Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘The Necks’

A little afternoon music

Necks matinee 1This is the line of ticket-holders waiting to enter Cafe Oto for the Necks’ sold-out lunchtime concert today. It might have seemed an unusual time of day to experience the intensity of free collective improvisation, but the Australian trio’s music tends to work its unique magic at any time of day or night, in any location.

In between a festival in Madeira and a concert in Helsinki, they were stopping in Dalston for this single show. As usual, they played two sets of approximately 45 minutes each, separated by a short break. And, again as usual, the two sets were contrasting in nature and effect. I wasn’t at all surprised when one confirmed admirer went into raptures about the first set, while another said the second set was the best he’d ever seen them play.

The three musicians themselves don’t talk about individual performances in terms of differing type or quality levels. Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck were there, doing what they do, exposing the process of creating music from scratch on the basis of three decades of shared experience. To them, in a sense, the existence of the Necks is one unbroken performance, divided for convenience into chunks that happen to be the length of an old-fashioned LP.

Necks matinee 3Abrahams began the first set with tentative piano figures, joined by Buck’s bass drum and, eventually, Swanton’s arco bass. The pianist tended to hold the initiative throughout, creating arpeggiated variations that slowly surged and receded, gradually building, with the aid of Buck’s thump and rattle and the keening of Swanton’s bow, to a roaring climax — including, from unspecified source among the three, a set of overtones that gave the illusion of the presence of a fourth musician — before tapering down to a perfectly poised landing.

After the interval it was Swanton’s turn to open up, his plucked octave leaps offered as an invitation to the others. This time Buck began with a stick on his open hi-hat and a mallet on his floor tom-tom, while Abrahams seemed to devote more time than usual to open single-note lines. At one point, about 10 minutes in, the pianist spent a few seconds picking out what sounded like a Moorish melody, but he declined to pursue its possibilities and after a brief pause moved on to something more like his familiar strumming and roiling techniques. About 20 minutes later, however, he returned to that melody, or something very like it, using it as the material from which to fashion his contribution to another supremely graceful conclusion.

What began in 1987 as a private experiment between three young Sydney-based musicians has evolved into an institution with a large and devoted worldwide audience. Somehow they manage to make it new every night, even when that night happens to be a Sunday lunchtime. They’ll be back at Cafe Oto next March.

The Necks at the Union Chapel

Necks at Union Chapel 1The beautiful Union Chapel in Islington proved to be the perfect final stop for the Necks’ short UK round of pipe organ concerts last night. They were sharing the series, titled The Secret Life of Organs, with James McVinnie, who opened the evening with two pieces by Philip Glass and two short suites by Tom Jenkinson (better known to electronica fans as Squarepusher).

By comparison with the Necks’ appearance at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin last November, this hour-long set more closely resembled what one often hears in their performances using the conventional piano-trio format: an initial gathering of resources leading to surging and slowly mutating waves of sound.

In Berlin most of the audience, facing the altar, could not see the musicians, who were perched in the organ loft/choir balcony above the main door. In London the listeners were facing a stage on which Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Tony Buck (drums) did their stuff. Chris Abrahams was hidden away at the organ console behind the huge central pulpit, but his hands — and the pipes and bellows of the organ — could be seen on a large screen.

Not surprisingly, the sound balance favoured the organ, which was built in 1877 and features 2,000 pipes. Buck’s chattering and rattling percussive commentary could be heard clearly enough, but you had to watch Swanton closely if you wanted to make out his individual contribution. The bass player’s job in this environment, with Abrahams having the organ’s foot pedals at his disposal, is the hardest of three.

It’s fascinating to hear these musicians adapting to the circumstances, and in particularly to the way the various organs “speak”. I hope they release an album of one of these performances. Meanwhile, Abrahams has a new solo CD, Fluid to the Influence, which contains a great deal of absorbing music assembled on a variety of acoustic and electronic keyboard instruments and one marvellous track, “Trumpets of Bindweed”, on which he plays the pipe organ at the Melbourne Town Hall, where the Necks gave their first organ concert in 2005.

Last night they brought the set back to silence with one of those conclusions whose combination of spontaneous mutual decision-making and intuitive aesthetic logic simply take your breath away. Only improvisers can do this.

* The Secret Life of Organs was part of the Barbican’s contemporary music series, co-presented with No-Nation. Future concerts feature the Kronos Quartet, the Bang on a Can All Stars, and Colin Stetson + Sarah Neufeld.

Discreet Music: 40 years on

Discreet Music 3My contribution to the creation of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music was a tiny one, but I’m proud of it. Back in 1975 Eno was preparing the release of the first batch of four albums on his Obscure label, under the umbrella of Island Records, where I was in charge of A&R. Almost everything had been taken care of by the time he departed for a trip abroad (to New York, I think). I was left with a single task: to provide a title for a track on the album’s second side, the middle movement of a three-part suite based on Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D. The titles for the first and third movements — “Fullness of Wind” and “Brutal Ardour” — had been chosen by Brian at random from the sleeve note to his favourite recording of the Pachelbel piece, by the conductor Jean-François Paillard on the Erato label, and he invited me to follow suit. My eye fell on the phrase “French Catalogues”. So there it is. Well, I told you it was tiny.

It was impossible to predict, 40 years ago, that Discreet Music would become so a significant a progenitor of what we hear around us today, or that it would eventually become the subject of a concert such as the one at the Barbican in London last night, when a nine-piece group directed by David Coulter and Leo Abrahams performed extended variations on both sides of the original album.

One third of the ensemble consisted of the members of the Necks: Chris Abrahams (piano), Lloyd Swanton (bass), and Tony Buck (drums). They were positioned on the left-hand side of the stage. On the extreme right were the great reeds player John Harle, the cellist Oliver Coates, and the violinist Emma Smith. In the middle, at the base of a deep V, were Coulter (vibraphone, musical saw and iPhone) and Leo Abrahams (guitar), with the desk containing the synthesiser and other hardware manipulated by the electronics specialist Benge (Ben Edwards) front and centre. Flanking the stage were a pair of large screens on which a selection of cards from the Oblique Strategies series devised by Eno and the late Peter Schmidt were projected, containing helpful counter-intuitive maxims and admonitions: “Repetition is a form of change”, “Abandon normal instruments”, “Disconnect from device”, and so on.

For the first half, devoted to an extended version of the piece titled “Discreet Music”, which was originally created by the composer with the modest means of a synthesiser, a sequencer, an echo unit and two tape recorders, a vertical screen above and behind the players showed the slowly changing images of Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan, Eno’s 47-minute film of the New York skyline. Electronics opened this new treatment, outlining the two simple but rather haunting phrases — one ascending, the other descending — on which the piece is structured. Clarinet and bowed vibes took over, followed by gentle guitar, violin and cello, with Harle switching to bass clarinet. The Necks’ entry came about 20 minutes in: the first to join in was Swanton, playing sonorous arco phrases, then Buck, with a brush on his hi-hat, and finally Abrahams picking out liquid single notes. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, after the other instruments had fallen away, the performance evolved in a passage of full-strength Necks collective improvisation, their surges reaching a pitch of thunderous but beautifully controlled violence before receding as the other musicians rejoined for the finale. The arrangement both honoured the original and expanded it in several dimensions, investigating the flow and interplay of texture and line, producing something both intellectually absorbing and absolutely gorgeous. The ovation from a full house was entirely merited.

The stage lighting turned from blue to red for the Pachelbel piece, which first came to my attention when Eno used the Erato recording as the introductory music on an early Roxy Music tour. His refracted and discursive version on Discreet Music, arranged with the help of Gavin Bryars, was performed by the string players of the Cockpit Ensemble. Once again the expanded resources at the disposal of Coulter and Abrahams succeeded in opening out the work, allowing us glimpses of the Canon’s familiar phrases while introducing new elements: a duet for bowed saw and guitar, a poised solo piano interlude, some lovely clarinet/violin/cello counterpoint, and a double-trio passage for the two formations at opposite ends of the stage, eventually interrupted by harsh electronics that preceding the elegant closing diminuendo.

One thing that struck me about the evening was how the nine musicians, despite being strung out across the full width of the Barbican Hall stage, managed create such a powerful sense of intimacy. Aside from the individual phrases familiar from the original versions, it was often hard to tell where the new score ended and the improvising began. Everyone emerged with maximum credit, not least the man whose remarkable imagination and appetite for adventure had made it possible in the first place.

A new view from the Necks

The Necks Vertigo 1Because it’s impossible to predict what strategy they will have adopted, the arrival of a new studio album from the Necks is always an event. With Vertigo, the Australian trio maintain the habit.

I loved their previous album, Open, for its transparent beauty. Others, such as AquaticDrive By and Silverwater, I’ve loved for quite different reasons. Vertigo doesn’t resemble any of its predecessors; it’s like going into a familiar house and finding a new room with a window that opens on to a view not seen before.

A single piece of music, 44 minutes in duration, it uses the resources and time at their disposal in Studios 301 in Alexandria, a suburb of Sydney. While their live sets are the product of a mixture of spontaneous urges and the 30-year relationship between the three musicians, the studio albums aim for something different (and yet, in its essence, the same).

There are no grooves in Vertigo, or even any pulses, unless you count the slow oscillation of something that sounds like a contrabass theremin, which briefly enters the proceedings at around the 18-minute mark. There are no riffs and nothing that sounds like a tune. There is no obvious drama.

Glimpses of anything that could be called the Necks’ “sound” are infrequent. Early on, Chris Abrahams does some nice things with incomplete descending arpeggios. Tony Buck makes the occasional clattery percussion intervention (and is probably responsible for the bits that sound like a guitar being picked above the bridge). Lloyd Swanton uses his bow to create layers of groaning bass drones just after the half-hour.

But that’s not the point. The sounds are the sounds. The exact source of this scraping or that plinking is immaterial: the assembly is what matters, and that’s something of which they are masters. The sonorities and textures slide into view and drift away, like the weather on a long road trip. It’s probably not the album you’d give someone as their first Necks record, but it couldn’t be by anyone else.

* Vertigo is released in the UK on the ReR Megacorp label. The photograph is by Holimage.

The Necks in London

Necks Evan 11.

Originally built as a roller-skating rink, the BBC’s Maida Vale building was taken over by the corporation in 1934 as the principal location for the recording of its musical output. It contains six studios, some of which retain certain period features. The medium-sized Studio Three, for instance, still has what looks like its original art deco parquet floor, although the space occupied by the Necks and Evan Parker yesterday was covered by a large dark red rug.

Midway through their European tour, the Necks were in Maida Vale on the morning of the last of their three sold-out nights at Cafe Oto because Philip Tagney, a producer of Radio 3’s Late Junction, is in the habit of putting together combinations of musicians who have not played together before. When he asked the Australian trio to nominate someone with whom they would like to record a session, they nominated Parker. Only their pianist, Chris Abrahams, had previously collaborated with the great saxophonist, on a short duo improvisation at the end of a concert at the Bath Festival about four years ago, after both had played solo sets.

So the four of them met in the studio at 11 o’clock yesterday morning and, after a short warm-up, began the first of two collective improvisations. They started playing more or less simultaneously, and not surprisingly the first half of what turned out to be an hour-long piece contained passages in which it sounded as though they were waiting for something to happen, for someone to seize the initiative. Each member of the Necks has plenty of experience in free improvisation; however, having played together for more than a quarter of a century, it’s hardly surprising that they should fall naturally into certain patterns of response, and you could see and hear Parker looking for a way in.

The last 20 minutes, however, contained moments of outstanding and surprisingly gentle beauty, Abrahams coaxing filigree from the studio’s Steinway, Lloyd Swanton plucking notes with the fingers of his left hand at the top of double bass’s fingerboard, Tony Buck adding cymbal washes with one hand and rapid strokes on his floor tom-tom with the mallet in the other, and Parker exhaling feathery tenor saxophone phrases (this was the Parker of his solo on Tony Oxley’s celebrated “Stone Garden”, a track from the drummer’s 1969 album, The Baptised Traveller).

For the second piece, Swanton suggested using the Necks’ standard operating procedure, by which one of the players — it could be any of them — begins the piece with a repeated phrase of his choice, the others joining in when they feel ready. The bassist himself started this one off with double-stopped harmonics, Buck joining in with mallets on his snare drum (with the snare off), Parker — having switched to soprano — producing sustained notes with a hollow, reedy tone, and finally Abrahams entering to initiate a dialogue with the saxophonist, to which the others provided the backdrop of a thrumming, variable-speed bass ostinato and the soft clanking of a small Oriental cymbal struck with a mallet as it lay on the head of the floor tom-tom.

The difference between this piece and its predecessor was apparent throughout, in the suggestion of a constant tonal centre and an underlying pulse (characteristics that set the Necks’ live performances apart from those of the majority of free improvisers). The music surged and ebbed as it often does when the Necks play in concert (and as it had done in both halves of the previous night’s performance at Cafe Oto), inviting Parker to move with it, using circular breathing to weave his skeins and flurries of sound in and out of the group tapestry. After 30 minutes the piece ended with a sudden and unexpected moment of grace: subdued clicks and squeals from the saxophone, growls from the lower end of the piano keyboard, the bassist letting his bow bounce off the strings, more cymbal splashes, and suddenly a silence that, while abrupt and unpremeditated, seemed completely logical.


I made it to the second and third nights at the Cafe Oto, on Tuesday and Wednesday, each of which consisted of two long sets. The first of those nights was very enjoyable, particularly for a pair of very graceful endings, although the music contained nothing wildly unexpected. Wednesday’s music, however, seemed to come from a different place.

Abrahams began the first set and dominated it throughout, maintaining a sense of unresolved harmony that kept the tension high. It was a powerful and beautifully shaped and proportioned performance, and during the intermission Buck said he thought that the experience of playing with Parker earlier in the day might have had something to do with it.

The set that followed it was something else altogether. The previous night, as the music began in a mood of quiet, serene rumination, I’d been wondering what would happen if the group ever started one of their collective improvisations with a really loud opening statement. Now I know the answer. Buck set this one off this one with a triple-forte snare-drum rattle, announcing three-quarters of an hour of music that became brutal — almost harrowing — in its volume and emotional intensity. To follow the process by which they found their way out of the maelstrom and wound down to closure was an education in itself, followed by perhaps 10 seconds of transfixed silence in which every member of the audience was thinking, “Did I really just hear what I think I heard?” Then the applause came, and it didn’t want to stop.

* The photograph above was taken before the start of the second improvisation at Maida Vale. Left to right: Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck, Chris Abrahams and Evan Parker. An edited version of the session will be broadcast on Late Junction on Thursday, November 21. Part of Tuesday night’s performance at the Cafe Oto can be heard on Jazz on 3 next Monday, November 11. 

Two kinds of modern beauty

It was my friend and erstwhile Guardian colleague John L Walters who made the neat comparison between the experience of listening to the Necks and a stroll through an art gallery, during which the attention might wax and wane as the eye is caught, becomes absorbed, moves on, glances briefly at something else and moves on again. While listening to the Australian trio’s new CD, Open, which consists of a single 68-minute piece, I thought of a different analogy, one that works better for me. It’s like being on a long train journey, perhaps through several countries: the view can change many times in the course of the trip, gradually but inexorably, perhaps from vast wheatfields to industrial landscapes to valleys between snow-capped mountains, and the weather modulates along with the scenery. Occasionally you might dive into a tunnel, requiring the senses to adapt, and the landscape might have changed again when you re-emerge.

“Open”, which is also the name of the piece, starts with the gentle clanging of something that sounds like (but almost certainly isn’t) the strings of an abandoned piano being struck with a rubber mallet. Little cymbals are struck, a double bass enters (with the sort of sparse, sonorous, simple figure that so often provides an underpinning to the Necks’ long-form pieces), and a real piano makes its appearance, sounding a series of vaguely oriental arpeggios with the sustain pedal held down. Tony Buck, Lloyd Swanton and Chris Abrahams are all aboard, and we’re on our way.

The landscape changes pretty slowly on this trip. As it does, there’s always one element — perhaps the bass figure, or the tapping of a closed hi-hat, or the piano holding the key centre — to maintain a sense of continuity. There are quiet periods when nothing much seems to be happening, and passages of great intensity. In the first third there’s some fine drumming from Buck, whose ability to draw a lovely tone from his instruments reminds me of the young Tony Williams; around about the mid-point the oscillations of a single octave-doubled note held on a Hammond organ blend with a baleful industrial noise; there are several passages in which Abrahams moves between the quietly ecstatic approaches of Alice Coltrane and Charlemagne Palestine; and the gentle final stages feature what sounds like a choir of Swanton’s overdubbed basses.

It’s their 17th album, and even at this early stage of listening it sounds like one of their best, up there with Aquatic and Silverwater, in my view. And there are UK gigs — including three nights at Cafe Oto — to look forward to next month.


Arve Henriksen is also visiting the UK in November, to play Andrew Smith’s Requiem (inspired by the Utoya massacre) with a choir and the organist Stale Storlokken at St Luke’s in London and elsewhere. In the meantime there’s his new CD, Places of Worship, a work of very special beauty.

I’ve never heard Henriksen’s trumpet (or his counter-tenor vocals, for that matter) sound as profoundly and consistently expressive, that ability to mutate tone and attack matched by some wonderful phrase-making and a powerful sense of continuity. Nor has he ever benefited from more lustrous electronic backgrounds, the samples and programming mostly manipulated by Jan Bang and Erik Honore, with occasional help from Eivind Aarset’s guitar and Jon Balke’s keyboards. As a tailpiece, there’s a pretty song called “Shelter from the Storm” (not that one), sung by Honore.

In his five-star review in this morning’s Guardian, John Fordham drew a comparison with Sketches of Spain. That had been going through my head, too, particularly when listening to “Le Cimetiere Marin” and “Bayon”, two of the album’s 10 tracks. I was also reminded of Siesta, Miles Davis’s soundtrack to a 1987 film (directed by Mary Lambert) that nobody seemed to like but for which Miles, with the help of Marcus Miller, produced some beautiful moments at a time when conventional ideas of beauty did not seem to be high on his agenda.

Where Open demands a proper degree of commitment, Places of Worship opens its arms to any listener. In their different but equally wonderful ways, these are likely to be the albums by which I’ll remember the year.

* The photograph of the Necks — left to right: Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck and Chris Abrahams — is by Camille Walsh. Their album is released on the RnR MEGACORP label. Henriksen’s album is on Rune Grammofon.