“I believe that, with regard to both the tragic aspect of suffering and instances of extreme ecstasy and affirmation of life, art needs to have a sense of sacred solemnity.” (Hermann Nitsch)
This was a stunning opening to the 2010 concert-going season. Since, for whatever reason, Peter Hammill didn’t make it to Vienna on his European tour, it was a no-brainer to make the short journey over to Linz for my first visit there. The venue, the Posthof, was a very pleasant place indeed, not least because of its wacky location in what appeared to be an industrial estate on the bank of the Danube, miles from the centre of town. Good vibes, nice food, laid-back management (I was able to reserve a seat in the front row by the simple expedient of walking into the hall before the doors opened, while others were able to wander in and listen to the soundcheck), perfect acoustics and a lovely Bosendorfer grand piano for Peter to play. If only all venues could be like this.
As for the show, it was as intense and emotionally draining a concert as I’ve ever seen Hammill perform. In part this was no doubt due to the fact that his solo muse (less so with Van der Graaf Generator, perhaps) seems to be heading ever closer towards notions of ending and mortality. These matters have never been far away in his work, of course, but in the last few years they have moved much closer to the centre, prompted perhaps by his heart attack in 2003. That experience inspired Singularity, a collection of songs that signalled its overarching theme from the gaunt, death’s-head cover portrait inwards. Meanwhile, in a recent statement Hammill wrote of “the certain knowledge that at some point I’m not going to be able to carry on enjoying it, whether because the audience or my own strength has dwindled to unsustainable quantity.” It’s surely no coincidence, then, that he has taken to touring solo in recent months, as if to say “this is what I do, this is how I am to be remembered.” Nor, it seems to me, is it without significance that in these concerts he has chosen to revive many rarely performed older songs, as though looking back over his life’s work.
In Linz one of those rarely heard songs was the wry and moving “The Mousetrap”. It’s a meditation on mortality told from an actor’s point of view, although the parallels with the life of a working musician are unmistakable. And where Hammill in the studio version speaks of “the third act of this twenty-ninth year of the show” (being 29 years old when he wrote the song), the line gets altered in live performance, so that we heard “the third act of this sixty-first year of the show”.
The concert followed the normal Hammill format of two piano sets, with a guitar set in between. The guitar set was acoustic; he seems to be saving the electric guitar for VdGG these days. His piano and guitar work is, as ever, formidable: dense clusters of notes that hang defiantly in the air, shapeshifting in tune with the rugged landscapes of his texts and occasionally resolving into momentary but achingly beautiful threads of melody. The voice, meanwhile, is deepening and saddening with age. Where once Hammill would bring “Stranger Still” to an end with the ferociously intoned refrain “a stranger, a worldly man”, he now sings the line softly, resignedly, with a grave awareness that he has entered, as he recently wrote, “this last stretch of a working life.” Watching him perform, you see this incredible, burning intentness at work, a deep and frightening concentration that is sometimes leavened with a fleeting, infinitely self-aware smile.
Inevitably, it was the rarely performed songs that cut the deepest for me. It’s been many years since I heard “Your Tall Ship” live; on stage, the song is transformed from a thing of blissful serenity into a churning maelstrom of longing, Hammill pounding the keys with savage intensity. “The Lie” was tormented and reproachful, “The Birds” steeped in confusion and bewilderment. And the single encore was a moment of transcendent beauty. When Hammill announced that the last song he would perform was a “moderately dangerous” one for him, I assumed we were going to get a high-wire tour de force like “Losing Faith in Words”; instead, he reached inside and pulled out the tender and delicate “Sleep Now”, a song to, for and about his daughters which has taken on an ever greater emotional charge for me since my own son was born. A couple of years ago Hammill broke into tears while performing this song at a concert in Israel, and I wonder if this is what he had in mind when he described the choice as moderately dangerous. In any event, it was a deeply affecting end to an evening that, in its dwelling on tragedy, ecstasy and affirmation, amply fulfilled Nitsch’s requirement for the sacred solemnity of art.