Nicolas Field’s N-Ensemble, Geneva AMR, 24 March 2018

You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a world-class free jazz and improv club right in the centre of Geneva, just a few minutes’ walk from the main railway station. But that’s what you get with L’Association pour l’encouragement de la musique improvisée, Geneva’s leading venue for this kind of music. If Cave 12 is Geneva’s equivalent of the Rhiz in Vienna, then AMR is Geneva’s Blue Tomato, with a programme of regular concerts by local musicians spiced up with occasional visits from big hitters such as Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark. I saw both the Schlippenbach Trio and Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra there in recent months, but never got around to reviewing them. Maybe I will one day, although I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Anyway, it was a pleasure to visit AMR for the second of two evenings led by the Anglo-Swiss drummer Nicolas Field. Field’s was a name new to me, but he’s worked with musicians of the calibre of Keiji Haino, Akira Sakata and “Sir” Richard Bishop, as well as being active in sound art and composing music for the Burgtheater in Vienna. On the occasion of this AMR residency he put together a six-piece group consisting of Swiss and international musicians, and called it the N-Ensemble.

The evening consisted of two set-long pieces, the latter of which Field introduced as “From Sand to Dust”. With just a few written guidance notes in evidence, Field allowed the players plenty of room to improvise within the overall structure of the piece. Duo and trio sections opened out into full-group improvisations, with the soundworld characterized by shifting zones of tension and release, punctuated by frequent bursts of turbulence. Key to the latter was guitarist and bassist Jasper Stadhouders, whose stormy riffing provided the evening with its most deliriously out-there moments. I’d seen Stadhouders a couple of times in Vienna playing bass in Ken Vandermark’s Made To Break, but those outings hadn’t really prepared me for the ferocity with which he applied himself to the electric guitar and the flinty resonance of his acoustic playing.

In the best tradition of group improvisation, each of the various members made important contributions to the overall pace and shape of the music. Valerio Tricoli had a fascinating set-up consisting of a vintage Revox tape recorder with no reels, just a single length of tape looped around a mic stand and travelling endlessly through the tape heads. Presumably Tricoli was recording the sounds in the room and processing them in real time via his mixing console next to the Revox. Whatever the truth of the matter, his interventions added a ghostly patina that hovered over Thomas Florin’s ominous piano and Bjørnar Habbestad’s piercing flute. Playing off brilliantly against Habbestad, Anne Gillot doubled on bass clarinet and something called a Paetzold contrabass recorder. This ungainly contraption looked like something my son would bring home from woodwork class, but sounded incredible, with Gillot’s fierce, truculent voicings splintering into the spaces left by the other musicians. Field himself was a constantly creative presence behind the drums, his restless stickwork anchoring the disparate elements of the ensemble.

So engrossed was I in the music’s enveloping sonorities that I was surprised, when I looked around at the end, to discover that I was one of only five people in the audience, there having been at least 20 at the beginning. This is probably the only concert I’ve ever attended where the people onstage outnumbered those in the audience, although this is no reflection on the quality of the music, which was never less than compelling.

Einstürzende Neubauten, Geneva Alhambra, 2 February 2018

Three years ago I travelled to Munich to see Einstürzende Neubauten play at the Haus der Kunst, a concert that coincided with the opening of an exhibition on German post-punk music at the same location. I never got around to reviewing the concert, nor did I write about the group’s appearance at the 2017 Donaufestival in Krems, one of the last concerts I saw in Austria. In truth, though, there wasn’t much difference between those appearances and Neubauten’s show last month in Geneva, so this review can stand equally as a review of those earlier two as well.

At first sight there may seem something disconcerting, maybe even safe, about the idea of a group of arch iconoclasts like Neubauten apparently treading water for the past few years, but it’s a notion that doesn’t bear very much scrutiny. In the first place, this bout of touring comes in the wake of 2014’s Lament, the soundtrack to a site-specific performance that is as emotionally affecting a piece of music as Neubauten have ever put their name to. And in the second place, 2016’s heavily ironically titled Greatest Hits compilation, around which the group’s current show is based, is very much of a piece with the tendency to self-mythologization that has characterized Neubauten’s approach over the past 37 years.

It’s become a truism, in critical writing about Neubauten, to bemoan their apparent move towards the mainstream, to complain that the sonic terrorism of their earlier years has gradually given way to a more conventionally musical approach. But to these ears, the most striking thing about latter-day Neubauten is the almost unbearable tension that they generate through their use of both conventional and home-made instruments, lurking menacingly beneath the surface and frequently erupting into states of discord that are every bit as violent and destructive as the early records and performances with which the group achieved such notoriety. This tension is inscribed deep in Neubauten’s music, from the starkly beautiful melodies that linger tellingly through their songs, to Jochen Arbeit’s miraculous shimmering guitar work, the sinister clank of NU Unruh’s percussive arsenal and the monstrous bass of Alexander von Hacke, all of it woven together by singer and lyricist Blixa Bargeld’s ferociously clever texts.

It’s not perhaps widely known that Bargeld has some help these days in delivering his lines, which is hardly surprising given how formidably dense and allusive they are. Bargeld’s guilty secret, which could readily be divined from the front-row vantage point I claimed at both Krems and Geneva, is that he has a screen at the foot of his microphone off of which he reads the lyrics, controlled by means of a little clicker in his hand. On the face of it there’s something unsatisfactory about this practice, sitting ill as it does with the assumed extempore nature of live performance. Nevertheless it’s a practice I’m happy to endorse, given that Bargeld’s texts exhibit all the characteristics of what Barthes called jouissance: a text that “imposes a state of loss, that discomforts, unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language…

If Barthes, that arch deconstructionist, were around today, he would no doubt be amused by the idea of a group whose very name celebrates the notion of collapse, and who title their long-running series of compilation albums Strategies Against Architecture. And what these concerts showed was that jouissance – a blissful state of discomfort, disorientation, crisis and loss – continues to dwell threateningly inside the group’s music. Forever on the brink of collapse, constantly shifting between beauty and danger, Einstürzende Neubauten remain as compelling and essential as ever.

Concerts of 2017

This blog is in hibernation, but I’m making a quick return just to note the eight (why eight?) concerts I enjoyed most this year:

1. Peter Hammill, Café Oto, London (actually three concerts, but impossible to pick one)

2. Richard Youngs, Cave 12, Geneva

3. This Is Not This Heat, Cave 12, Geneva

4. Einstürzende Neubauten, Donaufestival, Krems

5. Michael Nyman Band, Schauspielhaus, Zurich

6. Schlippenbach Trio, AMR, Geneva

7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Arena, Geneva

8. Felix Kubin, Cave 12, Geneva

Felix Kubin, Geneva Cave 12, 4 May 2017

One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had since moving to Geneva has been the discovery of the music venue Cave 12. At first sight a close relative of the Rhiz in Vienna, on further inspection Cave 12 is actually outdoing the Rhiz these days in terms of its ability to attract some of the key names in experimental music. I’m still reeling from Richard Youngs’ extraordinary concert there in February, while performances by Peter Rehberg, Tyondai Braxton (which I never got around to reviewing; maybe some other time) and the late Mika Vainio weren’t too shabby either.

One key difference between those concerts and Felix Kubin’s appearance at Cave 12 in May was that the venue was absolutely packed out for Kubin, compared to the rather sparse attendance on the other evenings. Prior to the concert I was only vaguely aware of this guy’s work, thanks mainly to a Wire cover story a few years ago. But I’m very glad I took a punt on Kubin, since he gave one of the most enjoyable concerts of the year so far.

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“Accounts of madness, childbirth, loneliness and grief”: remembering 10,000 Maniacs

Another in an occasional series in which I recall formative experiences with some of my favourite artists.

It took me a while to find 10,000 Maniacs, but once I’d done so, they had me for life. A friend at Sussex made me a C90 with their 1987 album In My Tribe on one side and REM’s Green, released the following year, on the other. The pairing was significant, since in those days REM and 10,000 Maniacs were often bracketed together under the helpful genre of what was then known as “college rock”. Since I was at what the Americans would call college at the time, it was natural that I should gravitate towards this kind of music, having already taken a shine to such soundtrackers of 1980s British student life as Lloyd Cole & the Commotions, The The and Cocteau Twins (although not the Smiths). In truth REM never did very much for me, although the five independent albums they made between 1983 and 1987 cast an air of mystery that easily outstripped their later major-label releases. 10,000 Maniacs, however, were to become hugely important to me as the 1980s shaded into the 1990s, and remain so to this day.

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Michael Nyman Band, Zurich Schauspielhaus, 10 May 2017

The music of Michael Nyman has really been getting under my skin these past few months, so when the opportunity came along to see him and his eponymous band in Zurich, it was a no-brainer to make the journey there from Geneva. This was my first visit to Zurich for thirteen years or so, but it doesn’t seem to have changed much in the meantime.

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Mika Vainio, Geneva Cave 12, 2 February 2017

Like everyone else who was aware of him and his work, I was deeply saddened by the death earlier this month of Mika Vainio. I didn’t know Mika personally, but I was lucky enough to spend some time with him in 1997, when Panasonic opened for Swans on their “final” European tour, for which I was the merchandise seller. This position meant long hours travelling in a big tour bus, time variously spent watching videos, chatting and sleeping (mostly the latter). Mika was a less frequent participant in these conversations than his Panasonic colleague Ilpo, but when he did join in, his contributions were always worth hearing. On one occasion, the conversation turned (how, I have no idea) to the topic of tenpin bowling. I expressed the opinion, which I still fervently hold, that one’s enjoyment of this game was hampered by its unnecessarily complex scoring system. Mika thought for a moment and then replied lugubriously: “It does not matter what is the score.”

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Thighpaulsandra, Vienna Rhiz, 1 April 2017

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I must have seen Thighpaulsandra live a few times around the turn of the millennium, during his tenure as a member of Coil. My recollection is hazy, but I definitely saw them at least twice at the Royal Festival Hall in London, the first time as headliners, the second time as support act to Icelandic also-rans Sigur Rós. According to Brainwashed, those concerts took place in 2000 and 2002 respectively. On the second occasion, I watched Coil’s excellent performance (which included the spectacle of two naked men covered in body paint walking up and down the aisles, handing out apples to the audience), but naturally had no interest in Sigur Rós. So I swiftly adjourned to the bar, where I remained for the entirety of the headliners’ set.

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Peter Hammill, London Cafe Oto, 2-4 March 2017

Peter Hammill seems to be slipping gracefully into semi-retirement. Although there is apparently a new solo album on the way, when the most recent Van der Graaf Generator album, Do Not Disturb, came out last year, there was talk of it possibly being their last album. What’s more, Hammill’s formerly prodigious concert schedule is certainly less full than it used to be. It’s been five long years since I last saw him play a solo concert, which (happily for me) was at my favourite venue in the world, Porgy & Bess in Vienna. So it was a no-brainer to make the trip over to London for this mind-blowing three-night residency at what must surely be the smallest venue he’s played in Europe for years.

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Richard Youngs, Geneva Cave 12, 12 February 2017

Back in 2012, I made a fairly hopeful wishlist of the fifteen musicians I most wanted to see live. Fulfilling the list has been an uphill struggle, even though nearly all the people on it are still active and regularly touring; up until a week or two ago, I’d only been able to tick two of the fifteen off the list. Now, though, and thanks to the brilliant programming at Cave 12, I’m able to tick off a third.

Richard Youngs has actually been on my radar ever since 2002, when I reviewed his early acoustic masterpieces Sapphie and Making Paper for The Sound Projector. I’ve kept an eye on his output since then, without ever attempting to keep up with the endless flow of releases that have appeared under his name. Every so often, though, I’ve picked up one of them and have been staggered by the variety and the creativity Youngs brings to everything he does.

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