The Mysterious Remnant
by James Warner
Audio feature: Zorel Pitrescu’s “All Is Not Yet Lost” is embedded at the end of this piece.
Of all the Romanian experimental composers who began their careers in the 1960s, Zorel Pitrescu’s musical journey was perhaps the strangest. It was while working as a shepherd, soon after completing his military service, that Pitrescu experienced the epiphany described in his memoir Destiny of Darkness:
Failing to sleep at night, while sheep bleated in the howling wind, I had my first intimation of the primordial terror that is pure aural indeterminacy. Later, working night shifts in a factory in Bucharest, I was to know once again this malevolent and unearthly state of auditory consciousness. It is at such times alone that a man feels authentically rooted in time.Pitrescu received his M.A. in Composition from Bucharest’s National Conservatory in 1968, a time when a slight liberalization of the Ceausescu regime’s attitude toward music catalyzed a trend toward greater personal expression. Pitrescu’s first published composition, a dirge for the cobza, or Romanian lute, gives little hint of what was to come, successfully inducing a mood of fatalistic suffering and discomfort without breaking any significant new theoretical ground.
Already, though, Pitrescu’s real desire was to connect with sounds at their most elemental, stripping noises of all their superficial associations. While this project would in time bring Pitrescu into conflict with the authorities, his next work, for the tilinca, an end-blown willow flute that can only be played when damp, was well received. It is only in hindsight that we can see the piece as marking the beginning of Pitrescu’s shift toward an emphasis on the unstable aspects of sound.
His third opus, “Solo for Cement Mixer,” was criticized by Romania’s official Union of Composers for its lack of folk influence, but the government only became incensed after the piece won foreign acclaim, in the form of the prestigious West German Alt-Moderne Musikpreis.
The resulting controversy forced Pitrescu to emigrate to New York, where for a while he worked on construction sites. In his spare time he attempted to improvise a piece of music in which all the notes were wrong ones, a project that he later conceded was theoretically impossible. Destiny of Darkness eloquently sums up his feelings at this time:
To a soul well versed in mystery, exile was an instructive circumstance. My quest now was for the universal, for the retrieval of the way music sounded before there was music. Obsessed with the contingency of sound, I wished to render palpable the mysterious remnant of the early universe, by echoing those long-forgotten catastrophes that shape our world to this day.
Pitrescu’s most famous work from the 1970s consists of a single note, a B flat, that begins just below a human being’s auditory pain threshold and increases exponentially in sound for two whole seconds.
Toward the end of a relatively unproductive decade, Pitrescu began experimenting with speaker feedback. When an instrument and a loudspeaker are placed too close together, a continuous circuit is set up which literally feeds back on itself, resulting in an accumulative mass of ambient sound that terrifyingly evokes the random energy of the cosmos. “That Which Is to Signal as Signal Is to Noise,” an expanse of ear-shattering feedback generated by Pitrescu beating a bass drum repeatedly until he passed out, won first prize with honors at the Bronx Competitive Festival of Experimental Music.
This work also led to Pitrescu being evicted by his landlord, and it was while scrutinizing apartment listings that he noticed a want ad for a drummer. The next day, he attended an audition that would change the course of his career.
How was I to judge this unexpected wall of sound that emphasized morbidity and glorified heroic and occult struggles, cutting through all words and symbols to remind us that we are mortal and incapable of controlling our lifespan, while slyly reintroducing classical melody in the guise of distortion and violence?Pitrescu had discovered thrash metal. Since his memoir provides few details on this historic encounter, we must turn to a 1981 fanzine interview with singer Vernon Spires and guitarist Nobby Ludwell, two schoolfriends from Birmingham who had moved to New York to form a Suspended Sentence cover band.
Vernon: The first thing we noticed about Zorel is, he’s a dead ringer for Andy Plaque from Suspended Sentence. It’s even a bit uncanny.
Nobby: When Zorel first walked in, I thought he was Andy for a moment. Which was a bit of a shock, seeing as he’d overdosed on heroin the week before.
Metal News: How do you think Zorel’s background in experimental music impacts his drumming?
Nobby: Zorel’s technique’s not really that good yet, but he keeps us energized.
Zorel: You should record also that Vernon and Nobby are masters of the gratuitous act. Vernon’s singing is the guttural snarl of a defensive animal. His atonal wailing transports us to that region of the psyche that is still inhabited by vestiges of the pre-cultural.
Vernon: We don’t always know what he's on about. He’s fast as fuck on the drums though.
Encouraged by his new friends, Pitrescu strove to emulate Andy Plaque’s technique for battering two bass drums alternately at high speed, transcending syncopation entirely to produce a buffeting, urget constant rhythm anticipatory of death metal, while reaching out to an entirely new audience.
The concept of a cover band was entralling to me. We were musicians imitating other musicians, even down to their hairstyles and tics. Another revolutionary aspect was that we took requests from the audience sometimes, allowing them rather than the performers to dictate the content of the performance.
Pitrescu’s joining a heavy metal cover band sparked controversy in the experimental music community. A former practitioner of the avant-garde was voluntarily apprenticing himself within a despised genre, appearing on stage wearing makeup and devil horns, between a smoke machine and an inverted crucifix. From this point on, Pitrescu ceased to receive prestigious awards.
But as his drumming improved, he began to lament that he had merely exchanged one form of virtuosity for another. And by the time he parted ways with the cover band, Pitrescu had some serious new problems. The distractions of tinnitus whooshed constantly within his head, and in his attempt to imitate Andy Plaque as faithfully as possible, he had become a heroin addict.
After he got out of rehab in 1982, he worked for a while as a session musician, drug dealer, and cab driver. He was no longer associating much with other musicians, and by his own admission, he had reached an impasse. He even considered becoming an Orthodox monk.
Finally, convinced that the important thing was “the respite within the cacophony,” he spent six months working on a lengthy piece consisting solely of computer-generated sounds that, while extremely loud, were too short in duration to be heard. “The most important thing I learned from Vernon Spires,” he once remarked to producer and composer Brian Eno, “is to keep things simple.”
The ideal of loud yet inaudible music pervades late Pitrescu. He spoke of creating a work that would annihilate all his earlier works, and of learning to play the drums so quickly that no one could hear him. From this period stem works as diverse as the piano quintet “Idiot,” in which Pitrescu took photographs of starlings sitting on telegraph wires and commanded pianists to read them as notes on a stave, and “Lullaby for Alarm Clock,” hearing which is like experiencing the rattling of one’s own skull as the firmament falls apart. Pitrescu also devised a piece for human voice with six hundred and sixty six notes, each of which shattered a different piece of glassware.
As deafness set in, Pitrescu became a convert to the theory that the original purpose of music was to hypnotize sheep, distracting them from the unsettling background noise left over from the world’s origins. Pitrescu began composing once again for the tilinca and other shepherds’ instruments from his home province of Bucovina. To Philip Glass, he expressed a desire to learn to play at frequencies that would be audible only to ewes.
Toward the end, deciding that vibration was more important to him than sound, he began work on a low-frequency piece that audiences would only be able to feel through the soles of their feet.
Pitrescu was found dead in his apartment on the Lower East Side on a July morning in 1993, beaten to death with a dry tilinca. The identity of the killer and the motive are still unknown. Some believe the Securitate was revenging itself on Pitrescu for an article he had written criticizing the role of the secret police in post-Ceausescu Romania. Others think his neighbors took out a contract on him.
Last spring, Unknown Records, an intrepid small label, brought out a CD set of Pitrescu’s complete works, excepting the never-performed “Unexplained Noises Remind Us That We Are Alone In the Universe,” consisting of a single B flat, too high-pitched for the human ear to detect, sustained for exactly four hundred billion years.
To listen to the otherwise-complete corpus of Pitrescu’s work is to find yourself experiencing the world differently. Buses will seem to scream with pain, and even birdsong will be terrifying to you. You may feel yourself on the verge of hearing compression and rarefaction waves still propagating from the Big Bang itself, like evidence toward the investigation of some insoluble crime.
Audio feature: Zorel Pitrescu created this thirty-second noiseburst, “All Is Not Yet Lost,” by digitally manipulating the sounds of Manhattan street performers and construction workers. One of Pitrescu’s more tranquil pieces from the early 1990s, created with the aid of music producer David Gleeson, it enjoyed a brief popularity in the dance clubs of Moldavia. Pitrescu himself can be heard playing a few notes of the Romanian folk song “Wolves in the Kitchen” on the tilinca. If your browser cannot detect the media player embedded in this text, please click on the words "Audio feature" to play the file.
James Warner has published short stories in such journals as Narrative, Identity Theory, Fiction Attic, and Eclectica. He runs the San Francisco reading series InsideStoryTime. (10/2007)