Two worlds of percussion

Felicity Clark: Synergy Percussion, Xenakis v Pateras

Synergy Percussion, Xenakis v Pateras

Synergy Percussion, Xenakis v Pateras

Synergy Percussion, Xenakis v Pateras

A decade after Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’ death, the rarely performed Pléïades remains uneclipsed in its ability to take audiences on a complex, imaginative journey. In Carriageworks’ Bay 19, Synergy reprised their 2011 performance, pairing it the following evening with Beauty will be amnesiac or not at all, a new work by Australian composer Anthony Pateras. Publicised as a ‘competition,’ Xenakis v Pateras, Synergy framed their consecutive-night shows as an attempt to settle who deserves the appellation of ‘world’s greatest composer for percussion.’


A four-movement composition for six percussionists, Pléïades delivers a galaxy of sound, at once tribal, elemental and kaleidoscopic, as showers of tonal colours ricochet between performers. Xenakis leaves movement sequencing open to performers’ interpretation. Synergy chose the order of metal, keyboards, skins and then the mixture, a choice less notorious than Les Percussions de Strasbourg’s decision at the 1979 premiere to play the piece during a ballet, interspersed with Giovanni Gabrieli’s Renaissance polyphony—at once combining Modernism, moving bodies and history in a constellation of artistic stardom. Synergy’s performance echos that original’s innovation, shaping history by incorporating the moving bodies of the audience into the event.

Six podiums formed a rough ring of about seven metres radius. Each platform overflowed with drums, marimbas, vibraphones and sixxens: microtonal metalophones commissioned in 2011 for the piece. The audience mingled and burbled in the darkened space between platforms and a mixing HQ like a Kugelhopf cake baking. Co-director and choreographer Zsuzsanna Soboslay worked with Synergy to design the simple performance space that melded Synergy’s high art technicalities with hipster lounge-room casualness. She helped Synergy find ways to express the music beyond the formal constraints of its composition and the demands of interpretation. And Synergy made it look easy.

Xenakis is famed for his approaches to form, texture and timbre. “Every single note is precisely calculated and notated, leaving little room for interpretation,” Synergy’s artistic director Timothy Constable said when I spoke with him after the concert. “It’s musically complete. There’s a mythological aspect but the music is fiercely abstract.”

Métaux (Metal) showed off Synergy’s sixxens, which clang, jar and beat in your ears if you’re in close proximity. Patterns emerged from seeming disorder; moments of clarity flickered, always briefly. Clavier (keyboards) featured ascending scalic passages and a notorious double-page spread in which the musicians each played 1,000 notes in hair-raising unison. In other parts they came together and split away, phase-beats in an intricate Mandelbrotian overlay.

Balinese associations often arise in relation to the keyboard movement. Xenakis toured Bali in 1972 with Toru Takemitsu and others, but the scale employed in the section is not, to Constable’s mind, lifted from our neighbours, but rather assumes similar interval relationships. “Xenakis uses an infinite mode that might never come back to zero,” Constable said, “but each octave is different. It can make really melodic cells and chaos. If he’d written ‘in a scale’ or ‘regular mode’ it wouldn’t have that dynamism or range of effects.”

Peaux (Skins) had flashes of mind-boggling synchronicity. Thuds on bass drums were reminiscent of a Law and Order scene-change, punctuating energetic passages. In Mélanges (Mix), the final movement, six other percussionists—Claire Edwardes, Eugene Ughetti, Louise Devenish, Rebecca Lagos, Leah Scholes and Yvonne Lam—ascended the podiums to take some heat off core Synergy members’ mallets for an all-in finale.

Synergy Percussion, Xenakis v Pateras,

Synergy Percussion, Xenakis v Pateras,

Synergy Percussion, Xenakis v Pateras,

Beauty will be amnesiac or will not be at all

As part of their 40-year celebrations, Synergy commissioned Anthony Pateras to deploy the same instrumentation as in Pléïades. Its title comes from Sylvère Lotringer’s “The Dance Of Signs,” a neo-Marxist semiotic enquiry published in the Hatred of Capitalism anthology (Semiotext(e), 2002). But listening to the music itself, few references to its philosophical underpinnings were obvious.

The composer was present to diffuse electronic sounds and witness the execution of his invention, partially derived and edited from electro-acoustic improvisations with Jérôme Noetinger. Watching Pateras trigger sound cues while he sat amid the world he had created was telling. When he swayed, grimaced, mellowed and absorbed the manifestation of his creation, it looked like he couldn’t savour the moment enough.

On this second evening we, the rising bundt cake, were microwaved between loudspeakers as each podium radiated layers of six-channel electronic sounds through us. Meanwhile the acoustic score utilised woodblocks, crotales, keyboard percussion and drums. Polyrhythms emerged from fervent repetition, periodicity, duplication, recurrence and imperfect copying. Aeroplane sounds, repetitive metallic jitters, hissings, and whooshings proliferated—some plain to hear, others evasively encoded. Sometimes the electronics greased the pan and other times skewered us. It was a physical experience, either way, just as we were warned in a pre-concert announcement about the work’s aggressive dynamic range.

Synergy performers Timothy Constable, Joshua Hill, Bree van Reyk, William Jackson, Mark Robinson and Leah Scholes, a slightly different group from the first night, again encircled the audience. Some seats were provided on the periphery outside the ring, but most people stood or meandered. I noticed that the volume of sound appeared to increase as I moved—not only when shifting closer to sound sources, but even when I spun slowly on the spot. What an amazing discovery that could propel future audience etiquette from mere static reception into soma-sonic investigation!

Constable explained, “I could sense some key flocking motion. During the Xenakis I noticed people were forming into lovely constellations. A perfect semicircle formed facing me, bringing me into heavy duty focus. Here we go! It was quite serene when I realised everyone was there with me.” He confessed, “The social aspect for the audience was just a byproduct. If we’d sold out completely it would have been more of a mosh-pit. It was a gourmet experience then, with room to bust out handstands… I wanted someone to start running around screaming because that’s exactly what I was doing inside during fiendishly difficult passages.”

Like Xenakis, Pateras makes music using systems and models from other disciplines like mathematics. “Anthony doesn’t use musical notation software or anything, so he didn’t have a way to play back his composition and hadn’t heard it until he attended our rehearsals. There’s a 400-500 page long spreadsheet with all the permutations of every magic square in graphs that someone has copied into musical notation.”

Antony Pateras is a philosopher whose axiomatic medium is sound. Obsessed with autonomy, the new, independence and difference, he strives to challenge notions of what music is and can be. Durational play in Beauty… created something which worked not only with spatial metaphors such as -scape and the distances between entities, but also temporal relations. Pateras authors an aesthetic, but does not act like a composer (a trait that he sees as faulty transmission). “Refining an aesthetic can so easily become trapping and killing an aesthetic,” he said. “Names are for tombstones!” He suggests we “stay slippery” so our inquiries don’t become industrialised. Could this be a way to sabotage winning the contest for sovereign percussion lord?

“Seeking fearlessness in form.” “Creative Ethics.” “A relationship with time driven by materials.” These are Pateras mantras that I find beautifully challenging. In a world where everything is recordable, recorded and re-recorded, Pateras asks, “Are we too haunted to invent anything?” His interest in omnipresence of information and its ability to dull desires, fuels his attempts to produce “difficult or almost impossible [works] to imitate.”

Special effects

It was informative to experience this staging dynamic two nights running. At Pléïades it felt awkward, like walking through a long train tunnel in a big city, being unsure whether to smile at strangers or power on, head down. The type of crowd that attends challenging modernist percussion ensemble works is niche enough that familiar faces emerge. Would it be rude to ignore someone you know? This social tension added another layer of engagement. When this dimension quickened my heart rate, my awareness of the music changed: it heightened all my senses. I wanted to dance and move, but didn’t want to distract or divert attention from the musicians or the music. What a dilemma! To live or to let live?

“We’re not dancers. We’re not actors. We’re keenly aware of that. But some works get us thinking and feeling in a certain way.” A stickler for form’s immanent virtues, Timothy Constable revealed, “I have the sense that the more accurately we play these works over the coming years, they will reveal themselves in more beautiful depth. The devil really is in the details.”

Synergy Percussion, Xenakis v Pateras: Pléïades, composer Iannis Xenakis, performers Ian Cleworth, Timothy Constable, Joshua Hill, William Jackson, Mark Robinson, Bree van Reyk, co-director Zsuzsanna Soboslay, Bay 19 Carriageworks, 22 April; Beauty will be amnesiac or will not be at all, composer Anthony Pateras, performers Leah Scholes, Mark Robinson, Joshua Hill, William Jackson, Bree van Reyk, Timothy Constable, sound Byron Scullin, Bay 19 Carriageworks, Sydney, 23 April

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. 46

9 June 2014