Convulsive Amnesia and Disruptive Technology

Monday 26 June 2017

How does a composer respond to the modern world? Do you try to shut it out as a distraction and risk irrelevance? Or do you try to engage with it and risk co-option to commercial and political interests? Are you sufficiently aware of the changing currents in society, able to record them in such a way that your music doesn’t grow as stale as last year’s fashion?

Synergy percussion ensemble is approaching their 40th anniversary and commissions a new work to mark the occasion. They ask Anthony Pateras, who responds with an hour-long percussion sextet using over 100 instruments, with electroacoustic improvisations, written over two years. Now released on CD and download, Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All is a huge, ambitious work, far beyond a celebratory showpiece for technical virtuosity.

The title immediately recalls a misquote of Breton’s dictum, “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.” In fact, it’s a direct quote of the conclusion to Sylvère Lotringer’s essay The Dance of Signs. As with all the releases on Immediata, the music comes wrapped in ideas. The disc is accompanied by a booklet of interviews between Pateras, Lotringer and Jérôme Noetinger.

Presently, amnesia is impossible because we are immersed in the omnipresent archive of the Internet. The techno-utopia we have collectively bought into makes it more difficult for creative processes that consciously seek new worlds, because the weight of the past is magnified and indulged. If we cannot forget, how do we stumble on the beautiful?

Lotringer replies, “Surprise doesn’t surprise anymore. It’s already inscribed in the machine.” Cage typically liked to see the bright side of the emerging postmodern condition (we will become omni-attentive, i.e. electronic) but Lotringer cites another quote from Cage, on the need for art to “help us to forget” when we “drown in an avalanche of rigorously identical objects.” Right now, as any tech billionaire will tell you, information is an industry, rapidly defining for itself its own standards of manufacture and reproduction. Pateras notes that ubiquitous technology has given us a surfeit of self-representation, at the expense of self-awareness.

In a cultural sense, technology has allowed us to be consumed by inertia. How to break this hold? A percussion work too often asserts a return to primal origins, an attempted negation that in fact is a regression to accumulated cultural baggage and prejudices. Beauty Will Be Amnesiac Or Will Not Be At All makes a regression of a more complex kind. It starts out sounding like a recording from the 1950s, the highest frequenices deadened, a faint hiss and rumble throughout. Despite the appearance of tape recorders later in the piece, at this stage everything is in fact acoustic, all sounds created by low, muffled percussion instruments of various types. An invisible act of technological disorientation.

The music is difficult, virtuosic in its complexity of composition and performance, but never in a flamboyant way. The polyrhythms and timbral shifts between instruments form a coherent hole, with no single voice standing out for display. Throughout the piece, the percussion is overdubbed with improvisations by Pateras and Noetinger on Revox tape recorders, reproducing, manipulating and distorting the percussion sounds. At times, the percussion sextet’s playing acts as an armature for the electronics, and at other times, vice versa. For all the small-scale restlessness in making the sounds, and the large-scale flux in densities and textures, the piece feels curiously monolithic. It creates its own meaning, leaving it to the listener to discern.

The question of whether the electronic and acoustic here exist in symbiosis, or instead prey upon each other in turn, is effaced by the electronic technology appearing to be obsolete (tape, open reels). To a less obvious extent it is also effaced by the ‘primitive’ percussion including highly-developed instruments and newer inventions such as Xenakis’ Sixxens. Freed from the distractions of being “cutting edge”, technology here is embraced for its truly disruptive properties, over an empty gesture of futilely attempting to renounce technology. Percussion and tape introduce complexities and complications which digital technologies have tried so hard to expunge.

We are living now in the half-forgotten legacies of the last century, from a time when first percussion music, and then tape, were seen as means of liberating sound. The use of older technology here is not an act of nostalgia but of taking up again a promise of the future left unfulfilled. If the music here seems foreboding, it still may be a utopian alternative to digitally-enforced cheerfulness.