Abstractive Records IMA007-ABR001 2013, DD & CD album, 47m 6s
€5+ DD €10 CD
Woman as symbol figures prominently in the conceptual scaffolding of this album; this is something about which I have certain reservations. ‘Woman’ has been employed as a metaphor for many things in the creative languages of men: the imaginative faculty, the creative spirit, material aspiration, fields of endeavour, country or native soil… the list goes on. These things have differences and similarities, but ‘woman’ is appropriated to them all by virtue of her femininity; ‘man’, in contrast, when employed as a symbol, simply means ‘human’, or ‘people’. The defining characteristic of ‘woman’ is her difference, her female-ness, and all the other characteristics that is assumed to bring with it, of passivity, nurture, motherhood, the giver or withholder of sexual pleasure, the potential betrayer; all characteristics that it has been useful for men to attach to women, precisely in order to make them into symbols, to avoid engaging with them as unique individuals, and to exert power over them. It is impossible to employ the idea of ‘woman’ in the abstract, as a symbol, without either invoking or actively critiquing these associations. In the case of of the Adder’s Bite, the male protagonist is trapped in a giant machine-world, which is revealed to be a woman, and from which it proves impossible to escape. This is, I have to say, something of a dodgy concept, which avoids the most crass objectification only by virtue of its ambiguity, its sheer bizarreness, and the fact that the music to which it is attached does not appear to rely on it for its aesthetic significance (and is not shackled to it by a lyrical text). Indeed, while the music’s darkness and claustrophobia make a theme of confinement plausible, and that of a frustrated search for egress, there is nothing about it which speaks to me unequivocally of giant, habitable, mechanical women. As to whether this album questions or uncritically reproduces the assumptions encoded in the objectification of women as ‘woman’, I find it hard to judge, but it does not appear to be satirical, and some of the pieces’ titles suggest the latter. It does, however, contain some extremely good instrumental music, to analyse which in terms of gendered musical forms would be to enter a critical realm somewhat too rarified even for this theory geek. Essentially, for all that it is explicitly stated to be programmatic, as representation the music functions in the domain of mood and atmosphere, a realm into which the specific metaphoric values of its narrative schema do not translate.
The broad terms of the narrative are represented across the album as a whole, however. The protagonist’s first awakening is depicted in the ponderous sonorities of the opening ‘Outcast’, and his dawning awareness of the machine world around him in the squeaks, rattles, and stochastic rhythms of ‘Machine (phase I)’ and ‘Machine (phase II)’. ‘Trap’, with its static modality, and insistent, driving rhythm, gives the impression of action, perhaps (in light of its title) of the protagonist running in search of an exit. Thereafter the atmospheres of the music oscillate between murky, existential ambience and more a visceral address to the listening body, such as the funky trip-hop beat in ‘Vengeance’. The titles give us a clue to the intended affective sequence: ‘of the Adder’s Bite (1st movement)’ is tense and ominous without sounding specifically toxic; the aforementioned ‘Vengeance’ is animated with a powerful sense of forward motion; ‘Poisonous Well’ is certainly threatening in tone, and its sonorities speak of depth, but again, toxicity could only be read in to it, not out; ‘of the Adder’s Bite (2nd movement)’ is more melancholy than menacing, and reprises the mechanical squeaks of the protagonist’s first explorations; ‘of Betrayed and Betrayers’ is powerful and dark, but could not be said to represent betrayal in any obvious way. Suspense and portent are present throughout, with a narrative articulated primarily in variations of activity, intensity and textural density. As a story, it seems to relate a series of episodes in which its protagonist strives against his situation, interspersed with periods of reflection, until he eventually subsides into exhaustion or despair.
The musical materials in which this dark mechanical world and its sole inhabitant are represented are built primarily from piano, strings and percussion. Panagiotis Pagonis is credited for composition, production and mastering, so it seems reasonable to assume that even the piano parts were programmed rather than performed. Despite this, and although of the Adder’s Bite represents a mechanical milieu, the music lacks the hard, inhuman edge of much electronic dance music, for example; it is expressive rather than objective or functional, and it seems to articulate a human perspective. We see Pagonis’ giant, habitable, mechanical woman through the eyes of the man that is trapped inside her; this is woman as landscape, a kind of inversion of a popular gendered trope in nationalist discourses, her form revealed in the course of a series of journeys across her surface. The musical meanings are all located in modality, timbre and rhythm; there are some melodies, but they are almost irrelevant from a formal perspective, simply elements within a texture which is the utterance itself, rather than a setting for something else. Sonority is central technical interest, and the structure of the individual pieces on the album is frequently reminiscent of the structure of electronic dance music, with progressive manipulations of timbre, breakdowns and crescendi; as with dance music the listener is invited to step outside themself, to immerse themself in a deep pelagic medium, although (especially given that this music is more likely to be experienced at home than in a club) that immersion is probably more akin to the sensory deprivation of the isolation tank than the communal ecstasies of the dancefloor. Dark, droning strings, glitchy ambiences and heavy, tribal beats, depict a shadowy affective landscape as powerful as it is arcane.
So here’s the thing: if this were a literally representative, conventionally programmatic composition, particularly if its themes were articulated lyrically, I’d probably find it ideologically objectionable. But I really like this record. I’m usually at pains to point out that I don’t expect anyone to be remotely interested in whether or not I like something, but the important point here is that I feel quite at liberty to like or dislike it on abstractly aesthetic grounds. It is so removed in its musical discourse from the scenario that its author outlines, that the latter barely seems to impinge on the forms of the former. And yet, I’m pretty sure that it’s Pagonis’ attempt to render that narrative which makes the album as a whole so listenable and so coherent. This is not a collection of separate pieces, unified by a set of creative procedures, or the demands of a particular set of sessions in a particular studio; three pieces were composed in 2010, and the remainder in what was presumably a period of concerted creative effort in the first two months of 2013, but it seems clear enough that what I’ve been listening to is a single long composition. On a purely prosaic level this is a function of the consistent resources employed throughout, instrumental, rhythmic, timbral and harmonic; but the sense of of the Adder’s Bite’s affective narrative is that of an ongoing, perhaps not systematic, but certainly persistent and determined exploration of certain deeply felt creative problems. It is certainly episodic; it does not employ the long-form approach of classical music, but the episodes which comprise it are clearly parts of a whole. Although they make a good noise individually, in the context of the whole work they are exponentially more powerful. Whatever reservations I may have (and I’m sure I’ve said enough about them already), this album is a quite remarkable expression of a mood as complex and as mutable as human experience. Panagiotis Pagonis takes the listener to a dark place, but the journey is well worth the effort required to face its forbidding destination. This is an extremely powerful and moving composition.