Until recently, the only thing I knew about The Young Gods was that they took their name from an early Swans song. I knew the name, of course, one which is frequently mentioned alongside not only that of Swans but also those of other early industrial rock pioneers such as Test Dept and Einstürzende Neubauten. But although those other groups have all been important to me over the years, the music of The Young Gods has remained an unknown quantity, an omission made all the more egregious by the fact that I’ve been living in their home city for several years now. It was clearly time to rectify the omission, and what better occasion to do so than a live performance of the new Young Gods album, their version of Terry Riley’s minimalist classic In C.
The evening seemed to be some kind of co-production between L’Orchestre de Chambre de Genève, as part of its 30th anniversary weekend of concerts, and Cave 12, often described (not least in the pages of this blog) as the best music venue in the world. The OCG itself, however, played no part in the concert, while Cave 12 would certainly not have had the capacity to contain the large and appreciative audience that made its way to the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices last Friday evening.
The Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, by the way, was a new venue to me, and something of a revelation. This impressive building has been sensitively converted from an industrial site into a cultural centre, with various items of industrial kit scattered around the place and, as part of the OCG weekend, a kinetic installation, Hula Hoop (see my Instagram for a short video, if you’re curious). It was uncomfortably hot in the auditorium on Friday night, and some air conditioning wouldn’t have gone amiss, but you can’t have everything.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my undying love for the music of Philip Glass. I’ve never found quite as much to admire in the work of Glass’s fellow New York minimalists Riley, Steve Reich and La Monte Young, although all three have undoubtedly produced work of great quality. In the case of Riley, I’ve never cared for In C as much as I have for A Rainbow In Curved Air, which seems to me to be Riley’s masterpiece. The score of In C consists of 53 short numbered musical phrases, which can be played by “any number of any kind of instruments”, in numerical order but allowing for each musician to drop out and repeat phrases as they wish. The fact that the piece depends so much on chance and individual preference means that, for me at least, it lacks the formal rigour of something like Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts. Which made The Young Gods’ spirited approach to In C all the more surprising and refreshing.
Most performances of the piece seem to rely on at least a dozen musicians, and some have used as many as a hundred (Riley’s score recommends thirty-five). The Young Gods, however, only need three. In their hands, In C sheds the pedestrian quality of the 1968 studio recording (the only version of the piece with which I was previously familiar) and is transformed into a powerful, distorted entity rich in dynamic shifts and atmospheres. Much of the credit for this must go to drummer Bernard Trontin, whose relentlessly creative percussion was crucial to the draining impact of the performance. Stationed either side of Trontin, Franz Treichler and Cesare Pizzi on keyboards and electronics constructed giant slabs of sound that loomed menacingly against Trontin’s intoxicating forward motion. Meanwhile, Treichler’s occasional interventions on guitar and vocals brought the kind of timbral variety and colour that is sorely lacking in the 1968 version. As the piece drew to a close, sequenced synths recalled the glistening surfaces of Tangerine Dream, only to be engulfed by gutsy rhythms and obliterating blasts of noise.