The last time I saw Ulver, almost exactly four years ago, they had only recently begun to exist as a fully functioning live group. That concert at the Arena had something of a rarefied atmosphere, with flickering candles adding to the heavy air of expectation that attended the performance. Since then, though, Ulver have gone the way of seemingly every other once distant and mysterious studio-based outfit, and have begun touring on a regular basis. As a result that sense of occasion was largely missing from their recent show at the Szene, although there was certainly enough taking place onstage to mitigate that absence.
They’re a strange-looking bunch, that’s for sure. Two serious techno types at the front, focused on their various dials and buttons; a dapper Roy Harper lookalike at the keyboard; an energetic guitarist; and a couple of drummers at the back, whom I hardly caught a glimpse of all evening due to my front centre position. But the music they make together is a compelling blend of noise rock, dark isolationism and playful, infectious grooves.
Indeed, it was that grooviness that made the strongest impression on me. The 2010 concert was great, but it was also a touch doomy and portentous, qualities that Ulver seem to have largely shaken off in the meantime in favour of a looser, more improvisatory approach. On this occasion Kristoffer Rygg’s sombre vocals were set off perfectly by insistent percussion, churning ambient textures and Daniel O’Sullivan’s strikingly expressive guitar work. With a succession of sinister back-projected images adding to the overall sense of unease, the music of Ulver is deliciously spare and unsettling: the sound of an unwelcome presence, somewhere close at hand.
At the age of 75, Hermann Nitsch shows no signs of slowing down. Last year saw a slew of activity for the man from Prinzendorf, including a six-hour action in Leipzig, his longest action for some years, which of course I missed. And he rounded off his 75th year with a couple of events in Vienna – a short teaching action at the Nitsch Foundation, followed the next day by an organ concert in one of Vienna’s most magnificent Baroque churches, the Jesuitenkirche.
Last time Nitsch played the organ in Vienna, at the Donaucitykirche in 2012, it was a rather anticlimactic affair – only half-an-hour long, and played on a very modest instrument indeed. This occasion was everything that one wasn’t – long, involving and massively impressive. With Nitsch himself out of sight at the organ, the evening seemed less like a recital and more like a live sound environment. Having nothing to look at but the splendour of their surroundings, audience members would have been hard pushed not to sense the religious intensity that underpins all of Nitsch’s work.
Over the course of two movements, the organist created a constantly shifting soundworld of deep, spectral rumbles and radiant, overlapping harmonies. More than once I was struck by the parallels with Nitsch’s live actions, emphasizing how his art is a Gesamtkunstwerk in which music, painting and performance all complement and reinforce each other. Like the actions, this music is entirely wordless and proceeds with a kind of monumental inevitability; it reaches for notions of aesthetic purity and totality; and it inspires, in this viewer/listener at least, something approaching awe and wonderment. As such it amply fulfils Nitsch’s belief, quoted before in these pages, that “art needs to have a sense of sacred solemnity”, a worthy criterion if ever there was one.
I was hoping to bring you a review of last Friday’s concert at the Musikverein by the Bruckner Orchester Linz conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, performing two pieces (including the highly acclaimed Symphony No.4) by Arvo Pärt – after Philip Glass, my favourite living composer of classical music. Having only been to the Musikverein once in my life before, I felt like an injection of high culture for once, and the fact that Pärt was attending the performance whetted my appetite even more. However, I missed the concert due to an unbelievable scheduling fiasco. The running order was billed as something by Stravinsky and something or other by Rachmaninov in the first half, with the Pärt kicking off after the interval. Since I have no interest in either of those Russian guys, and since a 7.30pm start feels pretty alien to a Rhiz regular like myself, I cleverly – or so I thought – rolled up at 8.45 or thereabouts, all ready to claim my Stehplatz after the break. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I glanced up at the screen helpfully provided in the foyer to see beardy composer and baldy conductor engaged in a touching embrace, prior to exiting stage left along with the entire orchestra. A quick ask around confirmed what had happened. The running order had been changed at the last minute, with Pärt unceremoniously shunted to the first half and Rachmaninov moved to the second.
What the fuck? What kind of venue is it that switches the running order of a concert around and then expects audiences to accept this kind of behaviour as the norm? It’s hard to avoid drawing a comparison with the rock venues I normally frequent, where something like this would never happen. As a confirmed hater of most support bands, wherever possible I time my arrival at the venue in order to avoid the opening act’s invariably mediocre contribution to the evening. I do this secure in the knowledge that I’m not going to miss the part of the concert that I actually want to see. Any venue that decided on a whim to switch the headliner and the opener would swiftly receive very short shrift from the paying audience. I think Throbbing Gristle may have done this once or twice, but that was probably done to “subvert the expectations of the audience” or some such. I do realize that the running order of a classical concert is different, in that it lacks the hierarchy implied by the headliner/opening act binary. But it’s still a pretty shoddy way to manage an event, no matter how much gold leaf is on the walls.
I’m planning to have another go at the Musikverein for a performance of Philip Glass’s Symphony No.9 in June. I guess I should get there early.