This is an interview I did for Inpress magazine with Melbourne composer/ performer Anthony Pateras. He had just released Chasms on the Portuguese label Sirr, launched at the Corner Hotel (Melbourne) on July 31 with Robin Fox, Natasha Anderson, Johnny Saw Horses and Marco Fusinato.
This is your first solo prepared piano album. Do you feel it captures and in a sense closes a certain chapter in your approach to the instrument, or is it simply one of many pieces you have composed using prepared piano.
It closes a big chapter in a way because I tried to record something two years ago and utterly failed, which has never happened to me before – to record completely solo I found was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to doâ€¦What was also really difficult was to find a personal language outside of Pateras/Baxter/Brown – that band has had a huge influence on the way I play and we’ve toured so much together, so using the same instrument in a solo context and making it just as powerful was a huge challenge without Sean and Dave there to kick my arse.
What do you prepare your piano with in these pieces?
I use cards, tape, bolts, screws and an array of coins from all over the world. I’ve found using certain redundant European currencies gets great sounds.
What prompted you to try to prepare a piano in the first place? What about it initially intrigued you?
The short answer is I wanted to play piano without being a classical robot or some schmuck doing BVs and playing bad synth hooks in a covers band. I distinctly remember the turning point being playing in a certain commercial radio broadcaster’ comedy show about 10 years ago. While playing the synth pads for the intro to “Walking in Memphis’ I thought to myself (completely ripped to dull the pain), man, all those hours of practising Beethoven and Bach to perfection over 14 years and it’s come thisâ€¦I thought just before I reached for the cowbell for the chorus. Something had to be done. This is best solution I could come up with.
What have you learnt from piano preparation? What continues to interest you?
A big thing I’ve learnt is that the piano is a powerful cultural icon across the board – to mess with it so intimately is blasphemy for some. When the Trio played at Wangaratta a couple of years ago, the local piano tuner leant inside the piano while I was preparing it, and stayed there until it was done, waiting for me to scratch anything, to make the slightest error, so he could nail me and say, â€œI told you so.â€ It was like someone holding a Taser a centimetre from my balls for about 30 minutes. This doesn’ mean I’m interested in upsetting people, I’m just bored with the sound of the piano (unless, of course, Cor Fuhler, Chris Abrahams, Cecil Taylor, Misha Mengelberg, Aki or Yuji Takahashi are playing it). For the record – I’ve never damaged a piano through preparing it.
My main interest is trying to extend the sounds of piano without the aid of a computer or production. Just put some mics up and make it sound huge and different through different physicalities of playing. Music education teaches us that there are so many wrong ways to play an instrument – I’ve found these generally end up being a great starting point to developing unique approaches to sound. Not that it doesn’ take work – of course there is a certain element to experimental/underground music which says anything goes, which is fantastic, but lazy musos take advantage of this sometimes. I really respect people who stay on something really bizarre and unique for years, developing it to the point where they become so fluent that the weirdest shit you’ve ever heard becomes really natural and cohesive.
You mention in the liner notes that you had developed particular preparations according to register. Can you tell me a little more about this?
After being quite random for years, I eventually found that different preparations sound best in specific registers. This developed into an idea of sectioning off the piano so that different groups of notes produce specific sounds. I worked with this in the writing of the album – focusing sections on particular registers and exploring the different residue that results from rapid repetitions.
You speak of the emulation of electronic instruments as a partial motivation for these pieces. Firstly why would you want to do this? And secondly how did you approach doing this? Do you feel there are many links between the timbre of prepared piano and electronic music?
Well I know it’s a weird way to spend your time – but its just where I ended up. After playing with Robin Fox over about seven years I’ve of course become fascinated with the possibilities of electronic music, and this has had a big impact on the way I play the piano. Also listening to the early Xenakis electronic works, Parmegiani, Chion – all of the old school French stuff – the sense of phrasing is really beautiful and considered. Also the use of texture. I try to re-create these concepts physically. It may not sound electronic (although some people listening to the album swear that I did overdubs of some kind), but it’s a really interesting starting point – for me anyway. To acknowledge what’s been done with all of the traditional classical repertoire and free improvisation, but then take it a step further by throwing a completely different physical approach into the mix.
The thing for me was to try and transcend the typical way of playing the piano – we get so used to playing instruments in such prescribed ways – that’s why the work of people like Derek Bailey, or Peter Brotzmann, or any of those early free players was so important. They showed that there are possibilities beyond scales, harmony, fixed rhythm, and melody. Music’ problem is that people think it’s over. Everything’ been done blah blah. Sure a lot’s been done, but there’ so much more to do. That’s why I come across a bit pissed off in interviews sometimes – there’ so much derivative shit being played and yeah, I just don’ know why people want to listen to it. But then again, maybe people don’ want to be challenged by their music, and that’s fine. I don’ want to shove it down people’ throats. I’ve been watching Milli Vanilli on YouTube for chrissake, what do I know?
Do you need to impose relatively strict constraints around yourself at the beginning of a project?
Mainly I just have to remember that everything I do can be a pile of shit if I don’ work hard enough. Generally that gets me through to at least getting something release-able.
How did you find yourself on a Portuguese label?
This sounds so â€œAussie overseasâ€ but I played this album in Lisbon while it was still being developed. The next thing you know the label guy drove me out to the Atlantic for snails and beer, and we made the deal. How rock is that?
Chasms is available through Portuguese label Sirr.