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?

Nicolas Field’s N-Ensemble, Geneva AMR, 24 March 2018

You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find a world-class free jazz and improv club right in the centre of Geneva, just a few minutes’ walk from the main railway station. But that’s what you get with L’Association pour l’encouragement de la musique improvisée, Geneva’s leading venue for this kind of music. If Cave 12 is Geneva’s equivalent of the Rhiz in Vienna, then AMR is Geneva’s Blue Tomato, with a programme of regular concerts by local musicians spiced up with occasional visits from big hitters such as Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark. I saw both the Schlippenbach Trio and Gustafsson’s Fire! Orchestra there in recent months, but never got around to reviewing them. Maybe I will one day, although I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Anyway, it was a pleasure to visit AMR for the second of two evenings led by the Anglo-Swiss drummer Nicolas Field. Field’s was a name new to me, but he’s worked with musicians of the calibre of Keiji Haino, Akira Sakata and “Sir” Richard Bishop, as well as being active in sound art and composing music for the Burgtheater in Vienna. On the occasion of this AMR residency he put together a six-piece group consisting of Swiss and international musicians, and called it the N-Ensemble.

The evening consisted of two set-long pieces, the latter of which Field introduced as “From Sand to Dust”. With just a few written guidance notes in evidence, Field allowed the players plenty of room to improvise within the overall structure of the piece. Duo and trio sections opened out into full-group improvisations, with the soundworld characterized by shifting zones of tension and release, punctuated by frequent bursts of turbulence. Key to the latter was guitarist and bassist Jasper Stadhouders, whose stormy riffing provided the evening with its most deliriously out-there moments. I’d seen Stadhouders a couple of times in Vienna playing bass in Ken Vandermark’s Made To Break, but those outings hadn’t really prepared me for the ferocity with which he applied himself to the electric guitar and the flinty resonance of his acoustic playing.

In the best tradition of group improvisation, each of the various members made important contributions to the overall pace and shape of the music. Valerio Tricoli had a fascinating set-up consisting of a vintage Revox tape recorder with no reels, just a single length of tape looped around a mic stand and travelling endlessly through the tape heads. Presumably Tricoli was recording the sounds in the room and processing them in real time via his mixing console next to the Revox. Whatever the truth of the matter, his interventions added a ghostly patina that hovered over Thomas Florin’s ominous piano and Bjørnar Habbestad’s piercing flute. Playing off brilliantly against Habbestad, Anne Gillot doubled on bass clarinet and something called a Paetzold contrabass recorder. This ungainly contraption looked like something my son would bring home from woodwork class, but sounded incredible, with Gillot’s fierce, truculent voicings splintering into the spaces left by the other musicians. Field himself was a constantly creative presence behind the drums, his restless stickwork anchoring the disparate elements of the ensemble.

So engrossed was I in the music’s enveloping sonorities that I was surprised, when I looked around at the end, to discover that I was one of only five people in the audience, there having been at least 20 at the beginning. This is probably the only concert I’ve ever attended where the people onstage outnumbered those in the audience, although this is no reflection on the quality of the music, which was never less than compelling.