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.

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.

The Unthanks, Thame Towersey Festival, 23 August 2019

Here’s a flashback to sunnier, happier times. It’s not often that you’ll catch me at an outdoor music festival, but I’m happy to make an exception for Towersey, a smallish folk-based affair sitting pretty near the Oxfordshire market town of Thame. Family connections in the area have brought me to Towersey on a number of occasions, most notably in 2007 when I saw the great English folk singer John Tams of Home Service in a duo setting with his long-time collaborator Barry Coope. I didn’t cross paths with Tams again until 2011, when Home Service played a series of triumphant reunion concerts that reasserted their position as the lost heroes of British electric folk music. Tams left the group a few years ago, following which they lost their way somewhat, but lately he seems to have rejoined. I hope to see them again one day, but I’m not holding my breath. Anyway, I digress.

Towersey Festival has weathered a few storms in recent years, including a change of location in 2015 and another one on the horizon this year. Nevertheless it remains a very pleasant place to spend an August Bank Holiday weekend, with a great family-friendly vibe, good bars and stalls, and (most importantly) its feet firmly planted in the living tradition of English folk music. On a warm, sunny evening last August, then, I was very happy to make the acquaintance of The Unthanks for the first time. A standing-room-only audience saw this gifted group of singers and musicians cast a decidedly uncanny spell, their bewitching voices echoing around the large tent to spellbinding effect.

Right from the off, The Unthanks declared an affinity with the music of the present by covering a Richard Dawson song, “We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed”. This stunning a capella number set the tone perfectly for the evening, its terrorstruck imagery (“I awake to the screech of a fox in the street/Carrying your soul in its teeth through the snow”) inscribed in every breath of the forlorn harmonies uttered by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and co-singer Niopha Keegan.

As the concert progressed, the full range of the group’s influences and parallels became clear as The Unthanks traced a path through a rich and vibrant seam of mythical English culture. There were songs based on poems by Emily Brontë (“The soft unclouded blue of air”, “Shall earth no more inspire thee”), a song by Molly Drake, the mother of Nick (“What can a song do to you?”) and the group’s take on Elvis Costello’s classic “Shipbuilding”. YouTube tells me that The Unthanks’ repertoire also includes a ravishing cover of King Crimson’s “Starless”, which I would happily have traded for what was in truth a rather inert version of “Shipbuilding”. No-one sings “Shipbuilding” like Costello, not The Unthanks (despite their north-eastern roots) and certainly not Robert Wyatt, the universal acclaim for whose version I find frankly baffling.

Most dramatically, the group reached for a song from Lines: Part One, their 2018 tribute to the Hull-born fisheries worker and campaigner Lillian Bilocca with lyrics by the acclaimed British actor Maxine Peake. “A Whistling Woman” saw Keegan’s exquisite violin and Adrian McNally’s stinging piano lines thread their way through the singers’ sinister invocation of Peake’s text: “A man may do a thousand things, but a whistling woman may bring the Devil out of his den.” It was the kind of moment that brought a pitiless chill to an otherwise cloudless summer’s evening.

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.

Lankum, Dublin Vicar Street, 25 October 2019

As I write this, Lankum are about to embark on a two-night stand at Vicar Street in Dublin. I haven’t suddenly developed the gift of precognition, though; this is a review of their most recent concert there, in October of last year.

This was an evening of pleasant alignments and serendipities. In Dublin for the weekend to see Philip Glass, I had a free evening and naturally looked around to see what else was on offer. My eye alighted on Lankum, a contemporary Irish folk group of whom I was vaguely aware due to the fact that they played in Geneva last year. I didn’t, however, go along on that occasion, so their Dublin concert was a perfect opportunity to rectify the omission.

My only problem was that the concert was sold out, and tickets were hard to come by for what was Lankum’s first hometown show in two years. Ticketmaster was no help at all, and the most reliable avenue for picking up surplus tickets, the Facebook event page, wasn’t initially playing ball either. The latter did eventually land me a ticket, although it wasn’t exactly the one I’d been hoping for, being right at the back in the balcony standing section of the Vicar Street venue. This narrow, elevated zone seemed to be populated largely by people walking to and from the bar, paying precious little attention to the music. It was a huge relief, therefore, when partway through the show I spotted one of the few empty seats in the balcony section, and gratefully slid into it. In any case Vicar Street was a wonderful venue in which to see this group; the downstairs, cabaret-style seating was remarkably intimate for a hall of this size, and the capacity audience was warm, involved and appreciative throughout.

The music of Lankum seems to exist in a strange, haunted netherworld. Soaked in rain, soil and blood, the songs are described in long, draining arcs of drone accordion, harmonium and violin, with touches of acoustic guitar framing the group’s stunning harmony vocals. Whether the group’s own compositions or arrangements of traditional material, the songs reach far back into history, giving voice to the oppressed and marginalized. Originals like “The Granite Gaze” and “Hunting the Wren” are shrouded in unbearable tragedy and loss, a grim reckoning of Irish poverty and establishment abuse. Although there are traces of both Joyce and early Beckett in the group’s bleakly evocative texts, it seems to me that their closest literary antecedent is WB Yeats, whose austere myth-making echoes down through the years to verses like “And it’s a standing ovation for the shadow of a stone/As we dig into the soil beneath our homes/The future’s further day-by-day as our fathers turn away/And leave us clinging to a mother who eats her own.

The group’s selection of traditional songs is equally telling. The last time I heard the great pan-European protest anthem “Peat Bog Soldiers” it was being belted out by the English folk rock group Home Service, the song’s grinding repetitions animated by rich flourishes of brass, saxophone and electric guitar. In the hands of Lankum the song is transformed into an anguished a capella lamentation, its chill imagery seeping into the bones to devastating effect. Elsewhere the group deliver their version of “Rocky Road to Dublin”, the eventful tale of a traveller on his way from Ireland to Liverpool, its single drone accompaniment ratcheting up the tension and violence that lurk within the song. In the world Lankum inhabit, such tension is never far away.

Lankum live in Dublin, October 2019

Philip Glass & the Philip Glass Ensemble: Music in Twelve Parts, Dublin National Concert Hall, 26 October 2019

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.