20 February 2008

Ambient resonance

The Necks are jazz players, but what they perform is a haunting, mesmeric, hypnotic form of ambient soundscaping that breaks from traditions and audience to find new sounds and new devotees. These guys have become stars, with international acclaim and numerous CDs to their name.

I knew something of what to expect when I attended. I’d heard some Necks on CD, and watched a TV broadcast of a set, and for what it’s worth, had seen Lloyd Swanton several times in other incarnations. The Necks were a favourite of a post-seminary sax player I once knew, but I’d found them too macrocosmic or ecospheric for my philosophically materialist tastes. After two sets, I was much impressed, if not a spiritual convert. In the end, art’s still a matter of taste, but this was deeply intriguing stuff.

The Necks are a piano trio, but not a common one. Most obviously, each set was a long, apparently free, improvisation. From the start, I noticed the regularity and precision of the minimal bass riff over long repetitions: none too easy to achieve. And the busy and repetitive scalar runs on the piano. The tune developed as four chords against a bass pedal, initially in 4/4 with some simple bass syncopation. The drums took a while to join in (nothing happens too suddenly here), then a busy bass drum which felt like it was expressing a melody, but there was none elsewhere. All the while, I was being lured, siren like, into this growing maelstrom of restrained tension. Then there were voices, but no singers, and strings, but there were none. Where were these sounds from? I listened, but still couldn’t find the source. (In the foyer at the interval, someone suggested recordings, but I trusted the players more than that). Sometimes I could pick a busy high-pitched piano pattern with softly, softly attack which formed the mysterious tonality. Another time, I realised it was a tapped bass E string, played while Lloyd was otherwise bowing. But oftentimes, these sounds were quite undiscoverable. The piano had dissolved into attack-free tonalities: sometimes organic; sometimes unearthly, synthetic, like orchestration for ‘50s sci-fi movies. In the end, I put it down to resonances, primarily in the piano, a big, hefty grand which presumably resonates richly. The intensity and busy-ness was there to create resonances, and the level was sufficiently low to hear them. Listening on, we were in 6/4, with a hornet’s nest of buzzing, beating regularity. There had been change, but who’d noticed? This was minimal, but ambient more than minimalist; I expected maybe Philp Glass arpeggiation, but this was more scalar; not chordal, although there were repeating, simple, disguised chord patterns accompanied by bass pedals. And no melody at all that I could hear. The second set had similar intellectual and emotional responses. The bass was bowed; the drums more rattled; the piano sounds were repeated, this time hinting at your first explorations of endless loops and echo units with a call and response theme on piano. The sound grew in intensity and volume, then receded to end after another hypnotic hour. Hour? Yep. This one seemed shorter; the audience seemed more attuned. As I left, someone commented that he’d wanted to laugh with “sensory overload”. His girlfriend admonished him.

Not jazz like I know, but performed by capable players. All listening: no visual cues in sight. Ambient and minimal; hypnotic and attractive; mysterious and tonally deceptive; beautiful and even refreshing. Many would say spiritual (a hackneyed and misused adjective). Ambient is not something I’d choose every night, but The Necks were engrossing and satisfying and much recommended.

The Necks are Lloyd Swanton (bass), Chris Abrahams (piano) and Tony Buck (drums).


Anonymous said...

Hi Eric. Where was the gig at? I can't pick it from the pictures.
- Dan Hunter

Eric said...

Daniel, It was at the Street Theatre. Eric

Dean said...

"haunting, mesmeric, hypnotic"

"Ambient and minimal; hypnotic and attractive; mysterious and tonally deceptive; beautiful and even refreshing."

"Ambient is not something I’d choose every night, but The Necks were engrossing and satisfying and much recommended."

Great review Eric. I had a review in draft, but you've hit the nail on the head, so I'll just point people here.

I don't know that I'm with you on refreshing, though, particularly regarding their first piece/set. I think I'm more with the guy who wanted to laugh; I think I described it as the soundtrack from a nightmare. I much preferred the second piece; it evoked a summer storm with rain on a tin roof for me.