October 1, 2022

Various Artists – ‘Pataphysics (Sonic Arts Network)

“I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member”
(Groucho Marx)

Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), literary madman, fencer, time-machine designer, most infamously remembered as the author of the play Ubu Roi, defined ‘pataphysics ( note that apostrophe – I’ll come back to that later) as “the science of imaginary solutions”, and observed that “’pataphysics extends beyond metaphysics as far as metaphysics does beyond physics”.

To those who are already either ‘pataphysicians themselves or, at least, enthusiasts, no more encouragement to acquire this Sonic Arts Network release than knowing that it is nothing more nor less than a brief history of ‘pataphysics in sound will be necessary. They’ll happily sit back, open a can of Pschitt, and enjoy the sensations that wiggle the gidouille of their basilar canal.

To those who know nothing of these wonders, there’s only one one thing to be said:


There are those who, with perfect justification, will maintain that this tenacious offshoot of the fevered mind of a fin de siécle schoolboy was nothing more than an élitist joke – a sort of cultural Tourette’s whose continuing appeal meant nothing more than that, provided you can do it with a straight face and you can get away with the critics regarding it with serious contempt, it must be art. To which Jarry himself would doubtless reply, “Bien sûr, mais ce n’est pas de l’art – c’est ‘pataphysique”.

So everyone wins.

Andrew Hugill is Professor of Music, and Director of the Centre for Creative Technologies at De Montfort University, Leicester (a city which, for reasons explicable only through tautology, has been, aside from Paris, a hotbed of ‘pataphysics throughout the decades). He has assembled, in this glorious seventy-four-minute album, a compilation that includes:

• ‘pataphysical music by ‘pataphysicians
• pataphysical music by non-’pataphysicians, and
• pataphysical music by ‘pataphysicians

(so at this point one has to explain, in Hugill’s words, that “the apostrophe at the start of the word ‘pataphysics indicates that a prefix, perhaps the pataphysical prefix, is missing. The word is frequently seen these days without the apostrophe, and in this sense is generally understood to signify unconscious pataphysics. We are all pataphysicians – it’s just that some people know they are.”)

The original College de ‘Pataphysique included such meta-ironical tricksters as Raymond Queneau, Jacques Prévert, Max Ernst, Eugéne Ionesco, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, the Marx Brothers, Boris Vian, Barbara Wright, Marie-Louise Auard, Jean Dubuffet, and René Clair, amongst many others, and their influence down the years can be felt as far apart as in the Fluxus movement and Monty Python. This album, in fact, includes some uncanny historic prefigurations – by many years – of such familiar iconic events as John Cage’s 4’33” (of silence) and the sinister dwarf’s backward-recorded speech in David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’.

The worst crime you can commit against a joke is to analyse it, which is why the ‘pataphysical literature is a double-helix of obfuscatory reflections, and why the only way to get it is to get it. ‘Pataphysics, however, is accompanied by a catalogue-style twenty-eight page sleeve whose content alone is a ‘pataphysical cassoulet, crammed with delectable annotations – I learnt, for example, that the Beatles were awarded the Ordre de la Grande Gidouille by the Collége de ‘Pataphysique, and was reminded that the first verse of Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (1969) includes the lines:

‘Joan was quizzical
Studied pataphysical
Science in the home’

.. and if that’s not worth five points in the annual pub quiz there’s no justice in the world.

Perhaps wisely, if strictly non-’pataphysically, Hugill has stuck to a chronological representation in his choice of inclusions, so the album becomes progressively less an utterly jaw-dropping historical curiosity (including pieces by Jarry himself, Marcel Duchamp, and Boris Vian, inter alia – and one of Harpo Marx’s brilliant boogie-woogies for harp) and more a showcase of experimental musics – some more familiar than others – contextualised by their inclusion.

The bridge between the two sections occurs, most properly, with a piece by Gavin Bryars, another of Leicester’s scions and a minimalist whose stature was maximised by the 1993 chart-topping re-release of the single version of his 1975 epic Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet with Tom Waits guesting. He is here represented by the eleven-minute Ponukélian Melody , also from 1975, scored for organ, bells, tuba and cello, which, aside from its ‘pataphysical associations, is typical of Bryar’s haunting, deceptively simple style, familiar also from the beautiful The Sinking of the Titanic.

Another personal favourite – invidious in such a glittering set – is a previously unpublished track – Patasoft – by a couple of my own gods – Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper of the legendary Soft Machine, based on material from their 1969 album Volume 2 – Rivmic Melodies. Could it get any better?

Oh yes indeed.

‘Pataphysical art has often been associated with the use of various self-imposed restraints: one of the most famous being the ‘pataphysician George Perec’s 1985 novel La Disparition which is written without using the letter ‘e’ at all. And, curiously, one of the most autonomously beautiful pieces of music in this collection is composed using a set of similar constraints: Christopher Hobbs’ L’Auteur se Retire: Aprés Schubert (2000) uses the Andante from Schubert’s Ab Major sonata of 1817 in the following manner (in Hobbs’ own description):

“L’Auteur… is a set of pieces which uses a lipogrammatic procedure whereby the letters of a composer’s name which correspond to musical notes (using the German notation convention in which S represents Eb and so on) are removed from a chosen example of the composer’s work. The pitches are removed whenever they occur in any register. The resulting gaps are replaced sometimes by silences of the same duration as the notes, sometimes by extending the prevous note.”

…and, be assured, the ensuing piece, far from being the rabidly dissonant scrap of conceptual silliness it sounds like turns out to be an exquisite little magic trick, analogous to removing all the red pigment from a Botticelli and discovering it’s become a map revealing the burial place of the holy grail.

In Leicester, naturally.

I must say I rather envy the experience of those who come to this listening with absolutely no foreknowledge of what it’s all (not) about: it’s not unusual for a compilation album to introduce one to an exciting new artist or two, or even a whole new genre, but this one opens a window onto a whole new way of regarding the world. Open with care, however, keep a straight face, and don’t disturb the Palotins.