Hermann Nitsch, Vienna Donaucitykirche, 25 January 2012

Not really a concert, but still an event worthy of note, this was the first time I had seen Hermann Nitsch play the organ and the first time he had done so in Vienna for many years. Although I’ve made a couple of passing references to Nitsch on this blog, the man’s importance to my way of thinking has never been properly acknowledged here. This review is not the place to rectify that, except to note that in the six years I’ve been living in Vienna, the life and work of the Viennese Actionists, and Nitsch (the only one of the four still active) in particular, has become increasingly central to me. I was, though, an admirer of Nitsch’s work before I came here, and attended his 2002 action at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Since moving to Austria, I’ve made three pilgrimages to his castle at Prinzendorf, as well as attending CD and DVD presentations at which he was present. I arrived just a couple of months too late to witness his stunning eight-hour action at the Burgtheater in 2005, but he’s planning another six-day action at Prinzendorf in 2014 and I fully intend to be there.

In the meantime, this was a fairly bizarre event for Nitsch – a launch event for a new book on the subject of the Catholic Holy Mass, Die Heilige Messe: Kultisch, Szenisch, Sinnlich, Mystisch, to which he had made a written contribution. Having participated in a lengthy panel discussion with the other co-authors (which of course went completely over my head), and having politely sat through seemingly endless iterations of a short choral piece composed by the book’s publisher Peter Jan Marthé and sung by the church choir, the Actionist stationed himself at the Donaucitykirche’s, let’s face it, rather small organ, and improvised on it for half an hour or so. Two assistants stood either side of him and presumably (since it was impossible to see what they were doing) helped him to play the thing.

It was also an unusual event for me, in that it was the first time I had been to the Donaucitykirche for several years. A stone’s throw from my former workplace at the UN, this unassuming place of worship was also the venue for a number of winter concerts organized by my son’s former kindergarten, at which he was a vocal and enthusiastic participant.

My only previous exposure to Nitsch’s organ playing was the magnificent Die Geburt des Dionysos Christos box set, with its 1986 audio and video recordings of him playing the massive Brucknerhaus organ in Linz. Given the vast scale of that performance, I was rather taken aback by how puny the Donaucitykirche’s instrument looked and sounded. Of course there was no comparison between the two, although I still found Nitsch’s layered durational tones in this brief performance to be celestial and inspiring. At around the twenty-minute mark the volume increased markedly, causing Nitsch’s exquisite drones to hover and drift mesmerisingly to the end.

William Bennett/Cut Hands, Vienna Rhiz, 19 January 2012

When I organized a concert by Whitehouse at the Rhiz in 2008, I already knew that it would be one of the last given by the group (it was the last but two, as it turned out). By that stage Whitehouse had evolved into a snarling and ferocious beast, with the duo of William Bennett and Philip Best out to crush everything in range with their lacerating blasts of noise and rhythms. On their last few studio outings, the group had begun to incorporate elements of African percussion and imagery into their songs, reflecting Bennett’s growing interest not only in African tribal sounds but also in the continent’s murky depths of tyranny, mutilation and death. Four years on, and with Whitehouse on indefinite hiatus, Bennett’s new solo instrumental project Cut Hands finally brings his fascination with Africa to the fore. The Rhiz was the first stopping-off point on a short tour of Europe; where better to begin?

Although the Cut Hands project may lack some of the visceral pleasure of Whitehouse, there was certainly no shortage of impact or aggression in this live deconstruction of the first Cut Hands album, Afro Noise I.  Standing coolly behind not one but two laptops, Bennett was a model of concentration as he issued wave after wave of scouring noise and fiendishly interwoven polyrhythms. These surging, clattering beats were as tight as the skin stretched across one of Bennett’s African drums, their dry jolts and rattles leading to an unearthly sense of disconnection in this listener.

The sense of formless dread was compounded by the eerie black and white visuals projected onto a screen above the stage. Interspersing ghostly human forms with uncanny symbolism, the visuals included archive footage that made glancing allusion to the cruelty and terror that lie at the dark heart of Cut Hands. Occasionally Bennett seemed to lose himself in the pulsating totality of sound, his head caught in manic agitation before returning to a state of relative composure. Harsh and malevolent to the core, Cut Hands is a mercilessly forensic probing of the space where public corruption meets private nightmares.