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.

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.

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.

Gavin Bryars, Geneva Casino Theatre, 5 February 2019

Out of all the concerts I never got around to reviewing during this blog’s long period of inactivity, last year’s visit to Geneva by the British composer Gavin Bryars was definitely one of the highlights. So it makes sense to start at the top when trying to make up for lost time during this current period of enforced isolation.

I can’t remember where I first heard Bryars’ two minimalist masterpieces The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, both of which were performed in Geneva. I do remember attending a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1994 or so, at which Bryars and his ensemble performed an extended version of The Sinking of the Titanic. This was, I believe, the same version of the piece that was later released on CD on Point Music – a label associated with Philip Glass, fact fans.

Somewhat to my chagrin, Bryars had not brought his ensemble with him to Geneva. Nor did he play or conduct during the evening, his input consisting as far as I could tell of sound projection, mixing or some such from the back of the hall. The performers came instead from the Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain and the Haute École de Musique in Geneva. But there was absolutely nothing lacking in their flawless interpretations of both pieces.

The Sinking of the Titanic is perhaps the saddest piece of music I’ve ever heard. As is by now well known, it takes as its starting point the recollection of several survivors of the disaster that the ship’s band did not abandon their station, but continued to play as the ship sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean. Bryars imagined the sound continuing to reverberate as it disappeared under the waves, resulting in a slow, melancholy unfolding that interwove exquisite threads of melody with haunting fragments of spoken testimony from survivors of the tragedy. As the unnerving strains of violins, violas, cello and double bass descended further into the depths, the piece achieved a desolate beauty that was utterly overwhelming.

After the interval, it was the turn of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. This, of course, is the piece that achieved a certain public profile in 1993 when Bryars recorded an extended version with Tom Waits singing the words of the homeless man. As one who has always remained steadfastly immune to the gravelly charms of Waits’ voice, that version is for me entirely superfluous when compared to the original 25-minute version, featuring Michael Nyman on organ and Derek Bailey on guitar, that was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 with The Sinking of the Titanic on the other side. In Geneva, the NEC’s performance amply met the requirement of Bryars’ score that “the performance should be undramatic, understated and subdued, without pomp or show”. Perfectly catching the piece’s undertone of quiet optimism, the music swelled and receded with stark precision around the central recorded loop.

In the bar after the concert, I asked Bryars to sign my original copy of that 1975 release. We chatted about free improvisation, Cornelius Cardew and AMM, and about his never-ending quest for a supply of Aztec Scoremaster 101 pencils. (The interesting story behind this quest can be read on Bryars’ website.) In the weeks before the Geneva concert, I had scoured eBay and other websites in the hope of securing a box of these precious items. It would have been lovely to surprise Bryars by presenting him with such a box, but it was not to be. Still, I’ll keep looking. And if you ever come across a box of Aztec Scoremaster 101 pencils, preferably in yellow, well, you know where to send them.

Peter Rehberg & Russell Haswell, Geneva Cave 12, 29 September 2019; Pita, Geneva Cave 12, 26 January 2020; Russell Haswell & Bruce Gilbert, Geneva Cave 12, 26 February 2020

Here was a trio of concerts that amply reinforced Cave 12’s claim to be one of the most important centres for underground music in Europe, if not the world. Utilizing to the max the considerable heft of the club’s PA, these three affiliated musicians presented a compelling case for the continued health of electronic noise music, particularly in its modular synth incarnation (there was not a laptop in sight).

By way of context it should be noted that both Russell Haswell and Bruce Gilbert have released several albums on Peter Rehberg’s Editions Mego label and its predecessor, plain old Mego. Meanwhile the associations between Haswell and Gilbert reach even further back, to 1995 and the Disobey club at Upstairs at the Garage in Islington, which they co-founded along with Blast First label head Paul Smith. A brief autobiographical digression follows:

I lived in London for most of the 1990s, and looking back at that decade now I realize that it was some kind of golden age for me as far as live music was concerned. At that time London had not yet succumbed to the virus of gentrification; the Astoria, where I saw Spiritualized, The Divine Comedy and American Music Club, was still in its prime location at the top of Charing Cross Road. Further along on Tottenham Court Road, I saw an early Godspeed You! Black Emperor gig in a tiny basement club called the Embassy Rooms. On the experimental side the London Musicians Collective was in full swing, putting on shows by the likes of :zoviet*france: and AMM in places like the Spitz, the Conway Hall and the Bridewell Theatre. Then there were the post-industrial types, with rare, precious concerts by the likes of Whitehouse (The Garage), Death in June (New Cross Venue, Charlton House) and Current 93 (New Cross Venue again, Walthamstow Royal Standard).

As for Disobey itself, I was by no means a regular at its evenings, but I do remember seeing FM Einheit of Einstürzende Neubauten pushing lumps of rock around a table, the writer Stewart Home in full deranged ranter mode and Bruce Gilbert of Wire DJing from a glass booth in his guise as The Beekeeper. (Actually, all three of these might have been on the same evening.) Then there was the time Finnish electronic trio Panasonic played a gig in a car park somewhere in east London, driving an armoured vehicle that had been fitted with a PA system round and round in circles. There were no advance tickets for Disobey; you had to call a number, listen to a recorded message which gave details of the next event, and leave a message on their answerphone to put your name on the list. In fact I seem to remember that I failed to do this for the FM Einheit evening, which owing to the Neubauten connection (even though Einheit had left Neubauten by that time) was sold out. I only got in because I had a passing acquaintance with Stewart Home, who kindly brought me in as his guest and allowed me to bypass the considerable queue on the pavement outside.

When Rehberg and Haswell appeared as a duo for the first time at Cave 12 back in September, they tempered their natural tendency towards confrontation with a strong dose of playfulness. The 45-minute set (now available as a paid download from the Editions Mego Bandcamp site) was a bracing, intermittently abrasive mix of ear-bleeding frequencies, scabrous drones and feverish, clanking rhythms. Volcanic outbursts of white-hot energy erupted from the dense circuitry of pulses and tones formed by the two musicians’ respective modular synth setups. If it was sometimes hard to make out where Rehberg’s contributions ended and Haswell’s began, that was less due to any perceived similarity of approach and more to the single-minded glee with which the piece careered to its inexorable conclusion.

Rehberg’s solo appearance in January (under the name Pita, which strictly speaking is only used for his solo projects) was an altogether darker affair. The set would not have sounded out of place on Kevin Martin’s epochal Isolationism compilation, consisting as it did of frosty, industrial drones punctuated by occasional interventions – starlit frequencies, stricken attempts at movement, blasts of agitated static. This set was also made available on the Editions Mego Bandcamp site, although it was very much a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it thing, since the paid download was only available for 24 hours.

Finally, Haswell and Gilbert each presented solo pieces at a concert last month – my last evening out, as it happened, before the coronavirus nightmare descended on western Europe. I wasn’t especially taken with Gilbert’s short opening set, which relied heavily on low-end drones that lingered stubbornly and never really went anywhere. Coupled with this, Gilbert was sitting down. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the performative aspect of electronic music (never entirely satisfying at the best of times) distinctly lacking when the musician chooses to sit down, rather than stand up as both Rehberg and Haswell did. In this case, Gilbert’s somewhat diffident onstage demeanour gave him the distracted air of an Open University electronics student doing a practical exam.

No such quibbles over Russell Haswell’s set, which gave the evening a much-needed jolt with a barrage of short, devastating body blows that never gave the audience time to recover. The set proceeded according to the principles of sound as a weapon employed by Joe Banks’ Disinformation project – no great surprise in itself, given that Banks also played the Disobey club and that Haswell worked on Disinformation’s 1996 R&D album. Swarming with jackhammer rhythms, ominous frequencies and strafing salvoes of noise, the set was a riotous collision of industrial austerity and punk attitude. Meanwhile, the music found a witty correlative in Haswell’s exuberant between-song introductions, which gave preposterous titles to some of the pieces (sample titles: “I’ve Seen Impaled Nazarene Fourteen Times”, “Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System”, “Always Check Their Instagram”). While his genial brand of showmanship had the audience in gales of laughter, Haswell’s real gift lies in his unforgiving and uncompromising manipulation of sound to brutal effect.

The Necks, Geneva AMR, 12 May 2019

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.

Low, Geneva Alhambra, 15 February 2019

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.