Operating in an unconventional world that straddles new, improvised and experimental music, Anthony Pateras defies convention. This shouldn’ be as surprising as it is; after all, these forms pride themselves on the relentless pursuit of the new, on creating new techniques and approaches that have never existed before, on offering answers to questions that have yet to be asked, or asking questions that have no answer. Yet the reality is that, even within this hallowed community of risk-taking artists, very few are actively contributing to the pursuit of the new. Experimental has become a catch-all term for the difficult, noisy or uncomfortable, and far too many improvise with a safety net. Most seem to find an approach, stick with it, and ride it as far as possible into the shore. Not Pateras. That would be too easy.
“One of my favourite analogies for composing and improvising is that it’s very much like trying to keep honey on a knife. The ideas are always falling and you just have to twist the knife a little bit to keep them focused,” he offers, enthusiastically, over a scratchy Skype line from his new home of Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, a place he describes as the Coburg of Brussels.
“That’s really close to what it’s like, and sometimes it’s like being half asleep as well. If it’s working, sonic images and impulses are translated into symbols or instrumental gestures very quickly and unconsciously, and we really don’ know how it happens.”
Pateras is in constant pursuit of the new. As soon as predictability creeps in, he becomes bored, and wants to move on. In fact, it’s a testament to his restlessness that he’ recently disbanded one of his most successful projects, an improvised trio with Melbourne prepared guitarist David Brown and percussionist Sean Baxter.
“As a group, it was so musically stubborn and refused to budge on a lot of things, which was both a blessing and a curse,” reflects Pateras. “Sometimes it’s just the way these bands end up. You play together with like-minded people and you get locked into structural and aesthetic habits.”
“It’s always a tricky balancing act with improvisation,” he continues, “because you start up these groups, hoping you will achieve some kind of telepathic communication, but when you actually achieve that, you have to try very hard not to be constrained by it. In a way, the priority should be to keep surprising yourself and your band mates. I always think that bands should finish when you stop surprising each other. Repetition in improvisation is antithetical to the very purpose of the act.”
At any one time he has a ridiculous number of musical plates in the air. He is a solo composer and improviser, leader of the electro-acoustic quintet Thymolphthalein, performs piano in a duo PIVIXKI with grind drummer Max Kohane, has an occasional noise duo with Marco Fusinato called Poletopra, a piano duo with Chris Abrahams from the Necks, and Kayfabe, yet another duo, this time with Natasha Anderson focusing on electronics. It’s a testament to Pateras’ relentless search for the new that these projects differ significantly in terms of role, approach and even instrumentation.
“When artists find a thing that everyone loves, then sit on it without any significant creative development, often the reasons why their practice was so great in the first place are emptied out,” he offers. “No matter what you do, whether it’s dance, theatre, sound art, audio-visual work, or playing the trumpet, it so easily becomes just another version of the classical music problem – just playing the same repertoire over and over, because that’s what people know and that’s what will sell. The greatest work is always borne out of taking risks and developing new strategies.”
So, Pateras prefers to stay slippery, to challenge himself and to see what he is capable of.
“My interests are wide-ranging,” he offers. “I’ll play with an orchestra, then I’ll play with a grind drummer, then I’ll play with a jazz player or do some electronic/noise stuff. That’s just me exploring my interests – by playing with these people, I try to learn new approaches, question the ones I thought worked. For example, with Max, I think he’ loosened me up a lot – simmered the technical focus out of my thinking and taught me to trust feel more. On the flipside, when I work with classical players, any kind of sloppiness that I have in my practice is confronted with a particular perspective I had to work hard to escape, but this kind of musicianship is very important to what I do. Thus, I’m always being thrown back and forth between instinct and precision.”
Despite having upwards of 17 releases that bear his name, Pateras believes in finding the rewards for his exploration in the journey, not necessarily the destination. He holds his processes very dear, and protects them vigorously, something that was a key factor in his relocation to Europe. It was his struggle to remain viable as an artist, and the increasing pressure in Australia for musicians to become quasi-small businesses, that eventually sent him overseas.
â€œIn Melbourne, I increasingly found myself put into this position of being an administrator before being an artist, and I think, for everyone, that has a very negative effect on the work,â€ he offers forcefully. â€œAs a result, I think the way musicians interact with each other becomes very influenced by that – we all become horrible little products, fucking each other over, cultivating friendships simply to bleed our colleagues for contacts. It has become more about the network and less about the work. We have become administrators, not artists. This is further fuelled by social media, which seems to occupy a lot of the time that artists could be using to make their own work stronger. When you’re forced to adapt to a circumscribed mode of existence, you distort yourself and start prioritising what other people want or expect, rather than what you desire as an artist.â€
Pateras has recently released his Collected Works 2002 – 2012, the first offering from his own Immediata label. It’s a 5-disc box set archiving everything from ensemble chamber pieces to solo prepared piano performances.
“I wanted to make all of the orchestral, ensemble, percussion, and keyboard pieces, available in the one place, and put it all out in a way that I thought was really special. I really wanted to have it all next to each other as a complete thing and demonstrate all the intersections in the work, regardless of the instrumentation. I spent ages on making it sound and look the best it could.”
One of the highlights of the collection is Architexture, a piece that was recorded live last November on the iconic pipe organ at the Melbourne Town Hall. Pateras practiced on the organ over ten months developing a new composition. The beauty of this 1929 organ is that it was refurbished in 2001 and is now MIDI-fied, meaning that if you have a capture card, you can save your preferences without having to pull out or push in numerous stubs to return to the sound you’re after. The problem for Pateras, however, was that, after nine months of extensive research and experimentation, his card crashed and he lost everything.
“I had to completely reinvent the piece,” he laughs, “all I had were these scribbles in my notebook and I had to work out a way to play it live, but I think it turned out a lot better. It’s what we were talking about before: absolutes are so tempting but they never work out. The memory card crashing forced me to think in a different way. It was a great gig; I think it’s my favourite piece on the box in terms of idea and execution and concept. I think it’s the strongest.”
It’s quite a tonal piece in which moments of intense activity are contrasted with these strange pitches of droning midway. It’s nothing short of captivating.
“I had to find my own thing. On organ, it would be very easy to get up and just hold down a bunch of octaves and fifths, throw in a few semi-tones, create some nice beating frequencies, all nice and slow, and yeah, it sounds great. But I don’ want to get up and play Palestine, Lucier or Niblock covers, you know?”
“The part that you are talking about simply uses the top left and the top right of the instrument – it has these shutters, kind of like venetian blinds, which reveal the pipe room behind the instrument,” he continues. “So all I’m doing in that section is moving both sets of these shutters very slowly in and out – opening and closing these massive doors, so all of the psycho-acoustic activity and freaky doubling and everything, it’s just purely from reflections in the room.â€
Recently, Pateras completed the soundtrack to the feature film Errors of the Human Body, featuring Rik Mayall and directed by Australian-born German resident Eron Sheean. The film is a thriller set inside the world of genetic engineering, and Pateras’ score is sparse, electro-acoustic, minimal and haunting, utilising the likes of prepared piano, electronics, organs, violins, violas, and clarinets.
“The instruments were based around the idea of three trios (wind/brass, strings, percussion/piano) with the idea they would be all connected with a fourth, singular element – the analogue synth,” he offers. “I felt this was a compelling strategy for orchestration.”
Pateras has a history with Sheean, having previously scored his short films, but this project was still a journey into the unknown.
“I tried to watch as many films with interesting music as I could, starting with Philip Brophy’ 100 Modern Soundtracks book. I also went to him for lessons. I think, as a practitioner, educator, theorist and writer in film sound, that guy is unsurpassed. It was very inspiring. I went back to all the films that I really love the soundtracks to and re-watched them. I read a lot of interviews with Walter Murch; also, Morricone, Hermann, Takemitsu and Quincy Jones. I studied the orchestration – Jack Nitzsche as well. In the end it became sadly apparent that a lot of the stuff being made today was really not very good, or again, just trades on the ideas of previous people who came up with themselves. The names I mention represent a pocket of resistance that made a powerful and unique contribution. Most other “edgy’ instrumental ideas or orchestrations in cinema music are simply plundered dilutions from great pieces written for the concert hall. Ninety nine point nine per cent of film composers are parasites, and not in an interesting way.”
Amidst the darkness and intrigue of Errors of the Human Body, Pateras produced this incredible, frantic piece of dance music called XIJ, the one track that the onscreen action dictated.
“The rest was written for the script, and placed by the director. In this sense, the process was very different to your usual edit-driven scores, which often manifest in clinical, audio-visual synchronicity.”
Originally, the production wanted to license something. However, Pateras elected to have a go at it, and despite his protests to the contrary, the results are incredible.
“The club track was based on drum stems from the PIVIXKI Gravissima sessions, from the last track “Masso-Dissco’. I find it’s a lot easier not to be lame if you don’t use libraries – you have a million times better chance of coming up with a unique overall sound. But maybe it is just lame house music in the endâ€¦ I don’t knowâ€¦ the hand claps are pretty shit – but at least it’s my shit!”
This soundtrack has put Pateras into some very unfamiliar territory, with a rather brutal review in The Wire suggesting the music doesn’ stand on its own without images (it does), and the club track has “chase scene’ written all over it (there’ no chase scene in the film). Then, on the other side, the distributors of the film have chosen to shelve Pateras’ score for the trailer, suggesting it’s not emotionally connected enough to the film. Instead, they’ve used the exact kind of unimaginative, banal electronica that Pateras rails against.
“Maybe, when commercial reality hits, some of my philosophies don’t apply,” he ponders diplomatically, before chuckling to himself, “but man, film music is just another form of sonic lubrication for the nightmare of Capitalism. Like advertising, it sells a homogenised idea or representation. I don’t want to get up in the morning and think about what a tub of margarine should sound like.”
Bob Baker Fish
Image by Sabina Maselli