Concerts: Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach in Geneva and Music in Twelve Parts in Dublin, Akhnaten broadcast live from the Met in New York. Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Low. The Necks. Peter Rehberg & Russell Haswell, Bill Orcutt and Richard Youngs at Cave 12. The Unthanks at Towersey Festival, Lankum in Dublin. Meeting Gavin Bryars and talking to him about Cornelius Cardew, AMM and pencils. Records: new releases by Tindersticks, La Féline, Richard Dawson, Peter Hammill & Isildurs Bane. Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts live in Paris from 1975. The staggering :zoviet*france: box set on Vinyl on Demand. Peter Hammill’s Not Yet Not Now. Film: didn’t see many new releases, but loved Locke and Marianne & Leonard. A great year for TV though: Years and Years, Chernobyl, The Deuce, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, True Detective. Reading: Iain Sinclair’s The Last London, David Stubbs’ Mars by 1980. Visits to Manila, Delhi and DRC. Seeing the Taj Mahal and the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin. Biggest downer: Brexit, Johnson and media lies. New Year’s resolution: to restart this moribund blog.
Barely a month after I’d seen a sumptuous new production in Geneva of my favourite Philip Glass opera, Einstein on the Beach, it was a no-brainer to make the flight over to Dublin to see Glass and his Ensemble play my favourite of all his compositions, the epic (just shy of four hours, by my reckoning) Music in Twelve Parts. This was the second day of a three-day Glass residency, which also included a pre-concert conversation on the Friday and a live soundtrack performance of Koyaanisqatsi on the Sunday, of which more in a moment.
This was the third time I had seen the Ensemble play Music in Twelve Parts, the first being at the Barbican in 2007, the second in Ostrava in 2013. Looking back at my review of the latter performance, I find I said there pretty much all I have to say about this work, so I’ll just leave a brief quote here:
“There’s no feeling in music comparable to the one you get as Glass’s hypnotically repeating patterns drill relentlessly into your head, only for the tiniest harmonic shift to come along and burst the whole shebang open. Alive with light and rainbow hues, gripped by an inner compulsion to thrive and regenerate, Music in Twelve Parts is total music, flowing endlessly through you and leaving you changed forever.”
A few additional, random observations. The acoustics in the hall were exceptionally clear and, pleasingly, somewhat on the loud side. (I’m reminded of a remark made to me by the composer and former Glass associate Michael Nyman after a concert of his in Vienna: “This should have been so much louder.”) Lisa Bielawa was a total revelation on soprano vox, especially in the tumultuous rush of Part 12 with which the evening concluded. The way she added repeated utterances to the key phrase around which the part revolves, to which the ensemble responded each time with yet another mantric repetition, was nothing less than miraculous. As for the music, I was overwhelmed by its endless cyclical patterns and ecstatic transitions, and by the zest with which the keyboards and woodwinds interwove to produce music of sharp, hallucinatory clarity.
The most unfortunate aspect of the weekend, however, was that Glass was not well. He was his usual dryly funny self at the conversation on Friday, but even from my seat in row S on the Saturday I could tell that he was struggling to keep up with the daunting requirements of the score. I and a few other hardcore fans hung around by the stage door after the concert, and when he emerged he was unsteady on his feet and had to be helped onto the tour bus. He pulled out of Sunday night’s Koyaanisqatsi concert and the performance of Music with Changing Parts that took place in London a few days later, and has already withdrawn from a scheduled performance of the Qatsi trilogy in Paris next month. The Ensemble played or will play all of these concerts without him. I wish him a full and speedy recovery, and look forward to more European concerts in the future.
In recent years Philip Glass seems to have reached new heights of popularity and pre-eminence, cementing his status as the world’s greatest living composer. Now in his 83rd year, Glass is performing sell-out concerts in Europe and North America, while his major operas are regularly performed at the world’s leading opera houses. Bolstered by a relentless stream of posts on his social media accounts (not by the man himself, needless to say), it’s clear that an awful lot of people are coming very late indeed to Philip Glass. The days when I sat among half-empty audiences in London and my home town of Salisbury at Glass concerts, even with the composer himself present, are long gone.
In a further sign of this ever-growing recognition, a Glass opera was chosen to reopen the splendid Grand Théâtre in Geneva after extensive renovation work lasting three years. And, gratifyingly, it wasn’t a relatively safe choice like Akhnaten or Satyagraha that they went for, but Glass’ most demanding and difficult work, Einstein on the Beach. Like the original 1976 production, which I saw revived in London in 2012, this new Einstein was billed as the joint work of Glass and Robert Wilson. There was, however, precious little sign of Wilson’s original visual concepts for the opera in this version by the Swiss theatre director Daniele Finzi Pasca. This openness is of course mandated by the official notes to the opera, which state that “the producer has two options: to reproduce the original Robert Wilson production (which exists on videotape), or to create a new series of stage and dance pictures based on themes relating to the life of Albert Einstein.”
Whereas Wilson’s stage designs were steeped in formalist rigour, all space, light and surface, those of Finzi Pasca leapt out at the viewer with a vivid, haunting intensity. Scene after scene left me slack-jawed in wonderment, the visuals forming a dreamlike and ravishing accompaniment to the dizzying spirals of Glass’ score. There are too many highlights to mention, but the most memorable images included Einstein’s assistants filmed from above, their onstage movements projected onto a massive screen which made them seem to be climbing, falling and floating at will; the lovely water nymph in a long, flowing orange dress, her graceful underwater movements watched impassively by a beautiful white horse; the forest of interlacing tubes that glowed in many colours as they glided smoothly around the stage; the gorgeous shadowplay of cyclists and mermaids as they crossed and recrossed the stage as dancing silhouettes; and the bathers on the beach, playing badminton, wrestling with deckchairs and crabs, throwing beach balls and juggling in remarkably expert fashion. (Was Finzi Pasca aware, I wonder, that juggling also formed part of the stagecraft at the ENO’s triumphant production of Akhnaten which I saw in London three years ago? If not, it was a remarkable coincidence.)
As for the music, it was filled with everything I’ve come to love about Glass. Swirling and eddying with immense mathematical precision, it seemed to embody the paradox of the opera’s title and of that time in Einstein’s life which inspired it: that a man of such formidable intellect could be found among the endlessly rippling tides of the seashore.1 The choir and musicians, made up of students from the Haute École de Musique de Genève under the direction of Titus Engel, responded magnificently to the considerable demands placed upon them by the score. The sung texts, consisting mainly of numbers and solfège syllables, were delivered with breathtaking vigour and stamina, while the music (including sublime solos for violin and saxophone) held me rapt for every second of the opera’s four-hour duration. Although the producers were at pains to emphasize that members of the audience were free to come and go as they wished, I for one remained rooted to my seat throughout.
A few days earlier, I’d kicked off this mini-Glass festival in Geneva with a visit to far-flung Lignon to see a work that was new to me, his chamber opera interpretation of Kafka’s short story In the Penal Colony. I wasn’t bowled over by this one, to tell you the truth. The score, played expertly by a string quintet of musicians from Geneva’s Ensemble Contrechamps, was as refulgent and animated as any late-period Glass, but I quickly became bored and then irritated by the onstage movements of the two singers and their constant shifting, like besuited removal men, of two large mirrored crates-cum-video-screens exactly into place. Meanwhile, the libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer (who also wrote the screenplay for the film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, fact fans) and the excerpts from Kafka’s text read by a disembodied voice offstage were gruelling stuff.
Finally, a word on the ticketing arrangements for Einstein, which frankly bordered on the farcical. From the moment this event was announced, I was aware that it was both part of the La Bâtie festival and also a regular production of the Grand Théâtre of Geneva. On the morning tickets went on sale, however, the GTG’s website had no link to any ticket-buying portal. I therefore bought them from the La Bâtie website, naturally assuming that there was no other source to be found. Having gone through the ticket-buying process and been relieved of a not insignificant sum of money, I discovered to my displeasure that the tickets I’d bought were not for individually numbered seats but were for unspecified seats within a block, and were to be exchanged for numbered tickets on the day of the show. When I turned up at the Grand Théâtre for the show, I was shocked to find that the tickets I’d been allocated were way off to the side of the auditorium, seats I would never have chosen if I’d been given the opportunity to select individual seats. Only after I’d bought tickets did the La Bâtie website give the information that it was also possible to select seats on the GTG ticket portal, by which time it was too late.
1. See Einstein’s Long Island Summer of ’39:
What a sumptuously, startlingly beautiful evening this was. I’d waited many years to see The Necks live; surprisingly, I don’t believe they ever made it to Vienna in the 11 years I lived there. The closest I would have come was seeing drummer Tony Buck doing stickwork as part of Heaven And, a fleeting and now defunct aggregation that brought the house down on the 2010 Konfrontationen festival in Nickelsdorf.
The Necks seem to have attained a certain cult appeal in recent years as the improv outfit it’s OK to like. In this they’ve undoubtedly been buoyed up by the enthusiasm of kindergarten-level critics such as Swans’ Michael Gira, whose fanboy support for The Necks a few years ago reached such eloquent heights as: “they’re loosely described as jazz music, but they’re not…they don’t improvise in the sense of jazz noodling, they create grand waves of sound.” Comically incapable of discerning The Necks’ place in a continuum of which he knows nothing, Gira’s dot-to-dot analysis entirely fails to engage with those elements which make The Necks great: history, continuity, the sense of a tradition lovingly renewed.
It’s noticeable, when watching The Necks play live, that they hardly if ever make eye contact with each other. During their two 45-minute sets at AMR, Buck and bassist Lloyd Swanton may have passed the odd glance between them, but if they did I missed it. And pianist Chris Abrahams certainly never turned round to look at his bandmates, remaining resolutely forward-facing throughout. This stands in sharp contrast to people like Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson and Anthony Braxton, for whom visual cues seem to act as an important way of moving the music forward. For The Necks, as for AMM, the music is shaped exclusively from the players’ listening and responding to the conversation that unfolds between them.
The first set began with gently probing piano figures from Abrahams, soon to be joined by restrained double bass from Swanton and understated percussion from Buck. Initially restricting himself to pizzicato, Swanton was practically strumming the strings high up the neck, his dark bass tones in rigorous counterpoint to Abrahams’ swirling note clusters. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the group began to ratchet up the intensity. Buck used the hi-hat relentlessly, its glistening timbre falling into the spaces between Abrahams’ hypnotic chords and Swanton’s gorgeous arco work. Focused on the middle range of the keyboard, his face an image of rapt concentration, the pianist fired off streams of jazzy figures with Keith Jarrett-like conviction.
Buck and Swanton kicked off the second set in subdued fashion, with the bassist issuing lonely single notes around the drummer’s softly brushed snare patterns. It was to be several minutes before Abrahams joined in, the unnerving clarity of his piano once again upping the tension in the room. The music gradually began to surge and flow in vast oceanic currents; shorn of individual histrionics, it packed its punch instead through the profoundly telepathic understanding between the musicians. Swanton found an addictive rhythmic pulse and rode with it, while Buck’s increasingly forceful activity laid the groundwork for a beautifully sustained and satisfying climax. Rarely have I been so engrossed at a concert, so intent on savouring every note, every phrase and every moment of silence.
The last time I saw Low in concert was way back in 2007, at one of my favourite venues in the world, the Radiokulturhaus in Vienna. They’ve toured Europe regularly since then, but have never been back to Vienna (although they’re heading that way in July), or anywhere else close enough for me to see them, for that matter. It was a very pleasant surprise, therefore, to see them pop up in Geneva in February as part of the Antigel festival, one of the undoubted highlights of Geneva’s cultural calendar. All credit to the group for including Geneva in their busy touring schedule, especially since they had been 2000 kilometres away in Stockholm the night before, a challenging routing at the best of times.
Low have switched bassists since 2007, although you wouldn’t know it from the current incumbent’s unobtrusive presence at stage left. The group’s sound is still built around Alan Sparhawk’s extraordinary guitar work, Mimi Parker’s lighter-than-air percussion and the pair’s spectral vocals, ascending miraculously from the stage in clouds of exquisite harmony. The results are astonishing; this is some of the most inexorable music I’ve ever heard, its dense fragility daring the listener not to pay attention lest he miss some crushingly emotional moment, some blinding flash of insight.
As is by now fairly well known, Low’s most recent album Double Negative represents something of a departure for the group. Previous outings like Drums and Guns and Ones and Sixes had seen the band warp their trademark sound with icy drones and skeletal electronic pulses, but this album goes much further in its single-minded deconstruction of the Low myth. Sparhawk’s and Parker’s damaged voices cling desperately to vertiginous waves of static as if on the verge of some terrible accident, while Sparhawk’s guitar plunges deep into worlds of formless, distorted texture. It’s a bold, sombre and, not least, timely piece of work.
Wisely, Low choose not to attempt to recreate the looming shadows of Double Negative tonight, even though almost half the setlist is given over to it. Instead, the concert makes explicit the thread running through all of Low’s work: a sense of profound disquiet, love and faith put at risk, beauty undermined by fear and pain. Wrenching raw notes from his guitar in fevered bursts of activity, Sparhawk navigates the treacherous zones of “Do You Know How To Waltz?” as movingly as he traces the hymnal echoes of “Nothing But Heart”. Meanwhile, Parker’s understated stickwork and radiant vocals add to the impression that there is something ineffable, almost holy, present in Low’s music.
For all that, Low’s art remains firmly grounded in the present, its conversational intimacy perfectly suited to the medium of live performance. Resplendent in a cosy patterned sweater, Sparhawk trades the minimum of banter with the audience, gamely enquiring what else was coming up at the festival (answer: not much, it was almost over) and expressing regret (more than I did, I have to say) at having missed Yo La Tengo’s concert the night before. But when the music speaks with such quiet, unassuming eloquence as this music does, there’s really nothing more to be said.
Another year of failing to keep up with this blog. Here are the ten concerts I enjoyed most this year:
1. Einstürzende Neubauten, Alhambra, Geneva
2. Glen Hansard, Alhambra, Geneva
3. Roger Waters, Stadthalle, Vienna
4. Nurse With Wound, Cave 12, Geneva
5. Philip Glass: Satyagraha, Coliseum, London
6. Fire! Orchestra, AMR, Geneva
7. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Montreux Jazz Festival
8. Anna von Hausswolff, Montreux Jazz Festival
9. Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, AMR, Geneva
10. Sir Richard Bishop, Room Art Space, Cairo
Here’s a tale filled with coincidences, discoveries and connections. A few months ago, The Wire magazine ran a cover story on the underground music scene in Cairo, focusing on artists such as Nadah El Shazly, Maurice Louca and Maryam Saleh. As I write this I’m in Cairo myself on a two-week business trip, my second visit in two years to this sprawling, chaotic city. Hoping to catch some of these folks in their home town, I trawled the listings for relevant gigs. I drew a blank, but discovered instead another enticing prospect: a concert by Sir Richard Bishop, acoustic guitarist extraordinaire, antiquarian bookseller specializing in the occult, and former member of the legendary Sun City Girls.
A few weeks ago, Bishop played a concert at my favourite venue in Geneva, Cave 12. I couldn’t make that evening, so it was a no-brainer to make the long and hazardous trip by taxi through the horrendous Cairo traffic to the Room Art Space, a lively and welcoming café-cum-performance space. And the connection with my adopted home town doesn’t end there, since it wasn’t until after the concert that I discovered that Bishop has associations with Geneva of his own.
The story goes that Bishop, wandering around the old town one day during a 2013 residency in the city, stumbled upon a musical instrument shop. In the market for a guitar small enough to take on tour with him, Bishop made enquiries of the proprietor and was shown a mysterious 19th century instrument with no marks of its provenance. Initially put off by the high price he had been quoted, Bishop reluctantly left the store empty-handed. But he couldn’t get the guitar out of his mind, and returned to the shop a few days later to seal the deal. The wisdom of this decision can be heard on Bishop’s most recent album, 2015’s haunted Tangier Sessions, which was recorded on this very instrument.
Bishop didn’t have the guitar in question with him on this occasion, but this was still a compelling performance. I’d seen Bishop live once before, on one of those rare evenings when I’ve bothered to pay attention to the usually hopeless support act. Opening for Earth in Vienna in 2008, the guitarist played what I described in my review as “clouds of notes emerging and resolving into beautifully complex configurations”. Which is all well and good, but doesn’t even begin to capture the rapturous pleasure that comes from listening to Bishop in full flight.
Bishop’s range is staggering, taking in dark vortices of flamenco, filigree classical, heady middle Eastern inflections, gorgeous major-key melodies and feverish rocked-out strumming, often within the same piece. There’s more than a hint here of the baleful eclecticism that powered Bishop’s former unit, Sun City Girls, whose music I’ve been belatedly discovering of late. And the influence of the Girls extends further into present-day Cairo, since Bishop’s brother Alan (who was at the gig, standing in the shadows at the back) now plays with other local musicians as The Invisible Hands, while also forming a third of the Dwarfs of East Agouza with the aforementioned Louca and another key Cairo figure, guitarist and oud player Sam Shalabi. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see any of these people play during my visit; maybe next time. I was indeed fortunate, though, to have my visit intersect with the mesmerising guitar magic of Richard Bishop.
“We can’t see you, but we can feel you,” announced Ken Vandermark at the start of his recent show with Paal Nilssen-Love in Geneva, his view of the audience hampered by bright stage lights. The concert took place the night after a gig at my old stamping ground, the Blue Tomato in Vienna, a place where (as a quick look at the archives of this now dormant blog shows) I saw Vandermark and Nilssen-Love play at least three times, in 2009, 2011 and 2014.
With the Tomato, and indeed Vienna itself, now a rapidly fading memory, it was a great pleasure to renew my acquaintance with this most bracing and explosive of duos. AMR may be a less cosy and convivial venue than the Tomato, and the audience numbered around 30-40 rather than the hundred or so that regularly pack out the Tomato. Still, there was still a palpable sense of expectation in the air, with Vandermark’s horns and the house drumkit set out on the floor of the room – no stage here, not even a low one.
Right from the start Vandermark and Nilssen-Love made their presence felt in no uncertain terms, with a barnstorming duo passage that saw Vandermark’s weighty tenor interlocking with the Norwegian’s breathless percussion. Firing off volleys of sax blurts that resolved into glinting shards of melody, Vandermark summoned the ghosts of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, embracing them with an energy and vision entirely his own. The Chicagoan reached for his clarinet, tracing a slow, sad blues that led into a needle-sharp passage of circular breathing and then an almost perky, European folk dance section – a transition that made perfect sense given the way Vandermark, more than any other musician, seems to bridge the American free jazz and European free improvisation traditions.
Battling it out for supremacy like two cats in a bag, the duo opened the second set with a furious ensemble passage that saw Nilssen-Love turn to brushes and an arsenal of hand-held percussion instruments. An engrossing drum solo followed, the Norwegian anchoring his playful inventiveness with riveting snare, toms and cymbal work. Back on tenor, the saxophonist melted the air with cascading riffs and analytic grooves, and a gorgeous solo to round off the main set. A short encore saw Vandermark raise the roof on clarinet, matched for intensity by Nilssen-Love’s hyperactive presence behind the kit.
With the show over and the duo packing up, the house manager threw open the windows to let in the sounds of Paquis, the seedy and bustling district of Geneva in which AMR is situated. Another extraordinary performance from these two gifted musicians.
Another fine evening at AMR in the company of a group of inspired and inspiring musicians. The story goes that the long-established Chicago Underground duo of cornettist Rob Mazurek and percussionist Chad Taylor invited two mainstays of the London improv scene, pianist Alexander Hawkins and bassist John Edwards, to join them in forming a new quartet called, deep breath, Chicago/London Underground. Personally I would have called the group Them after the initial letters of the four members’ surnames, but I guess Van Morrison got there first. Meth would have been a possible, if fairly unappetising, alternative. But I digress.
This was, I think, my first live acquaintance with any of these musicians, although both Hawkins and Edwards have been on my radar for some time on account of their regular appearances on my Evan Parker gigs page. With the frequency of their collaborations with Parker testifying to their ability as improvisors, it comes as no surprise that the saxophonist joined the full group onstage at a recent concert in Slovenia, only a week or so before their appearance in Geneva.
This being, as noted above, a fairly new collaboration, there was a freshness and a vitality to the performance that repeatedly cut through the received language of improv. With his permanent scowl and unnecessary sunglasses, Mazurek cut an incongruous onstage figure. I could have done without his occasional vocal interjections and his use of cowbells as a percussion instrument, which was presumably intended as some kind of humorous reference to the fact that we were in Switzerland. But once he got down to business on cornet the results were miraculous, as his moody, hyperactive lines fell into sublime interplay with Hawkins’ sparkling piano and the gut-churning twists and turns of Edwards and Taylor’s rhythmic structures.
Throughout the evening’s two sets, duo and trio sections alternated with full-on ensemble material. In the first half, a long, sensitive duet between Hawkins and Mazurek saw the smoky haze of the Chicagoan’s cornet sustained by Hawkins’ richly expressive language on the piano. Taylor for his part, when he wasn’t etching the radiant tones of the mbira into the group’s sound, was relentlessly probing and energetic behind the kit, while Edwards propelled the ensemble forward with his dreamlike arco and pizzicato work.
The second set began with a breathtaking dialogue between Hawkins and Taylor. Drawing on vast reserves of energy and dexterity, the pianist sculpted waves of tense, knotty melodies that worked their way insidiously into the wide-open expanses generated by Taylor. The drummer ceded ground to Edwards, who joined Hawkins for an engrossing duo section of their own. With an audacity that was as thrilling as it was unexpected, the four men came together for a blistering quartet section driven by an infectious rhythmic groove, courtesy of a sampler controlled by Mazurek. This extended finale was a perfect example of Chicago/London Underground’s gleefully inclusive approach to improvisation, encompassing freedom, rhythm, dissonance, melody and all points in between.
Although Michael Gira has let it be known that the most recent Swans tour was the last in the current iteration of this veteran 36-year-old project, there seem to be no corresponding closure plans for Gira’s parallel career as a solo artist. Indeed, Gira seems to regard solo performance as some kind of workshop for Swans, with many songs initially given solo outings eventually winding up in fully-fledged form as Swans efforts. This has the unfortunate effect of making a Michael Gira solo concert feel like listening to a series of demos, with all the sketchy and provisional qualities that implies.
In fact, out of the eleven or so songs played by Gira at his Geneva concert in February, I reckon only four were actually new, with the others hailing from various stages of the Gira/Swans/Angels of Light back catalogue. But the familiarity (to this long-time Gira-watcher, at least) of those seven old songs was never enough to bring this concert above the level of the formulaic. This was essentially long-form busking, with Gira’s rudimentary guitar laying the foundation for a series of hectoring, haranguing outbursts that put me in mind of my occasional Sunday afternoon visits to Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park in the early 1990s.
Bereft of kindness, warmth and sensitivity, Gira’s stentorian bellow is not an easy thing to love, and the downer hearing it at length put me on during this concert was only exacerbated by the increasingly turgid and overblown nature of Gira’s texts. Gira’s lyrics tend towards the sulphurous and messianic, with a limited schema of lyrical tropes that rely heavily on reach-me-down apocalyptic imagery. Governed by grindingly repetitive chord structures, delivered in tones that range from the meekly defeated to the perpetually outraged, these songs lurch onwards and ultimately collapse under the weight of their own absurdity.
The new songs Gira gave us a taste of in Geneva were more than enough to confirm my feeling that the Swans project has reached a creative dead end. “Are We Sleeping?” was a progressively glib list of bilious observations, “The Hanging Man” relied on a spat-out “NOT” for effect like some cheapjack horror flick, while “You Will Pay” (I make no claims as to the accuracy of these song titles, by the way) was only put out of its misery after a long, rancorous spoken-word outro. It was a blessed relief, then, to have this concert end with the piercingly sad and deeply moving “God Damn The Sun”, a song that has haunted me for almost 30 years and a rare instance of Gira letting the song breathe and tell its own story, rather than being locked up in grotesque contortions of its own making.