Live Reviews: The Necks / Paul G. Smyth
Daghdha Space, Limerick
3 November 2007
Chris Abrahams’ hands rest silently on the piano keys, hesitate, reconsider, retreat. A second attempt to begin reveals a single tone, repeated with a silver care, racing ahead and pulling back. Drummer Tony Buck gently rustles something out of view with his feet – shells perhaps – almost inaudibly, occasionally drawing a soft cry from his bass drum by bowing its rim with the side of the stick. Lloyd Swanton infuses a subtle pizzicato tremolo on bass. Thus begins our pilgrimage with Australian trio The Necks at the beautiful Daghdha dance space, a converted church, now the home of beanbags and couches, not pews.
For the next ninety-minutes or so, the trio prolong a single, slow groove. They play continuously, the changes so delicate and unpronounced that one barely perceives them. (I have found the same phenomenon lately in the music of American experimental composer Phill Niblock: his music is full of activity, but all I hear is stasis.)
Though entirely improvised, a pattern of surge and release is a constant and lends the music an organised demeanour that improvised music can seek to evade; an untold synchronicity binds the musicians as they glide through inhalation and exhalation. Capsules of musical idea make discreet exits and entrances: a light, bass tremolo combined with an occasional pluck of the neighbouring string; a repeated piano note framed, now and again, by the semitone above and below; a repeated sequence of a crash cymbal roll followed by a cicada-like quiver on the hi-hat. The players, too, drift in and out of view. Though there is rarely a moment when any one is not playing, their sound can be barely discernible, seen but not heard. This has curious, illusory effects. At times the piano can resemble a siren, or the drums sound deceptively electronic.
When you throw a ball into the air, and it has reached its highest point, it pauses for an instant before coming back down. In the Necks’ music, such transient moments of zero velocity demarcate the wax and wane. It’s quietly visceral, the gut engaged as much as the ears. As for the mind, the listening favoured the emptying more than the filling of it. The Necks well deserve their reputation as masters of that foggy, undefined zone between ‘new music’ and jazz.
Paul G. Smyth – who I have come to regard as Ireland’s darkest jewel – opened the concert with two solo piano improvisations. They formed perfect preludes: unlike the silky calm of the Necks, Smyth’s style is more troubled at the surface and is generally groove-less and a-rhythmic; but their undercurrents are unisonly serene. (That said, Smyth did send out an occasional beat and pseudo-melody, so uncharacteristic that each one was a revelation.) Not all about the pairing with the Necks was congruous – the amplification dislocated Smyth’s expression a little – but both made refreshingly clear that non-directional music such as this deserves our attention, especially in our modern, trajectorial culture. It goes nowhere and has nowhere to go, and that’s alright.