Chicago/London Underground, Geneva AMR, 25 May 2018

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.

Michael Gira, Geneva Casino Theatre, 7 February 2018

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.

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 screen 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.

Felix Kubin, Geneva Cave 12, 4 May 2017

One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had since moving to Geneva has been the discovery of the music venue Cave 12. At first sight a close relative of the Rhiz in Vienna, on further inspection Cave 12 is actually outdoing the Rhiz these days in terms of its ability to attract some of the key names in experimental music. I’m still reeling from Richard Youngs’ extraordinary concert there in February, while performances by Peter Rehberg, Tyondai Braxton (which I never got around to reviewing; maybe some other time) and the late Mika Vainio weren’t too shabby either.

One key difference between those concerts and Felix Kubin’s appearance at Cave 12 in May was that the venue was absolutely packed out for Kubin, compared to the rather sparse attendance on the other evenings. Prior to the concert I was only vaguely aware of this guy’s work, thanks mainly to a Wire cover story a few years ago. But I’m very glad I took a punt on Kubin, since he gave one of the most enjoyable concerts of the year so far.

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Mika Vainio, Geneva Cave 12, 2 February 2017

Like everyone else who was aware of him and his work, I was deeply saddened by the death earlier this month of Mika Vainio. I didn’t know Mika personally, but I was lucky enough to spend some time with him in 1997, when Panasonic opened for Swans on their “final” European tour, for which I was the merchandise seller. This position meant long hours travelling in a big tour bus, time variously spent watching videos, chatting and sleeping (mostly the latter). Mika was a less frequent participant in these conversations than his Panasonic colleague Ilpo, but when he did join in, his contributions were always worth hearing. On one occasion, the conversation turned (how, I have no idea) to the topic of tenpin bowling. I expressed the opinion, which I still hold, that one’s enjoyment of this game was hampered by its unnecessarily complex scoring system. Mika thought for a moment and then replied lugubriously: “It does not matter what is the score.”

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Richard Youngs, Geneva Cave 12, 12 February 2017

Back in 2012, I made a fairly hopeful wishlist of the fifteen musicians I most wanted to see live. Fulfilling the list has been an uphill struggle, even though nearly all the people on it are still active and regularly touring; up until a week or two ago, I’d only been able to tick two of the fifteen off the list. Now, though, and thanks to the brilliant programming at Cave 12, I’m able to tick off a third.

Richard Youngs has actually been on my radar ever since 2002, when I reviewed his early acoustic masterpieces Sapphie and Making Paper for The Sound Projector. I’ve kept an eye on his output since then, without ever attempting to keep up with the endless flow of releases that have appeared under his name. Every so often, though, I’ve picked up one of them and have been staggered by the variety and the creativity Youngs brings to everything he does.

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The Musical Box, Geneva Théâtre du Léman, 25 November 2016

Growing up in the late 1970s, there was a certain amount of friendly rivalry between my younger brother S. and me, in music as in other areas such as sport. Whereas I, at the age of 11, was a hardcore Numanoid and Kraftwerk fan, the 10-year-old S. cottoned on at an early age to other electronic pioneers such as John Foxx and The Human League. (Not for us the dire worship of heavy metal that seemed to afflict so many of our peers at grammar school in Salisbury.) Even before that, S. was only nine when he first heard on the radio, and promptly fell in love with, Genesis’ breakthrough 1978 single “Follow You Follow Me”. At that age, and with pocket money a severely limiting factor, the extent of your appreciation for a band was measured by whether you merely bought the single or went the whole hog and shelled out for the album. If you were in the latter category, you probably hadn’t heard anything else on the album; but you were confident, based on your liking of the single, that there would be further stuff on there that you would enjoy. Thus it was that S. came home one Saturday afternoon with a copy of And Then There Were Three, if I remember rightly not only his first Genesis album, but the first album he ever bought.

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Peter Rehberg, Geneva Cave 12, 28 September 2016

Since I’m now based part of the time in Geneva, this blog, never frequently updated at the best of times, is becoming more sporadic than ever. There are a few decent venues in Geneva, but on the whole the live music scene is far quieter than it is in Vienna. For some reason there seem to be more concerts in the neighbouring cities of Lausanne and Vevey than there are in Geneva, even though they are both much smaller, which blows.

Anyway, since moving here in July I’ve only been to two concerts. The first of these was Cat Power, which I may get around to reviewing at some point (although I wouldn’t hold your breath). It was a great pleasure, though, to catch up with Peter Rehberg last week on the first date of a mini Swiss and French tour. The venue, Cave 12, seems to be the nearest equivalent to the Rhiz in Geneva, with an impressive roll-call of visitors from the avant rock, noise and experimental music scenes. Centrally located just a few minutes’ walk from the main station, staffed by friendly people and with a PA that has plenty of wallop, Cave12 gets the thumbs up from me.

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