Tindersticks, Vienna Theater Akzent, 7 and 8 May 2012

Not much to add to my review of Tindersticks’ March concert in Vienna, in which I tried to articulate my ambivalent feelings as a long-time fan about the group’s change in direction since their split and subsequent regrouping. I will say that, over the course of this two-night residency, the Something Rain songs gained a sense of confidence and purpose that had certainly been lacking in the rather cautious earlier performance. Terry Edwards’ extended sax solo at the end of “Come Inside” was simply gorgeous, while the importance of David Boulter’s role as musical director was underscored time and time again by his shimmering and lustrous keyboard arrangements. On the other hand, Boulter’s spoken word narrative on “Chocolate” fell wretchedly flat. I’ve heard this song described as a close relative of “My Sister”, but there’s really no comparison between that early masterpiece and this mundane tale with its silly twist.

In six years of concertgoing in Vienna, I’d never previously been to Theater Akzent. The venue’s location was interesting in that it allowed me to gawp en route at the Theresianum, the famous private school next door, which I’d never seen before either. I hope the Akzent is used for gigs more often in the future, since the acoustics on these two evenings were full and clear. In fact, this was one of the principal benefits of these shows as against the March one. The Akzent was quite a bit bigger than I had expected, with circle as well as stalls seating, and the group were able to crank up the levels nicely compared to the rarefied atmosphere of the Radiokulturhaus. The girl sitting next to me was even blocking her ears during the loudest parts, which was not something I ever thought I’d see at a Tindersticks show. We’re not talking Swans levels here, but there was definitely a sense of the group using volume to enhance the impact of the music.

This turn to loudness made the transported demeanour of Stuart Staples all the more understandable. Looking like a respectable country gentleman from a Hardy novel, Staples closes his eyes while singing as if physically affected by the bittersweet intensity of his songs. And one can hardly blame him, confronted as he is by the painful resignation that dwells deep within songs like “Factory Girls” – a post-split song, to be sure, but also one of the evenings’ saddest and most deeply affecting moments. Having given so much stylish pleasure over the years, Tindersticks continue to enchant and delight.

Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, London Barbican Centre, 5 May 2012

Like many people of my generation, I suspect, my first exposure to Philip Glass was via his soundtrack to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi. I probably saw this film for the first time sometime in the late 80s at the Duke of York’s in Brighton, where it was a staple of late-night double bills, and it quickly became a firm favourite thanks to Glass’s pulsating score just as much as to Reggio’s mesmerizing visuals. Some years later, I saw the Philip Glass Ensemble perform this piece and Powaqqatsi as live soundtracks at the Barbican, which seems to have been the venue for almost all of my live encounters with Glass. I also saw him present one of his symphonies (no idea which one) at the Barbican sometime in the early 2000s, which was filmed and broadcast live on BBC4, oddly enough; and I even caught up with him in Salisbury City Hall, of all places, at around the same time. In 2007, I travelled to London from Vienna to see Book of Longing, his collaboration with Leonard Cohen, and the epic Music in 12 Parts, my favourite of all his compositions. Now, five years later, I found myself doing the same thing again, this time to see his opera Einstein on the Beach. (Although Glass is a globetrotter, frequently giving performances of his own music, he has never played in Vienna in the six years I’ve been living here.)

Glass is by some distance my favourite composer of classical music, yet I’m well aware that he is regarded with sniffiness by some elements of the classical establishment. The reasons I like him are, I suspect, not entirely dissimilar from the reasons for that sniffiness: his prolific output, his high public profile, what many consider a relative lack of complexity to his work, his readiness to appeal to the heart over the head and his persistent exploitation of a number of specifically limited musical tropes. In short, Glass behaves almost like a rock musician, an attitude that is fine with me.

What I like most about Glass’s music, though, are his glorious, pounding ostinatos and arpeggios, those vast maze-like constructions in sound that seem to go on forever, endlessly multiplying and revivifying themselves. There are few more vital and euphoric sounds in all of contemporary music, to my mind, and they are all over his score for Einstein on the Beach, his groundbreaking opera realized in collaboration with theatre director Robert Wilson. Wilson was known to me – I vividly recall his haunting installation HG, shown at the old Clink Prison in London in 1995 – but this was the first time I had seen one of his theatrical productions. It couldn’t really fail, and it didn’t, instantly becoming one of the most beguiling and memorable live performances I’ve ever witnessed.

In its advance publicity, the Barbican made great play of the fact that audience members were free to come and go as they wished during this five-hour, no-interval performance. In practice, though, very few people left their seats. I certainly didn’t leave mine until the time came to give the cast a hugely deserved standing ovation at the end. Consisting of nine 20-minute scenes and five interludes known as “knee plays”, the opera proceeded with scant attention to plot or narrative but still kept me engrossed from start to finish. There was just so much to marvel at, so much that took the breath away: the dancers with their beautifully choreographed movements, the spaceship scene with its stunning wall of light, Andrew Sterman’s powerful tenor sax solo in the ‘Building’ scene, the virtuoso violin of Antoine Silverman, the miraculous, word-perfect singers, the uncanny calm of the infinitely repeated numbers: in sum, the transcendental interplay between light and darkness, sound and silence, words and music, movement and stillness. Einstein on the Beach is a landmark achievement, nothing less than a reimagining of the limits of theatre in the modern age.

Michael Gira, Vienna Chelsea, 23 April 2012

There’s not much that can stop Michael Gira from singing when he’s in full-throated rage mode. Those who foolishly spend their time talking instead of listening will probably earn themselves a caustic putdown. The last time he played solo in Vienna, some hapless individual with a video camera (who was, unbelievably, part of the promoter’s team) clambered onstage and started filming Gira in close-up, causing the singer to break off in mid-song and shout “get off the f***ing stage” repeatedly until the miserable cur backed away. And last month at the Chelsea, Gira met a new nemesis: a wasp. He called it a bee, but I was close enough to see it, and it definitely looked like a wasp to me. The wretched vespid landed on Gira’s microphone mere inches from his mouth, whence it could easily have flown had he not expectorated forcefully in mid-song and driven the little bugger away.

That was just one of many fine moments in this intense and draining concert, during which Gira presented stripped down acoustic versions of Swans and Angels of Light tunes, plus several as yet unrecorded songs. For all Gira’s easygoing onstage banter, what came across most strongly were the anger and tragedy that flow through these relentlessly bleak songs. There seems little room for warmth or hope in Gira’s universe, little sense that the despair he evokes is anything other than an immutable condition. He communicates that despair not only via his texts – long, discursive lyrics shot through with violent and apocalyptic imagery – but in his stark, bony guitar playing and the extraordinary reach of his baritone. That voice dominates the performance. Stricken, vulnerable and brimming with pain and rage, it is a voice of immense and unutterable sadness. And listening to the inexorable force which with Gira sings, you come to the conclusion that his harrowing worldview is the only one that makes sense anymore.