It’s been a while since I managed to catch two concerts in one evening (festivals don’t count, obviously), so I was very pleased to be able to see Radian at the Gartenbaukino and then Bulbul at the Rhiz a couple of hours later. The double-header was a breeze to pull off, in fact, thanks not only to the perpetually late start time at the Rhiz but also to the fortuitous route of the number 2 tram, which runs directly from one venue to the other.
Here was a quintessentially Viennese event: a three-night residency at the city’s premier jazz club, dedicated to the formidable improvising trumpeter and card-carrying member of the Reductionist school, Franz Hautzinger. The list of people joining Hautzinger for these gigs read like a who’s who of the Vienna free jazz/avant/improv nexus: Siewert, Gustafsson, Stangl, dieb13, Brandlmayr, Quehenberger (what, no Didi Kern?). Although I was previously unfamiliar with Hautzinger’s work, the presence of the aforementioned Siewert and Gustafsson was more than enough to tempt me out for the second of the three evenings, quixotically billed as What’s This Jazz Today?
In one of the most pitifully attended concerts I’ve ever witnessed in Vienna, last weekend saw a deserted Porgy & Bess play host to the first gig in seven years by electroacoustic improvisation quintet Efzeg. The meagre turnout was probably inevitable, given that it was a hot Sunday night and that this music is not exactly a crowd-puller at the best of times; but it was also unfortunate, since what we had here was a reunion gig (oh, how I do love reunions) by a group containing some of Europe’s leading exponents of the electroacoustic genre.
I missed Efzeg the first time around, of course, which makes their 2012 reformation all the more pertinent. I’ve long admired guitarist Martin Siewert’s work, though, having seen him play both with avant rock unit Heaven And and in a trio with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson and turntablist and Efzeg member dieb13 (Dieter Kovacic). Kovacic, meanwhile, turns up in Swedish Azz with Gustafsson, who was a guest at Heaven And’s last Vienna gig. You get the picture.
In marked contrast to those previous, bracing encounters, Efzeg are all about duration, the lengthy accumulation of sonic detail. During the concert, I found myself in an unfamiliar, somewhat disquieting mode of listening. I’m not used to the kind of patient unfolding of sounds that Efzeg present us with; years of close attention to free jazz and improv have conditioned me to enjoy, perhaps even to expect, a succession of thrilling events. Such expectations are clearly not part of the EAI aesthetic. The closest I’ve come would be the few AMM concerts I was lucky enough to see in London in the 1990s, before the deplorable schism that led to founder member Keith Rowe leaving the group. Come to think of it, Rowe’s tabletop style of guitar playing is clearly a direct antecedent of Siewert’s, although Siewert often plays in a more conventional style as well. Anyway, what AMM taught me, and Efzeg reminded me of, was the importance of concentration and close listening as a means of situating oneself within a musical environment.
That makes the whole thing sound like some kind of bloodless sonic experiment; nothing could be further from the truth. Over the course of two longish sets, the group’s four instrumentalists proposed a layered approach in which the saxophone, guitars and turntable each traced their own paths before coalescing into a pulsating and vertiginous wall of sound. The amiable Boris Hauf’s spare, astringent sax was bolstered by the quietly flickering guitar of the studious figure next to him, Burkhard Stangl. On the other side of the stage, Siewert was in abstract tabletop mode for the most part, occasionally exploding into fractured power chords. Next to him, dieb13 was to be seen thoughtfully looking through his records before deciding which one to play next, their soft drones adding layers of snowy interference. Meanwhile, visual artist and fifth member Billy Roisz was using the group’s audio as input for her analogue visual feedback projections. Constantly evolving in response to the shifting textures of the music, Roisz’s bold grids and insectoid patterns provided a hypnotic visual correlative. Taking the music and the visuals together, the overall effect was of a mysterious and unresolved entity stubbornly resisting capture. I sincerely hope the group continues to play live, despite the depressing lack of interest shown in this outing.
In my review of a concert by Fire Room last year, I bemoaned the fact that there is hardly any crossover between the scenes at the Rhiz and the Blue Tomato, Vienna’s kindred temples to electronic music and free jazz. The observation is no less valid now than it was a year ago. Despite the genial management of Herbie and Günter respectively, and despite the many obvious similarities between these styles of music, it’s rare to see either artists or audience members from one place showing up at the other. So it was a great pleasure to see Mats Gustafsson, who along with people like Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love is by now part of the furniture at the Tomato, turning up for what I believe was his first ever appearance at the Rhiz. The gig cemented an association with Austrian guitarist Martin Siewert that goes back to at least last summer, when Siewert’s Heaven And played the closing set at the Gustafsson-curated Konfrontationen festival, and was bolstered last December when the saxophonist joined Siewert for a frenzied blowout at Heaven And’s gig at the Künstlerhaus.
There’s clearly an affinity between the two, then, and it’s fascinating to hear how Gustafsson responds to the presence of another, very different-sounding, lead instrument as opposed to the rhythmic core of double bass and drums he lines up against in The Thing and other groups. On this occasion the duo were joined by turntable and electronics merchant Dieter Kovačič (dieb13), whose malevolent drone-based activity formed a disquieting accompaniment to the guitar and reeds. It was a short set, only 40 minutes or so, but there was still a vast amount going on here. Gustafsson spent most of the set on the deep, resonant baritone sax, switching occasionally to the rare slide sax. Throwing himself into the performance with his usual relish, Gustafsson made the Rhiz his own, challenged only by the endlessly vital and inventive guitar work of Siewert. The guitarist was, as ever, a joy to watch as he moved fluidly between acoustic, electric and tabletop modes; he peels off sheets of squally, thunderous attack with the deranged instinct of Robert Fripp, but trades Fripp’s frosty demeanour for a wholly persuasive openness and sense of fun.
Just over a week later, Gustafsson was the unannounced surprise guest at a gig at the Blue Tomato by the Frode Gjerstad Trio, an all-Norwegian unit consisting of the eponymous Gjerstad on reeds, Jon Rune Strom on double bass and the ubiquitous Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. The first set consisted of the trio only, and it was a pleasure for me to hear Gjerstad play for the first time. Less cerebral than Vandermark, less visceral than Gustafsson or Brötzmann, the saxophonist eschewed a barnstorming approach in favour of clear, ringing lines on alto and clarinet that allowed the bass and drums plenty of space to work their magic. Nilssen-Love’s complex polyrhythms were as brilliant as ever, while Strom was a constantly forceful presence on the low end.
After the interval Gustafsson took up his tenor and Gjerstad immediately deferred to the guest, who laid waste to the room with a long and devastating solo. Things never really let up from that point on. The two reedsmen’s techniques and registers complemented each other beautifully, with Gjerstad’s light and nimble colourations set off against Gustafsson’s fearsomely powerful mid-range assault. This was my last visit to the Tomato before their well-deserved summer break; I’m sure, though, that there will be plenty more such mesmerizing evenings before 2011 is out.
My last concert of 2010 neatly tied together a couple of strands from the previous two. Like Tortoise, Heaven And have two drummers; like Broken Heart Collector, one of them is Didi Kern. Kern’s presence in the line-up tonight no doubt came about due to the no-show of regular Heaven And drummer Tony Buck, although it’s unclear to me whether Buck has left the group for good or whether his absence on this occasion was merely temporary. Since a large part of Heaven And’s prior appeal rested on the churning impact of Buck and Steve Heather’s twin percussive attack, restricting themselves to just one sticksman for this concert was clearly not an option.
Heaven And impressed me enormously when I saw them at Nickelsdorf this summer, their pulverizing guitar-and-drums racket providing the Konfrontationen festival with an appropriately confrontational late-night finale. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those dizzying heights, it was only because of the sparse attendance and also because of the bizarre set-up of the performance space. In front of the stage was a standing area and, beyond that, a few rows of raked seating. The audience were always going to gravitate towards those seats, leaving a yawning gap between group and audience which was plugged only by a few stumpy pillars, whose only conceivable function seemed to be to rest drinks upon. Since no-one was standing anyway, they looked rather forlorn.
None of which prevented Heaven And from turning in an utterly convincing performance, with Martin Siewert’s regular and tabletop electric guitars blasting into overdrive against Kern and Heather’s constantly shifting patterns and Zeitblom’s relentless bass groove. And, of course, the group had an ace up their sleeve: a special guest appearance by Swedish (and surely, by now, honorary Viennese) saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. Tearing great strips out of the air with his awesome lung power, Gustafsson matched Siewert all the way for sheer audacity and verve; a rare and precious instance of white-hot rock and world-beating free improvisation, colliding and fusing in their own light and heat.
On the fourth and final day of the festival, I arrived just in time to catch the tail end of Evan Parker and Sten Sandell‘s duo concert in the church around the corner from the main festival venue, the Jazzgalerie. There was, of course, standing room only – not, I would imagine, a situation in which the church finds itself most Sundays. The music sounded, well, heavenly, with Parker’s achingly beautiful sax lines arcing gracefully above the imposing swell of the organ.
Opting to skip the following solo performance by Joe McPhee (also in the church), I went instead for a walk along the back road behind the Jazzgalerie, where a number of sound installations had been placed in and around an old farmers’ shed. I was rather taken with Kathrin Stumreich’s Faden #2, which consisted of a bicycle with a long spool of thread and a contact microphone attached. As the bike was ridden, the thread played out – creating a visual record of the journey to go along with the noise produced by the microphone. And no, I didn’t have a go on it. Even better was Klaus Filip’s Photophon, which required the visitor to don a pair of headphones and walk among an array of lights dangling at head height from the ceiling of the shed. As each light swung in the air it transmitted sounds to the headphones, sounds which varied according to the position of the visitor and the extent of the swinging.
All good fun, of course, but the festival really got down to business later in the day when Peter Brötzmann took the stage to play in his semi-regular quartet line-up with Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, Massimo Pupillo (of Zu) on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. I had only seen Brötzmann play with this unit once before, but that occasion last year was certainly the best Brötzmann show I’ve ever seen. If this appearance didn’t quite reach those heights, it was only because the Jazzgalerie’s courtyard in daylight couldn’t rival the brutalist architecture of the Fluc Wanne as an appropriate setting for the monstrous slabs of sound proposed by this quartet.
Since the demise of Last Exit, this group – which officially goes by the name Hairy Bones, although I can scarcely bring myself to use this ridiculous moniker – has surely been Brötzmann’s hardest and most far-out configuration. On Sunday night the saxophonist was consistently matched for sonic extremity by Kondo, who subjected his trumpet to all manner of wild treatments and distortions. The resulting tornado of sound was anchored down by the phenomenal power of the rhythm section. Pupillo’s bass was dark and thunderous, while Nilssen-Love astonished as much as ever with the furious inventiveness of his drumming. Sitting with his head at an angle as if listening intently through the storm to learn where the music would go next, the Norwegian extended his claim to be the world’s finest Improv drummer.
Things got taken down a notch or two, as they needed to, with the quintet featuring Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell on reeds, Joëlle Léandre on double bass, Tony Hymas on piano and Hugh Ragin on trumpet. This was a comparatively restrained, even polite conversation, with the liquid fluency of the saxes layered amongst Hymas’ elegant pianistics and Léandre’s darting arco and pizzicato work. Parker seemed to have overestimated the warmth of the summer’s evening and showed up in a T-shirt; with the chill necessitating a blanket draped around his shoulders, he seemed reluctant to make too many dramatic statements. Except for a sustained passage of circular breathing, Mitchell too was somewhat reserved. None of which is intended to detract in any way from the exquisite pace and movement of this music, which embraced silence as a sixth and vital element.
And so to the finale of this most enjoyable festival – a barnstorming performance by Austro-Deutsch-Australian aggregation Heaven And. Despite the presence of a bassist and not one but two drummers, Heaven And remains very much a vehicle for the incendiary playing of Viennese guitarist Martin Siewert, who switched between a regular electric guitar and some kind of tabletop deal with insouciant ease. If the group’s name holds out the promise of something vast and transcendent just around the corner, it’s a promise that was fulfilled by this hugely convincing performance, which meshed Crimsonesque vectors of sound with the fiery interplay of drummers Tony Buck and Steve Heather. It didn’t sound a whole lot like jazz, that’s for sure, but by this stage in the game it hardly mattered. Bravely and confidently lighting out for the territory where noise, rock and Improv meet, Heaven And brought Konfrontationen 2010 to an irresistible and staggering conclusion.
(Review of day 2 here.)
Nick Richardson’s mostly excellent review of this year’s Donaufestival in Krems, Austria, made the curious objection that “local artists were conspicuous by their absence”. If “local” were taken to mean from Krems itself, then Nick might have had a point; but the Donaufestival is really a Vienna festival in all but name, with the vast majority of its visitors (a record 13,000 this year) coming from the capital, shuttle buses running between Krems and Vienna, and so on. “Grassroots support” was indeed present, in the form not only of Fennesz but also of Martin Siewert’s appearance with freeform rockers Heaven And, not to mention a new performance piece by Fritz Ostermayer.
A shame, too, that Nick failed to mention the absolute highlight of the festival’s first week, a transcendent appearance by Spiritualized. Where Sonic Youth, as Nick correctly observes, were there strictly to take care of business, Jason Pierce and group delivered a set that frequently threatened to levitate the building, such was its gravity-defying intensity. In an avant rock scene that all too frequently and lazily relies on noise as a signifier of primal modes of expression, Spiritualized’s ecstatic fusion of garage, gospel and systems music feels more like the truth than ever.
It’s taken me far too long to get around to writing a report on this year’s Donaufestival, so here’s the first of three recaps of the nights I attended. In general there was plenty more to enjoy this year after the fairly disastrous line-up of the 2008 event. The headlining acts were mostly of a high standard, reflected in the news that the festival’s director has had his contract extended for a further three years (due in large part, no doubt, to the fact that a record 13,000 people visited this year). Crucially, the headliners – people like Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers and Spiritualized – were the kind of artists who walk that tricky balancing act between creativity and commerciality; they attract relatively large audiences, yet are able to do so without compromising their artistic integrity. (I wish I could say the same for Antony & the Johnsons, the festival’s single biggest draw this year, whose appearance on weekend 2 I had no desire to see.)
It’s more the second-tier acts that the festival has to work on now. With one or two honourable exceptions, there seemed to be a gaping hole in the middle of most evenings, with not much to entertain those people who were waiting around until 11.00pm to see the main act. One of those exceptions would certainly be the No Neck Blues Band, who had the unenviable task of being the first group to play on the main festival site on the first evening. They carried it off with great verve, though, creating a loose yet compelling weave of instrumental textures and the odd bit of Fluxus-style tomfoolery. Funnily enough NNCK were the first group I ever saw at the Donaufestival, at the old Korneuburg site in 2006 (review), so it was good to get reacquainted with them. The blond college boy-type percussionist, who on that occasion stripped naked and smeared himself with fake blood, was comparatively restrained this time, climbing very athletically up the lighting rig in order to suspend a cello from the ceiling. Meanwhile the spectacularly bearded frontman was busy winding a long reel of string around various instruments onstage – a nice visual correlative to the increasingly meshed and vexatious music.
Later on in Halle 2, all this detritus was cleared away in order to make way for a MacBook and an electric guitar – a sure sign that Fennesz was in the building. The Austrian laptop musician played a blinding set, issuing simple chords and riffs on the guitar and then subjecting them to all manner of treatments and manipulations. The results were vivid, colourful and entirely engrossing. Electronica guys like Fennesz and Peter Rehberg are often accused of taking the easy option, of somehow not being ‘real’ musicians, but there’s an awful lot of brow-furrowing going on when they stare into their laptops. Forming a marked contrast with the blank looks of most rock musicians, this level of concentration is an indicator of the care and creativity that go into electronic music-making of this quality.
Over in Halle 1, I caught a brief snatch of Heaven And, a pleasantly noisy rock/improv unit who reminded me (in a good way) of ’73/’74-era King Crimson. Having impressed the Sonic Youth-hungry audience enough to win an encore, they then rather ballsed it up by coming back on to play a slow, quiet and searching piece.
No chance of Sonic Youth themselves doing anything quiet or searching, though. Do they actually have any slow songs in their repertoire? If so, we certainly didn’t hear any of them tonight. This group, about whom I have always remained agnostic despite their impeccable avant credentials, came on and proceeded to blast their way through a set of jerky, spasmodic numbers that were each about as short as Kim Gordon’s skirt. It was a lot easier to admire than to enjoy, if I’m being honest. No shortage of energy, for sure, but precious little of the close-your-eyes-and-be-transported transcendence that the finest rock music has to offer – and which I was to experience in excelsis two nights later.