(Ceci n'est) Pas Musique: A Conversation with Robert L. Pepper
By Daniel Barbiero
In La trahison des images, perhaps his most famous painting, Rene Magritte produced a highly realistic depiction of a bent briarwood tobacco pipe and put the words "ceci n'est pas une pipe"--"this is not a pipe"--beneath it. Meant to trick the mind rather than the eye, this declaration of the nonequivalence of image and thing remains an emblem of the irony of representation.
As with the visual image, so with sound. PAS Musique, an experimental multimedia collective founded by visual artist and electronic musician Robert L. Pepper, explores the irony of representation through music. Pepper has described the group's work as "metaphorically negating music"; one can say that just as Magritte's image of a pipe metaphorically negates images of pipes (and all other images as well), PAS Musique metaphorically negates music through music.
Based in Brooklyn, PAS Musique began in 1995 as Pepper's solo studio project. By 2010 the group expanded to a membership of Pepper--handling keyboards, loops, percussion and prerecorded sounds--and Jon Worthley on guitar, effects and electronics; Taiko-drumming trained Amber Brien on percussion, bass guitar and electronics; and Michael Durek, a former double bassist turned Theremin player and keyboardist. This core is often joined for live performances and recordings by guest artists such as David Tamura--whom Pepper calls the group's unofficial member--Z'EV, Chester Hawkins, Philippe Petit and Cathy Heyden. In addition to performing internationally, PAS Musique has several releases out and takes an active role in curating events in New York's experimental music world.
Here, Pepper talks about influences, painting with sound, and the cyclicality of inspiration.
PSF: "PAS Musique" can mean "not music" in French, and as one of your artist's statements puts it, PAS Musique "metaphorically negat[es] everything that is established in music." But what's interesting is that it's a negation of music that's accomplished through music.
Pas Musique: Well I guess it's more of a play on the mainstream concept of what music is defined as by the majority of people. We have always played around with the idea of supporting the underground and going against mainstream ideals, so we would like to negate the popular opinion. Now I guess it's a bit harder to do that these days with the Internet and all.
PSF: To my ear at least, it seems that one of the ways you play on (and with, and against) the mainstream is by taking some of the gestures and conventions of given genres--electronica, classical avant-garde, industrial or what have you--and having them convey something quite unexpected.
Pas Musique: Yes. I started creating as a visual artist- painting, photography, collage. My approach to music has always been like creating a painting. I remember hearing Zoviet France for the first time and read about how they created compositions. They just took sound and had a four track recorder and made these wonderful compositions. I was inspired and bought a four track myself. Coincidentally I am good friends with Robin Storey now- he was one of the original founding members of Zoviet France.
I take from the world around me and cut and paste ideas and make a new composition. So I take field recordings, pre-made beats, overdubs from other persons and samples and mash them all together to what makes sense in my brain. Sometimes, others understand it and sometimes they don't. It's the artistic expression that is what is important. So yes, you can hear elements of many things included in our work. I don't consider our work in any genre because I like to mash them all up. I just consider my palette as sound in general.
PSF: I always felt there was a painterly sensibility undergirding PAS Musique's compositional methods--its arrangements of colors (timbres) into textures laden with a certain tension pushing against and pulling at each other. But something of an esoteric sensibility as well--a set of correspondences or signs leading beyond the sound, sometimes explicitly, as reflected in titles, for example, and sometimes not.
Pas Musique: Well, behind the Pas Musique sound lies my painting style. As I said, I create our mixes like I create my paintings. My painting style is based on a lot of esoteric influences. For one, I love Manly P. Hall. His writings have influenced me greatly over the past recent years. I also love Krishnamurti and some Buddhist teachings. I grew up on rockstars like Crowley. I always felt a connection to something "intangible". I can't really explain these things but I try to abstractly illustrate what I feel is going through my mind by my drawings and paintings. So I use ambiguous symbols, imagery, and a sort of "stream of consciousness" style in my visual art. It's only natural that my sound art is constructed in the same way. That is why I like improv and sometimes the use of synchronicity within my studio work. It develops naturally with the state of things of how they are. Maybe I will be sitting dwelling on a track and then BOOM, I remember I had a field recording from years ago that was waiting all of this time for that particular moment.
PSF: It's interesting how the connections between things sometimes only become apparent much after the fact, or maybe we hear something in an older work that we didn't, or couldn't, before. And then to step back and see how it all ties in together, how there really is a continuity that may not show itself on the surface.
Pas Musique: Maybe the connections weren't supposed to be made until later. It's just like life. You constantly move forward and try to be active as much as you can. You build up your work, hobbies, relationships and etc. Then you give the universe more opportunities to provide you with better life situations. The more dots you make the easier it is to connect them, so to speak. I think that the same way about art. You keep producing and then you have this big body of work. Then you can reference it and be re-inspired and reinvent it. It's the general overall process that can relate to a lot of things in life.
Also, when listening/or looking an older work (music, art), you are a different person than the time you were creating it. It gets reinvented because you have changed. You see things in the work that you may not have seen before. I like re-reading some books after ten years pass. Re-reading them can inspire you in a whole different way.
PSF: Sometimes it seems like a matter of being able to see underlying meanings or motivations in a work after the fact--maybe once we've reached a point where our original motivations, or what we thought were our original motivations, no longer seem relevant.
Pas Musique: Exactly, you can never translate the vision in your head 100% to reality. Some get close but there are many variables involved in achieving your original vision. When I worked on my short film "The Soul Catcher," I saw very different scenes than the final project. But I use the materials and resources I have and just follow my improvisational drive. The original idea/vision is more important because it kicks off the creative process. Throw out all expectations and let the creative process grow.
Also see Pas Musique's Bandcamp page
Also see author Daniel Barbiero's new release with Ken Moore, Frequency Drift
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