Nicolas Field’s N-Ensemble, Geneva AMR, 24 March 2018

You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a world-class free jazz and improv club right in the centre of Geneva, just a few minutes’ walk from the main railway station. But that’s what you get with L’Association pour l’encouragement de la musique improvisée, Geneva’s leading venue for this kind of music. If Cave 12 is Geneva’s equivalent of the Rhiz in Vienna, then AMR is Geneva’s Blue Tomato, with a programme of regular concerts by local musicians spiced up with occasional visits from big hitters such as Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark. I saw both the Schlippenbach Trio and Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra there in recent months, but never got around to reviewing them. Maybe I will one day, although I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Anyway, it was a pleasure to visit AMR for the second of two evenings led by the Anglo-Swiss drummer Nicolas Field. Field’s was a name new to me, but he’s worked with musicians of the calibre of Keiji Haino, Akira Sakata and “Sir” Richard Bishop, as well as being active in sound art and composing music for the Burgtheater in Vienna. On the occasion of this AMR residency he put together a six-piece group consisting of Swiss and international musicians, and called it the N-Ensemble.

The evening consisted of two set-long pieces, the latter of which Field introduced as “From Sand to Dust”. With just a few written guidance notes in evidence, Field allowed the players plenty of room to improvise within the overall structure of the piece. Duo and trio sections opened out into full-group improvisations, with the soundworld characterized by shifting zones of tension and release, punctuated by frequent bursts of turbulence. Key to the latter was guitarist and bassist Jasper Stadhouders, whose stormy riffing provided the evening with its most deliriously out-there moments. I’d seen Stadhouders a couple of times in Vienna playing bass in Ken Vandermark’s Made To Break, but those outings hadn’t really prepared me for the ferocity with which he applied himself to the electric guitar and the flinty resonance of his acoustic playing.

In the best tradition of group improvisation, each of the various members made important contributions to the overall pace and shape of the music. Valerio Tricoli had a fascinating set-up consisting of a vintage Revox tape recorder with no reels, just a single length of tape looped around a mic stand and travelling endlessly through the tape heads. Presumably Tricoli was recording the sounds in the room and processing them in real time via his mixing console next to the Revox. Whatever the truth of the matter, his interventions added a ghostly patina that hovered over Thomas Florin’s ominous piano and Bjørnar Habbestad’s piercing flute. Playing off brilliantly against Habbestad, Anne Gillot doubled on bass clarinet and something called a Paetzold contrabass recorder. This ungainly contraption looked like something my son would bring home from woodwork class, but sounded incredible, with Gillot’s fierce, truculent voicings splintering into the spaces left by the other musicians. Field himself was a constantly creative presence behind the drums, his restless stickwork anchoring the disparate elements of the ensemble.

So engrossed was I in the music’s enveloping sonorities that I was surprised, when I looked around at the end, to discover that I was one of only five people in the audience, there having been at least 20 at the beginning. This is probably the only concert I’ve ever attended where the people onstage outnumbered those in the audience, although this is no reflection on the quality of the music, which was never less than compelling.

Einstürzende Neubauten, Geneva Alhambra, 2 February 2018

Three years ago I travelled to Munich to see Einstürzende Neubauten play at the Haus der Kunst, a concert that coincided with the opening of an exhibition on German post-punk music at the same location. I never got around to reviewing the concert, nor did I write about the group’s appearance at the 2017 Donaufestival in Krems, one of the last concerts I saw in Austria. In truth, though, there wasn’t much difference between those appearances and Neubauten’s show last month in Geneva, so this review can stand equally as a review of those earlier two as well.

At first sight there may seem something disconcerting, maybe even safe, about the idea of a group of arch iconoclasts like Neubauten apparently treading water for the past few years, but it’s a notion that doesn’t bear very much scrutiny. In the first place, this bout of touring comes in the wake of 2014’s Lament, the soundtrack to a site-specific performance that is as emotionally affecting a piece of music as Neubauten have ever put their name to. And in the second place, 2016’s heavily ironically titled Greatest Hits compilation, around which the group’s current show is based, is very much of a piece with the tendency to self-mythologization that has characterized Neubauten’s approach over the past 37 years.

It’s become a truism, in critical writing about Neubauten, to bemoan their apparent move towards the mainstream, to complain that the sonic terrorism of their earlier years has gradually given way to a more conventionally musical approach. But to these ears, the most striking thing about latter-day Neubauten is the almost unbearable tension that they generate through their use of both conventional and home-made instruments, lurking menacingly beneath the surface and frequently erupting into states of discord that are every bit as violent and destructive as the early records and performances with which the group achieved such notoriety. This tension is inscribed deep in Neubauten’s music, from the starkly beautiful melodies that linger tellingly through their songs, to Jochen Arbeit’s miraculous shimmering guitar work, the sinister clank of NU Unruh’s percussive arsenal and the monstrous bass of Alexander von Hacke, all of it woven together by singer and lyricist Blixa Bargeld’s ferociously clever texts.

It’s not perhaps widely known that Bargeld has some help these days in delivering his lines, which is hardly surprising given how formidably dense and allusive they are. Bargeld’s guilty secret, which could readily be divined from the front-row vantage point I claimed at both Krems and Geneva, is that he has a teleprompter at the foot of his microphone off of which he reads the lyrics, controlled by means of a little clicker in his hand. On the face of it there’s something unsatisfactory about this practice, sitting ill as it does with the assumed extempore nature of live performance. Nevertheless it’s a practice I’m happy to endorse, given that Bargeld’s texts exhibit all the characteristics of what Barthes called jouissance: a text that “imposes a state of loss, that discomforts, unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language…

If Barthes, that arch deconstructionist, were around today, he would no doubt be amused by the idea of a group whose very name celebrates the notion of collapse, and who title their long-running series of compilation albums Strategies Against Architecture. And what these concerts showed was that jouissance – a blissful state of discomfort, disorientation, crisis and loss – continues to dwell threateningly inside the group’s music. Forever on the brink of collapse, constantly shifting between beauty and danger, Einstürzende Neubauten remain as compelling and essential as ever.