Philip Glass: The Lost, Landestheater Linz, 19 April 2013

I have very little knowledge of, and normally no interest in, the world of opera, but on this occasion I found it impossible to resist the enticing prospect of a new work by Philip Glass, with a libretto by ageing Austrian literary enfant terrible Peter Handke, being shown in the magnificent setting of the brand spanking new Musiktheater in Linz. I figured a little bit of self-education in this most baffling of genres wouldn’t do me any harm. I also knew Glass wouldn’t be there in person, but that didn’t matter too much (although I’m still smarting from his failure to show up at the Barbican for Einstein on the Beach last year).

In all honesty, though, I’m not sure I’m any the wiser having sat through 2¼ hours of Spuren der Verirrten (which seems to be going by the English title The Lost, although even I with my imperfect German can tell it should be “Traces of the Lost”). The opera was visually dazzling and brilliantly performed, but Handke’s determinedly opaque text (handily translated on a little screen in front of me) made it more or less impossible for me to fathom out what was going on from one scene to the next. Trace elements of the Austrian’s longstanding preoccupations were there right from the start. In the arresting opening, a character known only as the Spectator entered the audience, bawled them out and was filmed doing so; a reference to a goalkeeper followed shortly afterwards.

As the opera went on, the Spectator made occasional reappearances to comment on the action, such as it was. For the most part, the evening consisted of baleful dialogues on war, tragedy and death, sung by various characters from the large cast. These were played out against a constantly changing backdrop of stunning visual images, ranging from the disturbing (row upon row of hospital beds) to the playful (a huge Austrian scene with hares, alphorns and dancers in Tracht). Beautifully lit in deep saturated hues, the massive revolving stage swarmed with activity as crowds of singers and dancers surged around the leads. The effect was mesmerizing, although Handke’s libretto would remain incoherent to the end.

As for the music, it was quintessential late-period Glass: swirling, heady and blissfully romantic. The hypnotic repetitions that dominate early works like Einstein on the Beach and Music in 12 Parts (which I’m very much looking forward to seeing in the Czech Republic later this year, by the way) were still there but softer, more tender and more mutable. Played with glowing artistry by the Bruckner Orchestra under long-time Glass acolyte Dennis Russell Davies, Glass’s score was the emotional heart on which this labyrinthine opera depended for much of its impact. As if in recognition of this, the finale saw the entire orchestra transplanted to the stage, while the cast took the orchestra’s place in the pit, furiously mugging the movements of the players. It was a deliriously joyful ending to this strange, fascinating evening.

Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton & Agusti Fernandez, Vienna Porgy & Bess, 15 March 2013

The wave of cool that has engulfed European free improv in the past couple of years has, thankfully, not yet encroached upon its British counterpart. You won’t find Evan Parker on the cover of The Wire, his activities aren’t listed on Facebook, his albums aren’t heavily pushed by Volcanic Tongue or given the vinyl reissue treatment by modish Vienna labels. Then again, you get the feeling that that kind of attention is not something Parker craves all that much. After years of doing without an official website, he finally got himself one a few years ago; but he still relies upon my little page elsewhere on this blog to tell the world about upcoming concerts, a page that has never made any claims to completeness. Other than there, the only places you’d have heard about this event were the advance notices put out by Porgy & Bess and Jeunesse, the umbrella organization responsible for promoting the concert. And both of those advertised the evening as a performance by the Topos Quartet, a wilfully obscure billing even if it is the quartet’s official name.

All of that said, Porgy & Bess had filled up nicely by the time Parker wandered onstage with double bassist Barry Guy, drummer Paul Lytton and pianist Agusti Fernandez. I had been anticipating this concert immensely, partly because it was Parker’s first appearance in Vienna for more than four years, and partly because the trio with Guy and Lytton has always been my favourite of Parker’s many configurations. Their superb At the Vortex (1996) CD was the first album of free improvisation I ever heard, and once I’d heard it I was hooked for life, so I owe that record a huge debt of gratitude.

While Parker’s playing may not hit the listener with the visceral impact of a Brötzmann or a Gustafsson, he more than makes up for it with long, fluttering improvisations and passages of circular breathing that are utterly confounding in their fractal beauty. Equally a master of the tenor and soprano saxophones, in the trio with Guy and Lytton he concentrates on tenor. Which makes sense to me, since this is the line-up where Parker is most likely to reach back to the language of Ayler and Coltrane, to frame his love of abstraction within a more or less explicit free jazz sensibility. And it’s the searing blast of the tenor sax that most readily acknowledges that lineage.

On this occasion, then, Parker’s sax playing was matched for intensity not only by Lytton’s relentlessly focused drumming and Guy’s jaw-droppingly inventive double bass work, but also by the twinkling and tumbling piano of Fernandez. Parker and the Spaniard have form going back to the mid-1990s, with two duo CDs and a 2006 recording of the present group under their belts. For long stretches of this concert’s two hour-long sets, though, it was Fernandez who set the pace in tandem with the drummer and bassist. Occasionally trading amused glances with Guy, the pianist brought a zesty European flourish to the core trio’s distinctively British take on free improv.

And for those like me, struggling to comprehend why Parker and his friends don’t get the attention that their European counterparts do, it’s this question of Britishness (in which, obviously, I have a vested interest) that may hold the key. Lytton, who rarely looked up from his kit during the gig, seemed to share Eddie Prévost’s ruthlessly centred approach to drumming, as seen to splendid effect in his trio gig with Marilyn Crispell and Harrison Smith at the Blue Tomato last year. As for Parker, he’s happy to bide his time, stock still, eyes closed, listening with absolute attentiveness for the moments in the music when the spaces and the traces open up to him and let him play.