Cuneiform Records RUNE382 2014, DD & CD album, 59m 10s
$9.99+ DD $16.50+ CD
originally recorded in 1980-1
If there’s one thing reviewing this album has taught me it’s this: always scroll to the end of the email. When I went back to the message in which this was submitted for review, I discovered that I had also received a link for Present’s second album, Le Poison Qui Rend Fou, which was re-released at the same time. I’ve now downloaded it (thank you, nice people at Cuneiform Records), but I won’t be reviewing it with this one; I probably wouldn’t have done anyway, as that’s not really how I roll. I prefer to concentrate on the sound, and ignore the seminal reputation (or otherwise) of the release; and there is easily enough ‘information’ in each of these records to justify a review several times as long as this one. It’s still worth recalling that this record, this band, and the network of Belgian and other musicians associated with it (most obviously the members of Univers Zero) did exert a huge influence on a select group of other musicians, and it is certainly one of the more significant documents in the history of avant-garde rock music. The re-release of a band’s first two albums is an event akin to a visual artist’s retrospective exhibition; it’s a retrospective act, and it seems to invite a certain amount of retrospection in a review, so I’ll do a bit of that before I move on to the music itself.
Present was formed by Roger Trigaux, guitarist with Univers Zéro, who left after the release of their second album; Univers Zéro are also one of the big beasts of avant-rock, and many of the personnel involved in Present were involved in Univers Zéro as well. There are also similarities in the sound of the two bands, inasmuch as they both play rhythmically complex, predominantly atonal music, with a (superficially) very dark and threatening feel. However, where Univers Zéro were, at this point, a large band, incorporating many acoustic Classical instruments, Present made their debut with a texturally sparse, all electric line-up; and to say that two ensembles shared some similar compositional concerns (and a composer) is not to say that their music can be regarded as equivalent. There are obvious parallels, and this reissue includes two live recordings of Univers Zéro compositions which were used to round out the set before Present had enough new material, but the two bands produced (and continue to produce) extremely individual work, which, in neither case, sounds much like anything other than itself. These early releases have become somewhat legendary, thanks in part to their association with the Rock In Opposition movement (Univers Zéro were one of the original five RIO bands), but also because, as a single listen through to Triskaïdékaphobie will affirm, they produced some of the most radical, revolutionary and creatively rigorous music of the late twentieth century. I normally steer clear of such sweeping assertions, but irrespective of all the music I haven’t heard, I know it doesn’t get much more uncompromising than this.
I’ve heard Present’s music described as being ‘without humour’, and its tense affective discourse is indeed almost entirely unremitting, albeit not without some dynamic relief, but it would be step too far to describe it as ‘humourless’. The title of this album is itself a joke; triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number thirteen, is used in reference to the use of that number in the catalogue listings of Univers Zéro’s first two albums (their first album is simply called Univers Zéro in some releases, in others 1313), but Trigaux has his tongue firmly in his cheek, and disavows any form of superstition whatsoever. It would be more accurate to say that the music on this album exists in a cognitive space in which the presence or absence of humour simply fails to signify. It makes no more sense to ascribe such a quality to these sounds than to the seasons, or to the Large Hadron Collider. It’s commonplace to call such music ‘experimental’, but I believe that term is justified here, inasmuch as it represents an exploration of the fundamental materials of our aesthetic and emotional response to music. This is why I parenthetically qualified the music’s affective darkness as ‘superficial’. Certainly, the way that it signifies in the received emotional codes of tonal music is ominous and disturbing, but that world of listener response is like the surface of the ocean, traversed by the shipping of a thousand musical traditions, while Present is a submersible, and the time it spends on the surface, though not irrelevant to the project, can only be understood in terms of the vast three-dimensional territories that are its principal habitat. Such aphotic manoeuverings seem dark and strange precisely because their compass lies beyond the scope of commonly understood musical languages, not solely because they signify in a particular way within them; the challenge to the audience (challenging being a term with more than the commonplace meaning in this instance) is to listen in a way that accommodates that larger context and does not narrow the music’s significance down to an unreflecting response to its harmonic surface. Much of our response to harmony is, after all, acquired cultural convention; there was a time in European music when major chords were considered dark, and minor chords pretty. There is unlikely ever to be a time when the sounds of Triskaïdékaphobie signify as harmonically stable or affectively confirmational, but there is no necessary reason for them to sound unduly frightening or abrasive.
The album as originally released contained two long compositions, ‘Promenade Au Fond D’un Canal’ and ‘Quatre-vingt Douze’, with a shorter piece called ‘Repulsion’. ‘Repulsion’ is essentially a statement of a single idea, an atmosphere articulated around a chiming sound repeated at a slow steady pace; in the liner notes, drummer Daniel Denis explains that the piece was created by slowing down a part of the rhythm track from ‘Promenade Au Fond D’un Canal’ and overdubbing various sounds onto it. This makes it unlike either of the other pieces, formally or methodologically, although it certainly sounds at home in their company; however, it seems to be something of a peripheral curiosity. It’s the two longer pieces that express Present’s real creative agenda. The principal difference between ‘Promenade Au Fond D’un Canal’ and ‘Quatre-vingt Douze’ is that on the former Trigaux plays electric guitar, and on the latter he plays a Fender Rhodes electric piano; both feature Denis on drums, Christian Genet on electric bass, and Alain Rochette on electric grand piano. Both are also built in essentially the same manner, which is to say, episodically. Each track presents a succession of thematic ideas, which are developed to varying degrees, with some improvisational input, although it is hard to tell from the recording what parts were written in advance and which were composed extemporaneously. Themes are developed, insofar as they are developed, within the confines of the episodes built around them, rather than recurring throughout the piece, or being progressively developed and transformed. Instead they are stated, and then something else succeeds them, although there are certainly discernible ongoing creative concerns. The episodes vary greatly in instrumental texture, in dynamics, in rhythmic activity and in expressive intensity, creating a narrative with quite striking gradients and transformations; but all of them utilise musical materials that are harmonically atonal, and rhythmically additive. For this reason, there is a certain sense of interchangeability about the various episodes that make up these two pieces; their roles and functions within the overall narrative of each composition are quite specific, but it is also quite easy to imagine sections from one piece being used in the other, or in another place in the same one. This is not to suggest that the material lacks variety (in fact, the potential for variety within the group’s self-imposed parameters is exploited to the maximum), or that its themes lack individual value, but simply to observe that the compositional approach is modular, each episode more or less self-contained, slotting into the next like a jigsaw piece.
The two bonus tracks that conclude the album (aside from being powerful statements in their own right) shine quite an interesting light on Present’s working practices. They are live recordings, made in Brussels, roughly a year after the studio recordings were made, both interpreting compositions originally written for and performed by Univers Zéro. It is particularly noticeable how similar the band sounds in both cases; this would not be particularly surprising in an ensemble that was performing regularly, but at the time of the Triskaïdékaphobie studio sessions, Present had never performed, and had been developed as a studio project with no intention on Trigaux’s part that they would ever perform in public. They had, however, prepared the material as though for concert performance, rehearsing it as a group, although for reasons of space the recordings were built up track by track; it’s clear on listening to the recordings that their articulate dynamics are the result of performance rather than mixing, an ensemble coherence that could only be achieved in rehearsal. By the time they had achieved this degree of rapport, it became apparent to Trigaux that they were ready to perform, and that it would be a waste of their efforts to remain exclusively a studio band; the two live recordings are a tribute to Present’s consistency and accuracy, and their similarity in feel to the studio work serves to emphasise exactly how thoroughly the ensemble had prepared for its recording sessions. ‘Dense’ and ‘Vous Le Saurez En Temps Voulu’ are both very close to the material originally released on Triskaïdékaphobie, in their episodic structure, and in the dissonant, metrically asymmetrical materials from which they are constructed.
I’ve said that the tone is dark, or even threatening, and qualified that somewhat by suggesting that the music demands a specific approach to listening. I don’t wish to imply either that any specific emotional response to these sounds in ‘incorrect’ or invalid, or that the listener should ignore their visceral response to the music in favour of an intellectual one. These recordings will certainly signify anxiety, fear, tension, even horror, for some listeners; some of those listeners will find that this renders the listening experience unrewarding. However, I would like to emphasise that a much broader range of potential responses is facilitated by approaching Triskaïdékaphobie with a genuinely open mind. It’s in achieving that open mind, in imagining an affective space that encompasses both the obvious meanings of the music and its less superficial significations, that intellectual engagement is called for. The meaning of music is always in the experience of hearing it, in my view, is always felt rather than thought, but some thinking may be required to prepare for listening, particularly in the case of music that strays so far from the conventional assumptions of mainstream aural culture as does this. The music often plays on learned responses, such as the section around halfway through ‘Quatre-vingt Douze’, in which short phrases seem to exhibit a modular form of major tonality, shifting key from bar to bar on an atonal root motion; it never bows to such expectations however, and although the instruments are played with a recognisable vocabulary of expressive gesture, there is nary a crumb of comfort for those craving tonal resolution. The soundworld that Present evokes is essentially an alien one, one to which no culture had produced an equivalent until composers began to question and subvert tonality in the early twentieth century; while much music outside the Western canon employs modal materials which may sound dissonant or which are based on microtonal intervals, or possesses other characteristics that seem inimical to tonality, this music, in common with much of the Classical avant-garde, is built on complex harmonic tropes of the sort which are exclusive to the Western tradition. The function of such harmony is to creative a powerful sense of melodic direction, and when that is not anchored in any single tonic destination, the effect can be profoundly disorientating. A desire for certainty will handicap the listener’s ability to appreciate this music, which is, in every moment, entirely contingent, its every affective gesture meaningful in relation to what has come before or after, but not to any external fixity. This is a music of subjective relativity, of quantum indeterminacy, and if it is approached on such terms, it is incredibly powerful and rewarding. It may seem dark, but its challenge to the listener is to hear past that darkness, to step outside the limited horizons of conventional musical practice and see the light that Present shine on the much broader territories of expressive potential that they inhabit.