am still a long way off.