Friday, 25 November 2011

Harold Budd and The Necks in Exeter

Harold Budd, Werner Dafeldecker and The Necks came to The Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter to play on Wednesday, brought together under the aegis of the Sound and Music organisation in a concert which recognised the affinities they have with each other. The evening was given its own uncapitalised title, time being, a heading which pointed to the one of nature of this musical meeting, as well as alluding to its improvisational nature. Time is an important element in the work of Budd and The Necks, and they are both capable of creating an atmosphere in which it seems to be held in suspension. Harold Budd often labours under the ambient label, although he is only ambient in the sense that Eric Satie and Debussy are ambient, composing piano or keyboard pieces which conjure rich and evocative atmospheres rather than concentrating on definite melodic and harmonic structure and development. The Necks are an Australian trio of long standing, having been together since 1987, and comprise Chris Abrahams on piano, Lloyd Swanton on bass and Tony Buck on drums. It’s the classic jazz trio line up, and there’s certainly an element of jazz in their approach. Their music is totally improvised, with no preconceived or composed material brought to the stage. But it is a take on jazz which stretches its improvisational time out, allowing a piece to unfold at a deliberate and reflective pace with changes introduced gradually and additively. Nothing is sudden in this music. It has sometimes been likened to minimalism, as motifs are frequently mulled upon in a repetitive way, but the attention to small details and nuances of sound tend to belie such convenient categorisation. In the end, it is what it is – Necks music.

Werner Dafeldecker is an improviser on bass and electronics, and is something of a middleman here. Like many improvising musicians, he has worked in a wide variety of contexts and formed many connections with a disparate set of musicians. He has played with Necks pianist Chris Abrahams in the leftfield rock trio Autistic Daughters, and was one of David Sylvian’s collaborators on his Manafon LP. Harold Budd’s recent records Perhaps and Avalon Sutra have been released on Sylvian’s Samadhi Sound label, an acknowledgement of his abiding influence. Dafeldecker has also recorded with Stevie Wishart, on of improvised music’s few hurdy gurdy players (I’d say only, but the eclectic Japanese noisemaker Keiji Haino made a scorching album with an amplified, feedback-splintered version of the instrument) and leader of the sublime medieval group Sinfonye; on the same LP (Mikroton from 2009) with AMM and modern classical pianist John Tilbury; with laptop glitch manipulator Christian Fennesz on the apocalyptically prescriptive LP Till the Old World’s Blown Up and A New One is Created; with Otomo Yoshihide and other Japanese technological mavericks (many of whom performed at the Phoenix some years back in the Contemporary Music Network tours Japanorama and Turntable Hell) on My Dear Mummy from 1999; and, perhaps inevitably, with arch-collaborator Jim O’Rourke, America’s answer to Brian Eno. Harold Budd first recorded on the latter’s Obscure label, releasing The Pavilion of Dreams in 1978, which Eno also produced. He has also collaborated with a number of like-minded souls: with the Cocteau Twins on The Moon and the Melodies, and later with the Cocteau’s guitarist Robin Guthrie; with Jean Cocteau fan Bill Nelson and Andy Partridge of Westcountry pop pastoralists XTC; with fellow American composers Daniel Lentz and Ruben Garcia; with Ultravox founder John Foxx and ex-PIL bassist Jah Wobble; and, on two exquisite records from the early 80s (The Pearl and The Plateaux of Mirror) with Mr Eno himself. Dafeldecker adopts the Eno role tonight, taking to the stage first with Harold Budd. There are no introductory remarks, which is a shame; given the mellifluous murmur of Budd’s voice revealed through his readings of poetry (both his and others) on several of his recordings, it would have been good to hear it in person. But after a brief nod of acknowledgement, it was straight down to the music.

Although it was Budd who had taken sole billing for their duo, it was Dafeldecker who took front stage, standing before the table upon which his small boxes of digital wizardry were laid. Budd sat at his piano, which was positioned with its rear end towards the audience. Perhaps in a deliberate act of self-effacement, which shifted the emphasis on to his musical partner, he was largely eclipsed by the tilt of the open lid, reduced (from where I was sitting) to an emblematic glimpse of his thick mop of white hair and white-shoed feet. Dafeldecker began proceedings by delicately tweaking a few nobs and adjusting the sound levels of the amplifier, small and undemonstrative gestures which created a roiling hiss of static sounding like rain hitting the ground, and added an underlying drone of humming bass. Throughout, he provides enveloping aurorae of sonic shimmer and distant rumbles from thunderous stormclouds, sound effects for wide horizons. His gradually constructed intitial soundscape provides a bed upon which Budd, an inert observer for the first couple of minutes, can begin laying his distinctive billowing, rippling chords, extended and Debussyesque. They are harmonically quite static, content to rock and drift in the swells, the more structured progressions of other performances and recordings left back on land in this new, more provisional and fluid improvisational environment. Echo and reverb blurs the sound, leaving it hanging for extended moments in the air, the aural equivalent of Russell Mills’ slowly shifting images which are projected onto a screen above the musicians at the back. Mills provides another Eno connection (with Eno, the usual five degrees of separation can generally be narrowed down to about two), having produced covers for his albums (including The Pearl), as well as those of David Sylvian. Both Budd and Eno (and Sylvian) have joined him in his Undark musical projects too. His projections are full of soft blues, yellows and reds and are suggestive, in their porous horizontal divisions of colour blocks, of skies, lakes, deserts, mountains and seas. At one point, they seem to form into the outlines of one of Munch’s depictions of luminous Nordic coastlines. The introduction of more clearly defined formal elements (vertical dividing lines, squares and circles) bring to mind the colour fields of the abstract expressionists such as Clifford Still, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.

The soft-edged blurring of sound and image makes this the music of weather, ambient in the sense of evoking atmospheric states and the nebulous coalescence, movement and dissipation of clouds or waves (again, reminiscent of the Debussy of Nuages or La Mer, or the Ravel of Une Barque sur l’Ocean). Dafeldecker took Budd’s chords and subjected them to various manipulations, looping, making them hover in vaporous suspension, bending through a tweaking of the circuits and transforming them into something other. He briefly took up the bass, but used it anything but a virtuoso style, detuning a string to pluck one slack, reverberant note, which was fed back to add more rumbling undertow. Budd sat out at intervals whilst what he had produced was put through its metamorphoses, until Dafeldecker once more created a field above which he felt he could set those chords drifting once more. After about half an hour, Dafeldecker allowed the loops to wind down and fade away, the clouds wafting off and our vessel washing ashore. It was an arbitrary point at which to stop a piece which had no natural point of closure, not theme to return to or climactic chord to reach. But there was enough of this rich and intoxicating duet to leave the senses satiated.

After the interval, the three musicians of The Necks came onstage and stood or sat still by their instruments for a few moments before starting, as if waiting for someone to make the first move to break the silence, sounding out the auditorium to decide which direction to take. In a piece of total improvisation which will grow from this first gesture, it is a weighty decision to make. Chris Abrahams began by playing a repeated, Budd-like rippling piano chord. Then, perhaps taking a further cue from Budd, he dropped out, and Lloyd Swanton swayed slowly between two notes on his bass. A duet built up with Tony Buck, who played gently on bronze bowls, using the soft headed mallets which he played with for most of the set, and seemingly agitating chimes and cowbells with his feet (all of this activity was mysteriously taking place below his drum set, behind which he crouched). The array of dampened and jangling percussive sounds which he produced evoked Alpine rurality or the play of breezes, perhaps heralding storms to come. This was a performance which shifted through various different sections, lacking the cohesion and unity of some of The Necks’ improvisations. There was a tension evident at certain moments, with the music rising and falling, leading to subdued intervals in which it was uncertain as to which directin it would take next. This was a creative tension, however, and the refusal to settle into an easy groove worked in the music’s favour, and made for the perfect conjunction with the shifting meteorological moods created by Budd and Dafeldecker in the first half.

Abrahams brought the piano back into the mix after the bass and mini-gamelan had built up momentum, and led the music in another direction. He and Swanton asserted themselves at periodic junctures, channelling the improvisation into a new configuration which the others would pick up on and build upon. Abrahams kept within a narrow range in the centre of the keyboard for much of the time, but as the piece progressed, began to slowly migrate through the octave, increasing the intensity as he did so. From its delicate beginnings, they moved through hypnotic swirls of sound, with Swanton taking up his bow and providing sustained underlying tones, and into a stormy section in which he ferociously strummed power chords on his bass as if he were in a stoner metal group. The grimace on his face suggested that this was not something he could keep up for long. Buck provided a pounding Mo Tucker accompaniment, and Abrahams hammered the repeated piano chords, sending overtone shards splintering into the air. It took on the ritualistic air of one of Charlemagne Palestine’s strumming music pieces for a while, although thankfully leaving no blood on the keys. Finally, having reached a thunderous climax, the storm passed and calm reasserted itself. Abrahams’ chords slowly died away, Swanton’s last bass note resonated into silence and it was left to Buck, who had by this time taken up his drumsticks, and had been playing shimmering patterns on his cymbals, to draw things to a conclusion. His final, steady taps on bronze bowl, cymbal and chimes were like the last pattering, arrhythmic drops of a rain shower, bringing the concert around full circle from Dafeldecker’s opening cloudburst. We left refreshed and invigorated, and outside the weather was fine, a clear and warm autumn night.

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