Man At Work

Anthony Pateras
Collected Works Vol. II (2005-2018)

Highly absorbing 5-disc anthology #2 from Australia’s most indefatigable piano experimenter, performer, composer, collaborator, interlocutor, label-honcho and all other shades of ‘AFK’ is something to gird the loins for. Where the first covers 2002 – 2012, this spans 2005 – 2018; that’s 10 discs of hitherto-unreleased ‘exploratory’ work for improvising ensemble (discs 2 & 5), trios (disc 3) and solo & electronics (disc 1 & 4), in an already voluminous back catalogue that spans ‘electro-acoustic orchestration, temporal hallucination and sound phenomena’. And as if that weren’t enough to go on, the rigorous notes round things out with amusing and poetic accounts of the methods and madness in his work. This box set thus requires no small commitment from the listener, although possibly less than a Beach Boys archive raid (unless 2 discs of ‘Good Vibrations’ outtakes are your cup of tea), but it’s a much easier ride than the astringent packaging suggests. There’s a lot to appreciate in other words, but in case you’re after a flavour of this marathon effort, here follow ‘briefly’ corralled notes on the individual discs.

While an adept theoretician, Pateras cuts both loose and losses when necessary. The ‘mirrored palimpsest’ lead-off of ‘A Happy Sacrifice’ does both. Pairing bowed contrabass and electronics, its ‘too structured’ first take was jettisoned and the tape reused to provide a breathful if brittle zone of perpetual motion that exemplifies this set’s more immersive side. ‘Sphinx’s Riddle’ follows like a pitch for the video game industry: tremulous piano over shuddering feedback loops to chilling effect. ‘Burning is the Thing’ experiments with Maryanne Amacher-style psychoacoustics, weaving strategically pitched sine waves for an inner-cranial ‘third-ear’ effect, putting the onus on the listener to find the optimal speaker arrangement. I haven’t succeeded, but find the simple, undulating exchanges soothing. ‘Thinning’ for oscillators sets up similar encounters at a lower pitch or pitches (three to be precise), tuning the devices to three of these from one of Radulescu’s multiphonic pieces. Clarinetist Sam Dunscombe simulates Pateras’ input superbly and inadvertently pulls off a passing impression of the mono-tonal marathons of Berlin clarinet psychoacoustic duo The International Nothing. Militating against listener complacency, Pateras slips in outtakes from elsewhere for startling effect. The disc closes with ‘Down to Dust’, pairing palpitating oscillations with cello, humming and feedback, sounding more like a small seater aircraft engine played back at half speed and decisively disentangling ‘drone’ from any connotation of ‘boring’.

Disc 2 features two extended ensemble improvisations: lengthy, process-based exercises that exhibit, by necessity (given the high head count), compromise and cohesion. In his account of ‘As Long as Breath or Bow’, Pateras reflects on the difficulty of such arrangements and their tendency to fall flat. Indeed, on hearing it at a workshop, the composer Peter Ablinger pronounced it ‘boring’ – a painful slight that didn’t prevent its inclusion here. To these ears it simmers with some of the tension of Scelsi’s numinous masterpieces of the 1960s, boiling and resolving itself in an exhausted heap after 20 minutes. By contrast, the 50-minute ‘Decay of Logic’ is a slower burning, lugubrious exercise in entropy. Bemusing such events may be, but they illustrate a compelling artistic struggle.

The trios of disc 3 typically low-vocabulary exchanges but a tenser, more distracting experience than those preceding – not unlike metallic rainfall in their tonal indeterminacy and athletic determination – as well as an expression of serious intent culminating in challenging content that repudiates passive listening. This may have emerged from the compositional environment – a library in Brussels in which Pateras stubbornly wrote out his compositions by hand, despite suggestions that he use MIDI instead. He got there in the end but ‘All Your Nightmares at Once’ is not a child of artistic triumph but grim satisfaction. ‘Three Mirrors’ continues its process & pattern basis with a less enervating, more nuanced arrangement for crackling electronics, and squeaking, croaking ‘saxophone ensemble’. Pateras professes ambivalence, but it has a pleasantly spontaneous ‘live’ feel to it.

Disc 4 (more solos/electronics) delights in lining up and smashing expectations with the most varied set of arrangements yet, each a clean break from the preceding one. The accessible ‘A Reality in Which Everything is Substitution’ weaves a simple figure for flute across a cavernous, stereo-panning backdrop. While the 9-odd minute cut-off was probably wise, there are strong grounds for repeat playback. ‘Rules of Extraction’ takes matters to a higher, more intrusive pitch, thanks to regular collaborator, violinist Erkki Veltheim’s molding glassy timbres into mesmerising (wave) form. ‘The Sound Sings the Speed’ upsets this flow with a vaguely tropical set of rhythmic vignettes for prepared piano; showing off Pateras’ facility for new voices, although ‘Tam Tam’ with Vanessa Tomlinson resumes the deep drones with a drum skin brushed to a long feedback finish. Possibly the deepest listen yet, it throbs and pulses to and beyond an inexorable, midway climax. ‘Prayer for Nil’ commands attention with its pairing of soft helicopter rotoring and soprano glossolalia, bringing to mind Jamie McDonald’s spectacular comment in In The Loop that opera is ‘just subsidised foreign vowels!’ – albeit in a nice way.

Disc 5 (more improvising ensemble) is the most polarised and chaotic yet, offering challenge and relief in similar measure. Like the portmanteau title, ‘Ontetradecagon’ is a bastard hybrid of myriad components: frenzied ensemble, parping wind sections and an array of electronic effects in a convoluted man-machine monstrosity. The musicians were stationed in different parts of the auditorium for this live performance and it shows. By contrast, ‘Artifacts of Translation’ – closer to the pieces on disc 2 – is a sluggish stew of slowly revolving bodies: 27 to be precise with a melodica as the structural keystone. Rolling kettle drums and deep woodwind blows follow this arduous, snails-pace trajectory. The five ‘Fragments, Splinters and Shards’ completing the set will be predictable to hardy listeners and are the closest efforts on show to live aktion musique concrète: brittle collages of acousmatic sounds arranged to stimulate one form of unease or another. They are also the earliest recordings of the set and tidily bring events full circle.

Congratulations (of a sort) for reading it this far or, equally, kudos for skipping. These notes may be more superfluous than a skim through the goods at Bandcamp, but they are a personal processing of a substantial body of work – itself a procession of processes from this mercurial practitioner – in which no rock nor role is left unturned (I could have sworn the presence of compatriots Chris Abrahams and Erik Griswold on two of the above tracks) and although the notes depict an extensive work in progress from a decade point three in Pateras’ career, nowhere does this incompletion sound like sketches or leftovers. That said, further consideration into how the collaborators, compositional systems and recording situations influenced these outcomes may be helpful, but let’s simply revel in the mystery for now. How one experiences any given part might depend as much on the day of the week as their personal predilections, but anyone who’s read is probably not the sort to simply take someone else’s word for it.