Stockhausen: Kontakte, Ensemble Contrechamps, Geneva Les 6 Toits, 16 February 2023

Another in an occasional series in which concerts I’ve been to are used as a pretext to recall formative experiences with the artist in question. This is not a live review but a reminiscence, an extract from an autobiography that will never be written.

I was interested in Stockhausen from a relatively young age. In 1985, when I was seventeen, I learned that there was a BBC festival of his music taking place at the Barbican in London under the title Music and Machines, at which the composer himself would be present. I wasn’t familiar with Stockhausen’s music at the time, but I’d read about him in the papers and was intrigued by his legendary reputation. It was, of course, out of the question that I should travel up to London from Salisbury to attend any of the concerts. However, I took advantage of the fact that all six of the concerts were broadcast live on Radio 3 by recording them off air. I still have the tapes, and I recently bought a cassette to mp3 converter, so maybe I’ll get around to digitizing them someday.

A few years later, I took my then girlfriend to my (and her) first Stockhausen concert, a performance of Hymnen at the Royal Festival Hall at which, once again, the composer was present. An air of mystery surrounds this event to this day. I went out with the girl from 1989 to 1990, which enables me to date the concert with some degree of certainty. But the funny thing is that I can find no record of a concert of Hymnen at the Festival Hall in either 1989 or 1990. Stranger still, when I met Stockhausen after a concert at the Barbican in 2001, I asked him if he remembered that Festival Hall performance. He denied all knowledge of it, insisting that he had never played Hymnen at the Festival Hall. Now, I wasn’t about to argue the toss with Stockhausen about where and when he had played, so I got his autograph (see photo) and politely retreated. But I know I saw him at the Festival Hall that time, I remember it very well. I also remember that the hall was no more than 30% full, which is ironic in view of the vast audiences that attended his concerts in later years.

Things were different in the pre-internet days. I wrote to the Stockhausen-Verlag in Kürten, Germany, and got myself added to their mailing list. Every so often they would send catalogues of CDs for sale and courses that they were running, which would of course have been led by Stockhausen himself. I would have loved to attend one of these courses, but, having no musical ability whatsoever, it’s hard to imagine what the point of my attending would have been. Inevitably, I never took the plunge.

At some point during this period, I also became aware of something called the Stockhausen Society. It had a phone number, which I called. I got through to what sounded like a teenage girl with a strong west Midlands accent, who yelled up the stairs: “Dad! It’s someone about the Stockhausen Society!” When the man from the Society came to the phone, he turned out to be a thoroughly engaging gentleman filled with enthusiasm for Stockhausen and his work. He even hummed his favourite Stockhausen piece down the phone, which was not something I’d expected to hear. It turned out that the Stockhausen Society consisted of an extensive collection of albums, scores, videos and so on, which the gentleman was offering for viewing and listening at his home. Free accommodation, it was emphasized, would be provided. Again, I demurred.

That 2001 concert at the Barbican I mentioned earlier was part of something called the Elektronic Festival, at which key works by Stockhausen were presented alongside new work by electronica artists such as Aphex Twin, Talvin Singh and William Orbit. This tendency, which sought to “contextualise” Stockhausen as some kind of godfather of electronica, can be traced back to a 1995 interview in The Wire in which Stockhausen was asked to comment on music by Aphex Twin (again) and Scanner, among others. Rightly giving short shrift to these pygmies, Stockhausen mercilessly skewered their pretensions to equivalence: “I don’t appreciate at all this permanent repetitive language… as soon as it becomes just a means for ambiance, as we say, environment, or for being used for certain purposes, then music becomes a whore.” In 2000 the group Coil, who knew a thing or two about music being used for certain purposes, bumped into Stockhausen backstage at the Sónar festival in Barcelona and had the cheek to ask him to become an honorary member of Coil, seemingly without regard for how rude the request was; he was too polite to decline.

Stockhausen seemed to attract a certain type of acolyte in those days. Speaking of rude, there was an instructive moment during one of the pre-concert talks at the Barbican in 2001. It wasn’t a question-and-answer session, but that didn’t stop some bloke from interrupting the composer in full flow after he had used the word ‘timbre’ a couple of times in his introduction. “Karlheinz,” yelled the bloke at the top of his voice, apparently unaware that it’s impolite to call a stranger by their first name. “What do you mean by the word timbre?” The composer seemed nonplussed. “Timbre? It’s an English word. See me afterwards,” he replied dismissively.

The last time I saw Stockhausen was at his final British concert, at Old Billingsgate Market in London in 2005. Predictably, the 1000-capacity concert was sold out, as the 2001 Barbican concerts had been. And yet, as mentioned earlier, when I saw Hymnen in 1989, there were hundreds of empty seats. The music writer David Stubbs, in his 2009 book Fear of Music: Why people get Rothko but don’t get Stockhausen, explored the paradox that while modern art is extremely popular with the general public, modern classical music is very much a minority interest, being perceived as “difficult” or “unlistenable”. Which may very well be true, but on the other hand, the people at those concerts in 2001 and 2005 had hardly been pushed in there with cattle prods.

I think the shift in Stockhausen’s reception between the 1980s and the 2000s stems not from greater acceptance of his music but from the fickleness of fashion, driven by publications like The Wire and their insistence that distinctions between classical and popular music are at best meaningless, at worst elitist. (One of the many small things that pleased me when I lived in Vienna was that the German-speaking world distinguishes between “E-Musik” (ernste Musik, or “serious music”) and “U-Musik” (Unterhaltungsmusik, or “light music”). Even the left-leaning weekly listings magazine, Falter, separated its concert listings under these headings.) Not so much fear of music, more fear of missing out.

The other big difference between the 1989 and 2005 concerts was that while the earlier one was a mix of live and electronic elements, the later one contained only pre-recorded sound, projected by the composer to a number of speakers positioned around a completely dark room. It’s a shame that Stockhausen turned increasingly to this type of performance in later life, as if he no longer trusted mere mortals to convey the sounds he was hearing in his head.

Which brings me to the ostensible reason for this article, last week’s concert by Geneva’s leading contemporary music ensemble, Ensemble Contrechamps. At Billingsgate, Stockhausen had presented one of his most well-known pieces, Kontakte, in its purely electronic version. Last week Contrechamps presented the piece in its alternate version for piano, percussion and electronics, and it was a revelation. With Antoine Françoise on piano and Thierry Debons on percussion, and sound projection by David Poissonnier, the piece’s 35 minutes passed by in a vortex of rich harmonics, clashing sonorities and needling percussive stabs. I was waiting with bated breath for the moment halfway through when a crashing cymbal attack gives way to a single electronic tone that descends vertiginously before revealing itself as a series of tiny, secret pulses. But that was just one of many fine moments in this exquisitely detailed performance.

Signed booklet from the Momente box set (Deutsche Grammophon, 1976).

Antoine Françoise (piano) and Thierry Debons (percussion) of Ensemble Contrechamps performing Kontakte in Geneva, 16 February 2023.

Reflections, a school play from 1979

I spent my first year of secondary school at Redrice, a now-closed boys’ school near Andover, Hampshire.  Although I left there 44 years ago, memories of my time at the school have stayed with me, from being floored at rugby by Chris Oti (who would later play for England) to seeing the late ITV sports presenter Dickie Davies pick up his sons, Danny and Peter, after school.  Another thing that has stuck with me is a school play, even though I played no part in it.

The play was called Reflections, and was a musical based on the Gospel of St. John.  The part of Jesus was played by David Alagoa, who was a sixth-former at the school.  The music was written by one of the music teachers, Stewart Woodward.  The songs were excellent, and were beautifully sung by Alagoa and the rest of the young cast.  There were several performances of the play at the school, which was so well received that it transferred for a couple more to the Cricklade Theatre in Andover, now The Lights.

The songs were recorded, and the school made some copies available on tape.  I got one, and that tape has somehow remained in my possession since 1979 through countless house moves.  I hadn’t listened to it for years, until the other day I finally bought a cassette to mp3 converter.  I have a pile of tapes gathering dust, some of which I will probably get around to digitizing one day.  Reflections was the first one I reached for, and here it is.  The recording quality is predictably low, but I think the songs stand up very well.  Despite several attempts, I have been unable to trace Stewart Woodward.  If he, or anyone else knowing his whereabouts, sees this, please do leave a message below.

Nicolas Field/John Dikeman/Thomas Florin, Geneva AMR, 14 January 2023

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” ran the blurb for this concert by a new trio making its Geneva début at AMR last week, pitting the British drummer Nicolas Field against Swiss pianist Thomas Florin and American tenor saxophonist, now based in Amsterdam, John Dikeman. If the tagline hinted at the possibility of overdriven free jazz in the mould of Peter Brötzmann or the late Scandinavian power trio The Thing, it was a prospect that quickly evaporated in the hands of these thoughtful, highly inventive musicians. AMR was nicely full for the occasion, although this may have had something to do with a “two tickets for the price of one” deal that was on offer that night.

Field has been a quietly forceful presence behind the kit each time I’ve seen him play, an impression that was amply reinforced tonight. Whether leading his own six-piece N-Ensemble or battling it out against four relentless interlocutors as part of the drum duo Buttercup Metal Polish, the drummer has shown himself to be a master at blending souped-up rhythms with quiet sonorities and storming free passages. On this occasion Field’s probing and intricate stickwork kept up a sustained dialogue with the sax and piano, opening up space for Dikeman and Florin to illuminate the room with their melodic and harmonic invention.

It was a short concert, with four pieces each lasting fifteen minutes or so; perhaps the brevity of the evening was due in part to the relative newness of the trio. However, the gig certainly wasn’t short of eventfulness or arresting moments. Florin, whom I’d seen play before as part of the aforementioned N-Ensemble, opened the first piece in wintry minimalist style before being joined by Dikeman in swirling, exploratory duo forays. The saxophonist’s hard, earthy tone gradually expanded into flights of exuberant soloing, culminating in a lively exchange where he and Field alighted on an irresistible groove, scooped it up and took it in all kinds of unexpected directions. Dikeman’s tenor playing reminded me at times of Ken Vandermark, with something of the same formidable power and restless intelligence; but Dikeman’s style is very much his own, marked by agitated multiphonics and piercing Ayleresque cries.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of extended techniques, so I must admit that I found it a little dispiriting when Dikeman employed slap tonguing and other attacks on the reed that traded his usual fluency for a certain spikiness. For his part, Florin reached for the inside of his piano more often than was strictly necessary; there’s really no need to extend the palette of available piano sounds in this way. But these are minor gripes, which did little to detract from the sheer enjoyment of the concert. I left wanting to hear more; let’s hope this trio sticks around. In the meantime, Field and Florin will present an extended version of their Re-Ghoster project at the Archipel festival in Geneva in April.

Highlights of 2022

A few words on the year about to end. Highlight of the year: my book on Peter Hammill was published to good reviews.

Old music: it was a great year for archival box sets – Xenakis’ Electroacoustic Works, :zoviet*france:’s Châsse 3, Albert Ayler’s Revelations, The Beatles’ Revolver. I also loved the reissue of Savage Republic’s Tragic Figures and the ultra-limited handmade packages from Finders Keepers Records – Graeme Miller’s Comet In Moominland, Bruno Spoerri’s Der Würger vom Tower.

New music: Shearwater’s The Great Awakening was comfortably my album of the year. Other fine releases: Beth Orton’s Weather Alive, Richard Dawson’s The Ruby Cord, Will Sheff’s Nothing Special, Breathless’ See Those Colours Fly.

Concerts: this was the year live music took off again. Highlights: Van der Graaf Generator in London and Paris. The Young Gods, Kraftwerk, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, Buttercup Metal Polish and Kollaps in Geneva. Tindersticks in Lille. Einstürzende Neubauten in Lausanne. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds in Montreux.

Reading: Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. Paul Morley’s A Sound Mind. Markus Müller’s monumental FMP: The Living Music. Rob Young’s The Magic Box. Andy Beckett’s When The Lights Went Out. Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman.

TV: another great year for drama. For All Mankind, The White Lotus, My Brilliant Friend, We Own This City, Severance, Sherwood, Bad Sisters, A Friend of the Family. I watched folk horror classics Children of the Stones and The Owl Service with my daughter, but I enjoyed them a lot more than she did.

Deaths: I mourn the passing of Hermann Nitsch, Bill Bryden, Norma Waterson, Albin Julius, Mimi Parker and Harrison Birtwistle.

Kollaps, Geneva cave12, 11 December 2022

On a cold Sunday evening in mid-December, perhaps it wasn’t too surprising that cave12 was less than full for the visit of Australian post-industrial trio Kollaps. Which was a shame, because they delivered a deliriously powerful set, ensuring that my last concert of 2022 was also one of the best. It was my first time seeing Kollaps, but they’re one of those groups that seem committed to touring on a regular basis, so I very much hope it won’t be the last.

A few months ago on these pages, I noted that the first thing I learned about Swiss industrial rockers The Young Gods was that they named themselves after an early Swans song. So it doesn’t seem entirely out of place to mention here that the Kollaps project was named after the first Einstürzende Neubauten album, even though group leader Wade Black admitted in a 2021 interview that he now regrets using the name. It doesn’t seem that much of a problem to me, though. As with The Young Gods, we’re dealing with a historical narrative here, a continuum of influences and connections which helps us to situate Kollaps within the blasted landscape of post-industrial music.

Those influences and connections were all there at cave12, hiding in plain sight. Certainly, Kollaps’ use of a metal coil as a percussion instrument and a sheet of metal as a prop evoked memories of Neubauten at their most extreme. Moreover, Black’s mesmerizing stage presence, frenzied vocal attack and occasional swigs from a bottle of beer inevitably called to mind William Bennett in his Whitehouse heyday. Black, however, traded Bennett’s absurd stripped-to-the-waist look for a sharp suit and a demeanour charged with don’t-fuck-with-me menace. Prowling the stage as if looking for trouble, his stick-thin figure bathed in red light and dry ice, Black was one of the most incendiary and compelling frontmen I’ve ever seen.

I seem to have got this far in the review without mentioning the actual music. Well, it could scarcely have been any more visceral and thrilling – a set of punishing industrial soundscapes that were as listenable as they were brutal. Bass player Andrea Collaro issued waves of rhythmic invention, and put that metal coil through its paces with jackhammer ferocity. Meanwhile, drummer Giorgio Salmoiraghi used his minimal kit to ruthless effect, proving that you can always do more with less. Both men also seemed to be triggering samples from sets of foot pedals, the resulting beats and drones forming the ferocious heart of the Kollaps sound.

As for Black, he sang, howled and bellowed his way through the songs as if summoning up forces that one might prefer to remain dormant. If the lyrics were mostly inaudible, they nevertheless evoked a kind of raw abjection, a doomed self-awareness played out in Black’s agonized movements and haunted, troubling visions. After a short set – 45 minutes, no encore – Kollaps were gone. It was the kind of concert that leaves you drained, confused and uplifted in just about equal measure.

Marissa Nadler, Geneva L’Usine, 21 November 2022

This was a concert that brought back all kinds of memories for me, as well as being hugely enjoyable in its own right.  Back in 2005, when I was still living in the UK, I reviewed Marissa Nadler’s first two albums, Ballads of Living and Dying and The Saga of Mayflower May, for The Sound Projector magazine.  Nadler hadn’t had a whole lot of press at the time, at least not in the UK, so I felt (with some justification) that I was blazing a trail for her somewhat.  A couple of years later, I reviewed her third album Songs III – Bird on the Water, also for The Sound Projector.  As those reviews bear witness I was very taken by this music, an impression Nadler’s subsequent albums have done nothing to dispel.

A year or so later Marissa Nadler played her first concert in Vienna, at an acoustic club which occupied the back room of a place called the Gasthaus Vorstadt in the 16th district.  It wasn’t a part of Vienna I knew well, and I’d never previously been to the venue.  Indeed I never went back there, and the place was to close down for good a few years later.  Google Street View tells me that the building (at Herbststraβe 37) is now empty, which seems a shame.  Anyway, my (rather short) review of the evening is here.  I was able to catch a brief word with Marissa after the concert, and mentioned that I’d written reviews of all her albums.  She replied that her mother kept a scrapbook of all her press coverage, so I hope my reviews made it into that scrapbook.

Looking online now for information about that evening, I find that Nadler had played at L’Usine in Geneva just a couple of days earlier.  And what do you know, a couple of weeks ago she was back there, giving me my first opportunity to see her live since 2008.  It was also my first visit to L’Usine, despite having lived in Geneva for six years now.  An impressively grungey and squat-like hangout, it reminded me very much of the Arena in Vienna (the small hall, specifically).

Whereas Nadler’s 2008 concert in Vienna had been a strictly solo affair, this time she came with two extra musicians – guitarist and keyboardist “Milky” Burgess and bassist Monika Khot, plus a drum machine that was occasionally pressed into service for the more uptempo numbers.  Despite these additions, it was good to hear that Nadler hasn’t gone rockabilly or anything in the intervening years.  Her sound is still defined by her gorgeous, ethereal voice and diamond-hard fingerpicked guitar, carrying songs steeped in myths, dreams and unexpressed longing.  Accentuated by the rich sound of her 12-string electric guitar, and aided by strong backing from Burgess and Khot, Nadler’s music cleaves to a heady, psychedelic vision of folk, drawing on uncanny pastoral imagery and bright, fluttering melodies.

Highlights of the evening included the title track from Nadler’s new album, The Path of the Clouds, which she introduced, without further explanation, as being “about D.B. Cooper.”  Cue blank looks from the majority of the audience.  Cooper, it turns out, was a mysterious individual who in 1971 hijacked a plane in the northwestern United States and parachuted into the night, never to be seen again.  Now this guy may be some kind of mythical figure in the US, but I personally had never heard of him and neither, I would suggest, have most Europeans.  Not that it matters much, since the song itself was a beautiful, airborne drift of a thing.

There was, moreover, something endearingly ramshackle about Nadler’s performance.  Whether asking the lighting man to turn the lights down, the soundman to turn the click track up in her in-ear monitors, or discussing some kind of unwanted bass frequency with Burgess, this was not a slick, polished performance, and was all the better for it.  Introducing the song “Well, Sometimes You Just Can’t Stay”, Burgess promised that it would be a showcase for “Marissa’s hot riffs”, and indeed the outro to the song featured a fine, splintering solo from Nadler.  Returning to the stage alone, Nadler encored with the spectral “Fifty Five Falls” from her début album, a song so haunting and witchy it threatened to make the walls of L’Usine crumble around us and send us sliding into the depths of Lake Geneva.

Buttercup Metal Polish, Geneva cave12, 18 November 2022

Here was a classic cave12 concert – strange, baffling and hugely entertaining. Consisting of drummers Nicolas Field and Alexandre Babel, the duo of Buttercup Metal Polish is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. What better reason, then, to perform a special anniversary concert. This was my first visit to cave12 since the pandemic, and if I didn’t know quite what to expect from the event, it turned out to be an evening rich in fun and surprises. Babel was new to me, but I’d seen Field in action way back in 2018 with his N-Ensemble.

It was immediately evident, from the moment you entered the performance space, that this was not going to be an ordinary concert. The low-rise stage was empty, save for a few chairs and scatter cushions, while Field and Babel’s drumkits were placed facing each other on the floor. Meanwhile, four microphones were strategically placed at points around the room, clearly for the use of the “special guests” whose presence had been advertised.

It’s not often that you’re told in advance exactly how long a concert will last, but as part of his traditional pre-show announcement, cave12 MC Sixto had specified that the performance would last exactly 70 minutes. I couldn’t resist setting off my stopwatch and glancing at it occasionally, just to keep an eye on the passing of time, although the passage of those 70 minutes would in any case loom large in the concerns of at least one of the four guest vocalists.

For the first fifteen minutes or so, however, Field and Babel were left to their own devices. Perfectly attuned to one another, the two drummers used every available object to construct a dizzying array of percussive sounds and mazelike polyrhythms. The dynamic shifts in the music – from loud to quiet, intense to playful, spare to clattering – drew in this listener inexorably, left slack-jawed at the musicians’ extraordinary agility and dexterity.

Things started to get interesting at this point, as the four vocalists/observers began to make their presence known in various corners of the room. The deal here seemed to be that they were there to keep a watchful eye on Babel and Field, amplifying and commenting on the music as it unfolded. Of the four, the one who made by far the strongest impression was Joke Lanz, the veteran Swiss provocateur whose principal project, Sudden Infant, also features Babel on drums. On this occasion, Lanz kept up a steady stream of invective in English, French and German. Whether counting down the number of minutes remaining for the duo to play or announcing that he would “let the boys play their drums”, there was something uneasy, almost Kafkaesque, about Lanz’s increasingly harsh interventions.

Elsewhere, American artist and noise musician Fritz Welch complemented Lanz’s commentary with caustic words of his own. I was less convinced by the performances of Maarten Seghers and Catherine Travelletti, who traded Lanz’s transgressive and confrontational position for a more self-consciously physical and absurdist approach. Reciting aphoristic texts while roaming the room in wildly expansive movements and gestures, I felt that Seghers and Travelletti’s whimsical contributions detracted from the overall impact of the piece.

The most striking thing about the performance, though, was that despite all that was unfolding around them, Babel and Field never reacted to the commentators’ presence. Sealed in some hermetic zone of isolation they continued to play, their improvisations sustained by creative dialogue and telepathic understanding. It was as if they were Lanz’s subservient playthings, being unwillingly coerced into ever more desperate bursts of activity. As the allotted time wore on, Lanz’s tone became more hectoring and bullying while the drumming reached new heights of intensity. On the stroke of 70 minutes, the music stopped. Were Field and Babel released from Lanz’s grip, or had they somehow escaped from it?

Roberto Ottaviano Eternal Love Quintet, Geneva AMR, 7 October 2022

My first visit to AMR since the pandemic, and it’s reassuring to learn that nothing much has changed there in the meantime. I still haven’t quite got over the fact that it’s situated slap bang in the centre of Geneva, a stone’s throw from the main railway station and the red light district. Once you’re inside, though, the hustle and bustle fall away in favour of a relaxed and informal vibe that carries you through the whole evening. Whereas the late, lamented Blue Tomato in Vienna was a cramped and often unpleasantly overcrowded basement joint, the main first-floor space at AMR is spacious enough to allow punters to enjoy the music and conversation unimpeded – a not insignificant factor in these delicate post-COVID times.

Anyway, what brought me to AMR last Friday was a concert by the Roberto Ottaviano Eternal Love Quintet, an Anglo-Italian group with which I was previously unfamiliar. In fact, I was there primarily due to the presence of pianist Alexander Hawkins in the line-up, a surefire guarantee of quality. Although I was aware of Hawkins’ work thanks to his collaborations with Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton, this was only the second time I’d caught him live – the first being with Rob Mazurek’s Chicago/London Underground back in 2018, also at AMR. On this occasion, Hawkins’ sparkling piano runs were the fulcrum around which soprano saxman Ottaviano and clarinettist Marco Colonna pivoted with their expressive, interlocking solos.

If the name of Ottaviano’s quintet hints at a quest for spiritual enlightenment in the style of Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, it’s a sense that was never quite dispelled over the course of this evening’s two uniformly strong 45-minute sets. Not that we were dealing with anything of a particularly free or Fire Music nature here, yet still the overriding impression was one of a group striving for some kind of emancipation through its music. The quintet’s most recent album, 2018’s Eternal Love, is described in the press release as “a tribute to Africa, its culture, its music and its people, at a time of migration and racial intolerance”. From that album, the gorgeous “Uhuru” (Swahili for “freedom”) opened the second set of the evening with a stunning, melodically affecting solo from Hawkins, before the piece gradually opened out with yearning sax from Ottaviano, sensitive bass from Giovanni Maier and probing percussion from Zeno de Rossi.

Elsewhere, Colonna perfectly complemented Ottaviano’s emotive soprano with his dark, passionate clarinet moves, including a long passage of circular breathing that stilled the room with its quiet rhythmic pulse. At times, the luminous interplay of reeds and piano reminded me of Keith Jarrett’s stellar European quartet with Jan Garbarek. Yet the Eternal Love Quintet retains its own unique identity, distilled from the indefinable chemistry between these five fine musicians.

The Young Gods, Geneva Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, 23 September 2022

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.