The Thing, Vienna Chelsea, 1 May 2014

It looks like those in Vienna who want to see The Thing in a jazz club will have to look further afield from now on. Following last November’s gig at the Blue Tomato for which the seats were removed, this time Trost Records put them on at the Chelsea, not a venue previously noted for its jazz programming. Once again, the audience was thereby forced to stand. Now I have no objection either to standing gigs – Lord knows I go to enough of them – or to the Chelsea, a venue I have been to many times. But The Thing are not a group who should be playing there. I assume that what’s behind these events is a desire to break down the boundaries between genres and make The Thing more attractive to non-jazz audiences. The problem with this is twofold: first, it robs The Thing’s music of its original impetus and context; and second, it risks alienating the group’s core audience who have been going to see them in jazz clubs for many years.

Despite the inappropriate setting I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see The Thing again, and thus it was that I found myself front centre at the Chelsea on May Day. With the celebrations for International Workers’ Day in full swing, the trio of Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love wasted no time in propagating their message of freedom in and through the music. This seemed like a more hardcore Thing than has been heard on recent outings, with Gustafsson’s sax low on tunes and high on the frenzied skronk that makes him the natural heir apparent to Peter Brötzmann. A reading of Don Cherry’s “Golden Heart” was virtually unrecognizable from the slow burning version on The Cherry Thing, while “Red River” from the new album Boot! was a maelstrom of surging energy. Håker Flaten, on double bass throughout rather than the bass guitar he favoured at the Blue Tomato, was on powerful form, sculpting a monster solo from the aftershocks of Gustafsson’s tenor. Nilssen-Love, meanwhile, moved with customary panache, his jaw-dropping polyrhythmic stickwork the perfect foil for the Swede’s colossal riffage.

The well-earned encore, when it came, was something of a disappointment. With the audience’s appreciation still ringing in his ears, Gustafsson turned to the unwieldy bass saxophone and drew the evening to a close with a scrappy, directionless improv. It was the only wrong move of an otherwise spectacular evening. That and the venue.

Kraftwerk, Vienna Burgtheater, 15-18 May 2014

The last time I saw Kraftwerk in 2009 was in a field in some godforsaken corner of Burgenland. Since then, the group – and in particular Ralf Hütter, who to all intents and purposes is Kraftwerk these days – have begun to adopt a more reverential and curatorial approach to their history and to live performance. The release of The Catalogue in late 2009, and the New York MoMA run in 2012, ushered in a new era for Kraftwerk, who now exist solely as a repertoire act. With no new material in the offing (and, since the departure of Florian Schneider in 2008, none likely to be forthcoming – which is probably just as well), Hütter seems content to revisit and repackage old material for a living, buffing and shining old songs and presenting them to new global audiences in the surroundings of a slick 3D live show. In embarking on this endeavour, he might well have had in mind his national poet Goethe’s dictum that “refashioning the fashioned/lest it stiffen into iron/is a work of endless vital activity.”

The problem, of course, is that this Kraftwerk bears little resemblance to the Kraftwerk I grew up with. It’s a matter of profound regret that only Hütter remains from the classic 1974-86 line-up of the group, leaving him and his current roster of employees to bask in the goodwill that was generated in no small part from the presence of Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür. To argue, as some have tried to do, that it really doesn’t matter who is up there pressing the buttons ignores the significant contributions made by the other three members of the classic line-up to the music, the iconography (see the iconic covers of Trans-Europe Express and The Man Machine) and the legend of Kraftwerk. Still, you’ve got to hand it to Hütter, who has erased all trace of his former colleagues with such Stalinist efficiency that none of the music critics currently writing about Kraftwerk even seem to be aware of the issue.

Although this historical revisionism leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, there is still much to enjoy about the current version of Kraftwerk. There are two things in particular that I really admire about this curatorial project. The first is that it firmly establishes that the Kraftwerk canon consists of the eight albums from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks. I get tired of so-called cognoscenti who bemoan the fact that Hütter excluded the first three albums from the reissue programme, as if they represent some disruptive experimental tendency that he has ruthlessly expunged from the group’s history. An artist is entitled to establish his own canon, and if Hütter wants to tell his story starting in 1974, that’s fine with me.

The other thing I like about these retrospective concerts is that they situate Kraftwerk as an art project, taking the group out of the nightclub and the muddy field and into the art gallery and the concert hall. The narrative that we hear so often of Kraftwerk’s influence on other musicians, particularly those in the techno, electro and hip-hop genres, holds no interest for me; there are other, more pressing contexts for their work. By presenting the group’s history in such extravagant audiovisual terms, in the rarefied atmospheres of MoMA, Tate Modern and now the Burgtheater, Hütter foregrounds the discourse of Kraftwerk as artists and downplays the standard, largely irrelevant tendency to view them as the “godfathers of techno”. It’s a recontextualization that makes perfect sense to me, placing Kraftwerk firmly in the lineage of pop art and minimalism.

Over the course of four evenings, then, Kraftwerk presented their eight albums in chronological order, doing two shifts per night like the workers they have always liked to portray themselves as (although it’s hard to imagine anyone else going to work in those glow-in-the-dark neoprene suits). I saw the first five of the eight shows, choosing to skip the last three on the basis of the alarming drop in quality that happened between Computer World and Electric Café. Each show’s album run-through was followed by a generously timed greatest hits set. In fact the group often seemed keen to dispatch the relevant album as quickly as possible, with the album polished off in the first 25 minutes or so of the 110-minute show. There were occasional setlist variations, with some songs present at every show and others having to fight for their place. Lesser known tunes like “Kometenmelodie 2” and “Airwaves” achieved instant classic status, although the keenly awaited “Europe Endless” disappointed because its visuals (some dull abstract patterns) were so uninspired. Undoubtedly the biggest treat came at the end of the Man Machine show, which saw “Aerodynamik” and the rarely heard “Planet of Visions” played as encores.

I’d never been to the Burgtheater before, and it was just as splendid a venue as I’d expected it to be, with crystal clear sound and perfect 3D visuals even in the cheap seats. My only gripe concerned the view from the seats at the back of the lower circle. I’d plumped for this circle for The Man Machine and Computer World, my two favourite Kraftwerk albums, but was dismayed to discover when we took our seats that, due to the overhang from the upper circle above, our view of the top half of the screen was completely obscured. Fortunately we were able to move forward and sit on the stairs for the duration of the show, thereby obtaining a perfect uninterrupted view. I was, frankly, astonished that the ushers allowed us to stay there; in London we’d have been steered back to our seats in the name of health and safety before you could say “boing boom tschak”.

The passing of the years can’t rob Kraftwerk’s music of its unearthly, crystalline beauty; it still sounds impossibly smart, funny and wise (although – sorry, Germans and Austrians – the lyrics definitely sound much better in English). The repeated melodic phrases, classical harmonies and insistent mechanical rhythms fuse to form a fresh, distinctively modern take on minimalism. The onscreen imagery, meanwhile, forms a persuasive visual complement to the music, its dry humour and beguiling simplicity making explicit the connections between Kraftwerk and pop art.

In Vienna we sit in a late-night café”, sang Hütter in 1977’s “Trans-Europe Express”, one of Kraftwerk’s few lyrical references to a real place in the world. And if I’m not at home, there’s very few places I’d rather be than a café in Vienna. But rather than any one place, Kraftwerk’s home is the world itself, its distances melted away by car, train, bicycle and computer, the “I” slowly becoming “we”.

Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato, 8 March 2014; Chris Corsano & Mette Rasmussen, Vienna Mo.ë, 3 April 2014

Is there any more powerful sound in music than that of the sax/drums duo? Personally, I doubt it. The combination of the expressive blast of the horn and the undulant forms thrown by the drumkit seems to represent free music at its most elemental and dangerous. More than any other configuration, the sax and drums line-up also embodies the idea of improvisation as dialogue that, for me at least, has always been central to improvised music. It’s at times like this that I reach for the writings of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975):

The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones, and they must be taken into account in order to fully understand the style of the utterance. After all, our thought itself – philosophical, scientific, artistic – is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought, and this cannot but be reflected in the forms that verbally express our thought as well.1

Over the years I’ve seen a few sax players and drummers squaring up to each other, most often in permutations of Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark or Mats Gustafsson on the one hand and Paal Nilssen-Love or Didi Kern on the other. Of course, I missed Brötzmann’s gig with the British percussionist Steve Noble at the Blue Tomato this week – his first appearance there for over two years, and I missed his last one as well. But I was able to catch two superlative examples of the genre recently in Vienna.

First up, the long-established Vandermark/Nilssen-Love duo, again at the Blue Tomato. Vandermark is another musician whose gigs I keep missing. Can it really have been two years since I last saw him play, with his Resonance Ensemble at Porgy & Bess? This blog would appear to suggest so, but then again there have been many gigs I never got around to reviewing, so who knows. Anyway, Ken and Paal were electrifying on this occasion. Kicking off on tenor, Vandermark alternated zinging melodies with blasts of pure noise while Nilssen-Love wove intricate threads of percussive texture. During the two 45-minute sets, the pair demonstrated the kind of empathy and mutual awareness that can only come from years of playing together, listening to one another and responding to the other’s statements with declarative positions of one’s own. At one point, as Nilssen-Love took a stark, brittle solo, the reedsman reached for his clarinet before seemingly changing his mind and turning instead to the hefty baritone sax. Using the considerable wallop of this instrument to draw the Norwegian into ever more frenzied bursts of activity, Vandermark traced wave after wave of hook-laden melodic invention. Turning to the clarinet for a long, bracing passage of circular breathing, the American showed that his ability to scramble the conscious mind remains as sure and true as ever.

A month or so later it was time to check out the first appearance in Vienna by the brilliant US free drummer Chris Corsano, here in the company of Danish saxophonist Mette Rasmussen. It was a pleasure to watch this new duo play in the unusual and intimate environs of Mo.ë, a room which doubles as concert venue and exhibition space and as a result has a uniquely informal vibe to it. With the musicians setting up in the centre of the room and the audience able to wander around at will, the gig had the air of a friendly, spontaneous happening.

Mette Rasmussen has a remarkably fluid and expressive tone on the alto saxophone. Her playing at times evokes the rich, heavenward clarity of Albert Ayler, at others the throaty roar of Mats Gustafsson. Equally, though, she’s able to sidestep these influences and assert her own individual sound in piercingly high tones and controlled outbursts of free playing. Corsano, meanwhile, keeps up his end of the conversation in gripping manner, utilizing a wide range of extended techniques (bowing the edge of the drum, microscopic percussive incidents, blowing on some kind of customized reed instrument) but always returning to that infinite melting pulse. It’s an engrossing encounter from a duo that seems destined for great things.

Note

1. I was introduced to Bakhtin by my English tutor at Sussex, the late Frank Gloversmith, to whom I owe an enormous personal debt.

10 Experimental Theatre Pieces That Blew My Mind

In a rare non-music post, I’d like to set down a few brief recollections of experimental theatre pieces and live installations that have affected me in one way or another. I’ve long been fascinated by theatre that extends the boundaries of theatre and mixes in elements of performance, music and site-specific installations. Much of this stuff also situates the audience member as an active participant rather than as a mere viewer.

Over the years I’ve been lucky to witness several such events, all of which I now feel privileged to have attended. My memories of them have faded over time, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write this post. Some of them are fairly well documented on YouTube, websites and suchlike, while for others there hardly seems to be any record at all of their ever having taken place – except that I remember every one of them. These were unique and unrepeatable events that now exist for me in a netherworld of half-forgotten traces, images and memories.

1. Impact Theatre Co-operative, A Place in Europe (Salisbury, 1983)

This and The Carrier Frequency are the only two events listed here which actually took place in a conventional theatre setting, with the audience sitting in rows of seats. But A Place in Europe at Salisbury Arts Centre was a game-changing experience for me at the time, although I can remember little about it now save for its thrillingly powerful, haunting imagery and music and the incantatory refrain of “let me lay my head upon your breast” with which the piece drew to a close. Oh, to see a video of this show.

2. Impact Theatre Co-operative, The Carrier Frequency (Salisbury, 1986)

Three years after A Place in Europe, Impact Theatre Co-operative returned to Salisbury with a daring, even more formally experimental project, The Carrier Frequency. Co-written with novelist Russell Hoban (whose post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker I can’t recommend too highly), the piece consisted, if I remember rightly, of a large, multi-level structure around which copious quantities of water were transported throughout the performance, while cast members careered about the stage in Beckettian, heavily restricted movements.

3. Enrique Vargas, Oraculos (London, 1997)

This was a truly incredible experience. Situated in some kind of warehouse near Kings Cross, it was a kind of maze through which audience members walked one at a time, starting in a wardrobe filled with clothes which you had to push your way through (shades of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). From then on, you had one-to-one encounters with a succession of characters, some scary, some enticing (one girl invited me to dance with her, another challenged me to an arm-wrestling contest). Tarot cards were involved, and dough which you had to make and eventually bake into bread, which you ate at the end.

4. NVA, The Secret Sign (Finnich Glen, 1998)

In 1998 I was working in Glasgow, and arranged a crafty, not entirely necessary extension to my visit in order to take in this brilliant piece of site-specific theatre. My interest in NVA had its roots in my admiration for the early industrial collective Test Department. By the time I caught up with TD in the early 1990s, they were no longer doing the large-scale site-specific events for which they had become legendary in the 1980s. Instead I saw them twice in their final techno phase, at Subterania in Ladbroke Grove and then again at the Zap in Brighton. Both events were, in truth, somewhat underwhelming (although I wish I still had the excellent Test Department T-shirt I bought at Subterania). I kept an eye, though, on the career of Angus Farquhar (who, rightly or wrongly, I always thought of as the main creative force behind Test Department) and jumped at the chance to see something of his next project, NVA, for myself.

The Secret Sign began as a night-time ride out of Glasgow, in a bus with blacked-out windows. On arrival at the meeting point, you were kitted out in wading boots and a hard hat. Guided by NVA assistants, you then went on an arduous, beautifully lit walk through river and rock, with live birds of prey in close proximity and a stunning vision at the end, with a lonely figure glimpsed in the distance. Farquhar has recently started working again with a new version of Test Department, but it’s hard to see him topping this for sheer impact and emotional resonance (see also no.10 below).

5. La Fura dels Baus, Manes (London, 1998)

This Catalan theatre group mounted a fiercely direct, involving and uncompromising piece of theatre at Three Mills Island Studios in east London. With the action taking place on a single floor, the audience was able to follow the chaotic scenes as they unfolded. I remember some spectacular machines, and having to take evasive action to avoid being hit by a dead chicken, but on the whole I was less entranced by this than I was by…

6. De La Guarda, Periodo Villa Villa (London, 1999)

This lot were Argentinian, and their show at the Roundhouse was simply breathtaking. At the start, the audience were herded standing into a closed space with nothing but a vast sheet of paper stretched above them. Shapes and shadows gradually came to life, and then, in a stunning coup de théâtre, a man in a harness came down through the paper, plucked a girl (who I really hope was a plant) out of the audience and hoisted her up into the heavens. What followed was a phantasmagoric blend of music, theatre, circus and performance, played out in the air and on the walls, with the guys in business suits and the girls in rather fetching business non-suits.

7. Deborah Warner, The Tower Project (London, 1999)

I’m still kicking myself for missing Deborah Warner’s St Pancras Project (1995), which apparently allowed audience members to walk one at a time around the then dusty, unrestored grandeur of the Midland Grand Hotel and encounter strange and frightening things there. As a consolation prize I was at least able to check out Warner’s subsequent Tower Project, which took place on a floor of abandoned government offices in the Euston Tower in London. As one who has seen the interior of more than a few airless and depressing government offices in his time, the setting struck a powerful chord with me. The angels who could be seen standing around and mutely watching the city from high above, in an echo of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, were somewhat less familiar.

8. Gregor Schneider, Die Familie Schneider (London, 2004)

Probably the most disturbing of all the pieces on this list, Die Familie Schneider was a live installation mounted in two neighbouring and identical terraced houses in east London. You were given the keys to the first house and entered it alone. As you explored the house, you were confronted by a series of real and increasingly unpleasant encounters – a woman endlessly washing the dishes, a naked man masturbating behind a shower curtain, a boy sitting mutely on the floor of his bedroom with a paper bag over his head. Down in the basement, there were further nasty hints of punishment and incarceration. The house itself was terrifyingly normal, with the banality of its standard furniture and appliances accentuating the horror in between. After 20 minutes you left the house with relief and entered the house next door, where the whole nightmarish experience was repeated.

9. Frantic Assembly, Dirty Wonderland (Brighton, 2005)

Dirty Wonderland was a haunting masterpiece of site-specific theatre. Taking place in the faded Art Deco glamour of the Grand Ocean Hotel in Saltdean, the piece invited audience members to wander from room to room and be faced with a series of vivid and human encounters. The finale in the ballroom, with ghostly figures from the past dancing to the music of Goldfrapp, was breathtaking.

10. NVA, The Storr (Isle of Skye, 2005)

Seven years after the wonders of The Secret Sign (see no.4 above), I caught up with Angus Farquhar and NVA for an even more ambitious intervention. This time another long and arduous night-time walk took us through The Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye, a dramatic natural land formation that was compellingly illuminated and soundtracked with music and Gaelic poetry. I did the walk on two successive nights. On the first night, bad weather meant that only about half of the walk could be achieved, with the finale cruelly denied to us. Only on the second night was I able to experience the full beauty of the living and breathing environment that Farquhar and his team had created.

Gary Numan, Vienna WUK, 22 February 2014

Gary Numan was the first pop star I ever loved. At the tender age of 11, I watched his début Top of the Pops performance in 1979 and was immediately catapulted into a new world of mystery and glamour, one which would remain with me throughout my formative teenage years. I was a fanatical Numan fan in those days. Between 1979 and 1986 I bought everything he released, played those records over and over again, memorized all the lyrics, learned his discography off by heart, was a loyal member of his fan club, read and re-read interviews with him, copied his logo on every available surface, stuck posters of him on my bedroom wall, wrote projects about him at school and saw him live three times. At a time when most of the boys in my year at school (those that were interested in music, anyway, which was by no means all of them) were in thral to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, I was the only one who liked Gary Numan. I loved his music as much for the piercing clarity of its synthesized melodies as for the emotional lyrics that seemed to speak directly to me. It’s Gary Numan who I have to thank for bringing music to the forefront of my interests, where it has remained ever since.

Following that legendary Top of the Pops appearance in 1979, I went out and bought the single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” This song, with its towering wall of electronic sound and its devastating vocal performance, was music I had waited all my life to hear, and if push came to shove would still be in the running for my favourite song of all time. My copy, purchased (like most of my music back then) from the record department of WH Smith in Salisbury, came in one of those simple plain white paper sleeves with a hole helpfully cut somewhere in the middle so that you could read the label. BEGGARS BANQUET, it went. TUBEWAY ARMY. ARE “FRIENDS” ELECTRIC? Turn it over and it went BEGGARS BANQUET. TUBEWAY ARMY. WE ARE SO FRAGILE. Sadly I missed out on the limited edition picture disc and even the picture sleeve of this single, although I picked both of them up later.

I didn’t go a bundle on the follow-up, “Cars”, which seemed a bit trite and repetitive at the time (and still does, actually). It was the third single, “Complex”, that really sealed the deal for me. From its lengthy, electronically treated violin intro to its final choking plea of “please keep them away, don’t let them touch me/Please don’t let them lie, don’t let them see me”, this was a song that reached new heights of emotional sensitivity. And the pieces finally fell into place when I acquired copies of the albums Replicas and The Pleasure Principle, both of which revealed the breadth of Numan’s conceptual visions even as they brimmed over with great tunes and memorable lyrics. One song in particular deserves special mention. A grim, filmic evocation of a future society on the verge of collapse, “Down in the Park” was and remains a chilling masterpiece.

The reissued début, Tubeway Army, by the way, wasn’t half bad either. Picked up in the old HMV Shop in Southampton on one of my occasional visits there, its shouty guitar-fuelled energy was a fascinating early step on Numan’s road to stardom. Plus, it contained the queasy and haunting “Jo the Waiter”, a rare acoustic outing and one of my favourite Numan songs to this day.

The emergence of Telekon and its associated singles in 1980 was an event weighted with expectations for me. “We Are Glass” and “I Die: You Die” were hugely powerful and anthemic songs, but there was an air of ponderousness about much of the album that bothered me slightly. Still, I desperately wanted to go to the Southampton Gaumont to see Numan live, but my pleas fell on deaf ears (I would have to wait three years to get my wish). At this point, still only 22 years old and immensely troubled by the pressures of fame, Numan temporarily retired from live performance. He did three inspirational “farewell” shows at Wembley Arena and then radically rethought his approach.

In retrospect, it was the release of “She’s Got Claws” in August 1981 that signalled the beginning of the end for Gary and me. From its ridiculous title and cover image onwards, the song was terrible, a turgid slice of anaemic electro-funk that had nothing at all to do with the infectious synth pop I loved so much. What was Numan doing? Why had he made such a catastrophic change of direction? I had no idea, but I was mightily confused, a feeling that was only partly alleviated by the Dance album a month or so later. It was a brave but entirely uncommercial piece of work, and if I lamented its relative lack of catchy melodies (“Stories” and “You Are, You Are” being the honourable exceptions), I was intrigued and finally affected by the long and complex architecture of “Slowcar to China” and “Cry, The Clock Said”.

Gary’s new, funk-based direction began to take hold with the following year’s I, Assassin. The album definitely had its moments (“Music for Chameleons” and “We Take Mystery” were particular highlights), alongside some fairly indifferent material. The rot really set in, however, with 1983’s Warriors. The change in sound since 1979-80 was drastic and seemingly irreversible. The songs were generally too long, they lacked memorable tunes, the lyrics were increasingly insipid and the bass, drums and female backing vocals drowned out my beloved synthesizers and the cold steel of Numan’s voice. This unwelcome trend continued on the subsequent and progressively uninspired Berserker, The Fury and Strange Charm, the latter being the last Gary Numan album I ever bought. It was an ignominious end to my years as a Numanoid; but it was Gary who had left me, not the other way around.

It was during this period of artistic decline that I did finally manage to see Gary Numan live on the 1983, 1984 and 1985 tours, each time at the Southampton Gaumont (now the Mayflower). It pains me now to think of my late, much missed and mourned mother, waiting uncomplainingly in her car outside the Gaumont to bring me home to Salisbury after the 1983 show, the first concert I ever attended. The shows themselves were very special events for me, and there were enough thrilling old songs to hide the inadequacies of the newer material. I could never quite get over the fact that Numan was right there in the room with me, and this, together with the light show, the wall of sound and the cheering of the audience all around me, combined to make these hugely exciting and memorable events.

Last month, then, I found myself at the WUK for my first Gary Numan concert in, oh, twenty-nine years. In the meantime, of course, Numan’s career has undergone a remarkable turnaround, with the hopeless white funk thrown out in favour of a harder industrial-edged sound. His critical reputation thereby restored, and with folk like Trent Reznor now acknowledging his influence, Gary’s stock is at its highest since 1980. I’ve not been following this reinvention myself, preferring to cherish my memories of those incredible early years and secure in the knowledge that, however many people now come out in favour of Gary Numan, I can say I was there first.

The concert was, of course, greatly enjoyable. Numan is now a massively impressive frontman, throwing all manner of rock star moves and singing with remarkable confidence as his superb band energize the music with crunchy guitar and fizzing synth tones. Inevitably, recent songs dominated the set, with only “Metal”, “Films”, “Down in the Park” (a spine-tingling moment for me), “Cars”, “I Die: You Die” and “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” present from the early days. I remain unconvinced by the newer material, which is low on melodic inventiveness and seems to place excessive reliance on heavy drumbeats for effect. But those six songs were enough to plant the happiest of smiles on my face and transport me magically back to my distant boyhood, to a time when I needed a hero and found one in Gary Numan.

Ulver, Vienna Szene, 10 February 2014

The last time I saw Ulver, almost exactly four years ago, they had only recently begun to exist as a fully functioning live group. That concert at the Arena had something of a rarefied atmosphere, with flickering candles adding to the heavy air of expectation that attended the performance. Since then, though, Ulver have gone the way of seemingly every other once distant and mysterious studio-based outfit, and have begun touring on a regular basis. As a result that sense of occasion was largely missing from their recent show at the Szene, although there was certainly enough taking place onstage to mitigate that absence.

They’re a strange-looking bunch, that’s for sure. Two serious techno types at the front, focused on their various dials and buttons; a dapper Roy Harper lookalike at the keyboard; an energetic guitarist; and a couple of drummers at the back, whom I hardly caught a glimpse of all evening due to my front centre position. But the music they make together is a compelling blend of noise rock, dark isolationism and playful, infectious grooves.

Indeed, it was that grooviness that made the strongest impression on me. The 2010 concert was great, but it was also a touch doomy and portentous, qualities that Ulver seem to have largely shaken off in the meantime in favour of a looser, more improvisatory approach. On this occasion Kristoffer Rygg’s sombre vocals were set off perfectly by insistent percussion, churning ambient textures and Daniel O’Sullivan’s strikingly expressive guitar work. With a succession of sinister back-projected images adding to the overall sense of unease, the music of Ulver is deliciously spare and unsettling: the sound of an unwelcome presence, somewhere close at hand.

ulver

Hermann Nitsch, Vienna Jesuitenkirche, 20 November 2013

At the age of 75, Hermann Nitsch shows no signs of slowing down. Last year saw a slew of activity for the man from Prinzendorf, including a six-hour action in Leipzig, his longest action for some years, which of course I missed. And he rounded off his 75th year with a couple of events in Vienna – a short teaching action at the Nitsch Foundation, followed the next day by an organ concert in one of Vienna’s most magnificent Baroque churches, the Jesuitenkirche.

Last time Nitsch played the organ in Vienna, at the Donaucitykirche in 2012, it was a rather anticlimactic affair – only half-an-hour long, and played on a very modest instrument indeed. This occasion was everything that one wasn’t – long, involving and massively impressive. With Nitsch himself out of sight at the organ, the evening seemed less like a recital and more like a live sound environment. Having nothing to look at but the splendour of their surroundings, audience members would have been hard pushed not to sense the religious intensity that underpins all of Nitsch’s work.

Over the course of two movements, the organist created a constantly shifting soundworld of deep, spectral rumbles and radiant, overlapping harmonies. More than once I was struck by the parallels with Nitsch’s live actions, emphasizing how his art is a Gesamtkunstwerk in which music, painting and performance all complement and reinforce each other. Like the actions, this music is entirely wordless and proceeds with a kind of monumental inevitability; it reaches for notions of aesthetic purity and totality; and it inspires, in this viewer/listener at least, something approaching awe and wonderment. As such it amply fulfils Nitsch’s belief, quoted before in these pages, that “art needs to have a sense of sacred solemnity”, a worthy criterion if ever there was one.

Pärt of the trouble

I was hoping to bring you a review of last Friday’s concert at the Musikverein by the Bruckner Orchester Linz conducted by Dennis Russell Davies, performing two pieces (including the highly acclaimed Symphony No.4) by Arvo Pärt – after Philip Glass, my favourite living composer of classical music. Having only been to the Musikverein once in my life before, I felt like an injection of high culture for once, and the fact that Pärt was attending the performance whetted my appetite even more. However, I missed the concert due to an unbelievable scheduling fiasco. The running order was billed as something by Stravinsky and something or other by Rachmaninov in the first half, with the Pärt kicking off after the interval. Since I have no interest in either of those Russian guys, and since a 7.30pm start feels pretty alien to a Rhiz regular like myself, I cleverly – or so I thought – rolled up at 8.45 or thereabouts, all ready to claim my Stehplatz after the break. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I glanced up at the screen helpfully provided in the foyer to see beardy composer and baldy conductor engaged in a touching embrace, prior to exiting stage left along with the entire orchestra. A quick ask around confirmed what had happened. The running order had been changed at the last minute, with Pärt unceremoniously shunted to the first half and Rachmaninov moved to the second.

What the fuck? What kind of venue is it that switches the running order of a concert around and then expects audiences to accept this kind of behaviour as the norm? It’s hard to avoid drawing a comparison with the rock venues I normally frequent, where something like this would never happen. As a confirmed hater of most support bands, wherever possible I time my arrival at the venue in order to avoid the opening act’s inevitably mediocre contribution to the evening. I do this secure in the knowledge that I’m not going to miss the part of the concert that I actually want to see. Any venue that decided on a whim to switch the headliner and the opener would swiftly receive very short shrift from the paying audience. I think Throbbing Gristle may have done this once or twice, but that was probably done to “subvert the expectations of the audience” or some such. I do realize that the running order of a classical concert is different, in that it lacks the hierarchy implied by the headliner/opening act binary. But it’s still a pretty shoddy way to manage an event, no matter how much gold leaf is on the walls.

I’m planning to have another go at the Musikverein for a performance of Philip Glass’s Symphony No.9 in June. I guess I should get there early.