Pianos (II): Epstein Abrahams Pateras

Thursday 19 October 2017

Nobody has made it…. Nobody is accessible*.”

At the last Music We’d Like To Hear concert this summer I heard the first live performance in the UK of John McGuire’s 48 Variations for Two Pianos (completed in 1980). The work could be considered ‘minimal’: a continuous span of some 50 minutes, dynamically and texturally static, with a single, clear principle underlying the cycling of the material through harmonic and rhythmic changes. As a tour de force of compositional engineering, it first sounds like an evolution of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase: a unifying process developed to a point of elaboration where the inner workings of the method remain elusive to the listener, yet the presence of an intelligible principle of operation is intuitively apparent. (Works such as this are sometimes described by critics as ‘postminimalist’, inasmuch as it displays a greater development of Reich’s ideas than Reich himself achieved.)

I started thinking about this when listening again to R. Andrew Lee’s album of piano pieces by Paul A. Epstein. The relatively brief pieces here, all written in the 2010’s, achieve a similar type of complexity as in McGuire’s epic, aimed towards a different end. Epstein writes of “reducing surface repetition while retaining the ‘limited means’ that remains for me a crucial aspect of minimalism and postminimalism.” It’s probably not a coincidence that he has also written a perceptive analysis of Piano Phase. Pieces with intellectually provocative titles such as Drawing No. 4 (triangles, broken horizontal and vertical lines, rectangles, and parallelograms) hint at objective processes at work underneath the shifting mosaic of notes and chords. Rhythms are not steady but appear to conform to an underlying grid; pitches and harmonies are transformed according to rules that remain unknown to a casual listener but clearly follow a coherent order. For something that immediately sounds so straightforward, this music hovers in an ambiguous place. Typically, any music moving away from strict minimalism to greater complexity is perceived as a turn toward subjectivity, but Epstein trips our sensitivity for affective sounds through entirely rational means.

The difference in hearing this type of complexity is a little like distinguishing a knot from a tangle. Complexity, and the designing intellect behind it, can come in many forms. Music In Eight Octaves is a vast, churning ocean, cryptically credited on the front cover to “176”. This reveals itself to be the piano duo of Chris Abrahams (him off The Necks) and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard years ago that these two had recorded an album with them each improvising for an hour at a time on each octave of the keyboard in turn, then superimposing the results. From time to time I wondered what became of it. The sessions, recorded in 2005, have finally been released.

Has there been much editing of the raw material? Am I remembering this correctly? The sleeve notes don’t give anything away, instead dedicating themselves to Pateras interviewing Abrahams about the musical environment in which he developed, ranging from jazz to the avant-garde to pedagogical studies to the Australian alternative rock scene of the 1980s. (Nothing is said of Pateras other than as a reflection, a succeeding generation inheriting Abraham’s legacy.) The music is as overwhelming and ultimately pounding as you might expect, but much of the exhaustion comes from the sheer wealth of differentiated material, more than overbearing volume. The “all-over” nature of the music at first recalls Pollock’s drip canvases, but it progressively becomes clearer that a closer analogy would be to Gerhard Richter’s abstract paintings. Besides the overlaying of material, the aleatory montage of different images, alternately hidden, distorted and revealed, there’s the way the music is treated as a source of further development. In the way that Richter photographs, cuts up and re-photographs some of his abstract canvases, the two pianos here seem to have been cut up, cut away, sculpted into its present form. Certain registers drop away from time to time and I’m still getting to grips with the piece to determine if there is silence or admirable restraint by the two players.

I just replaced ‘improvisers’ with ‘players’ in that last sentence. Even without editing, the act of playing in these circumstances was a compositional strategy, with the awareness that the material would be layered and combined. As a monolithic block of sound, it reveals itself to have a complex, multifaceted shape of many-coloured faces.