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THE CHALLENGE IN DESCRIBING THE WORK OF THE NECKS IS THAT IT FALLS OUTSIDE ANY CONVENIENT STYLISTIC CATEGORY. THERE IS NO DISCRIMINATING THE MYRIAD INFLUENCES. MOST OBVIOUS MIGHT BE THE JAZZ TRIO TRADITION, BUT THE NECKS’ DRIVING RHYTHMIC PULSE ENCOMPASSES MINIMALISM, WHILE THE BREAKDOWN OF RHYTHM SUGGESTS FREE JAZZ AND THE SUBTLE EXPLORATIONS OF TIMBRE ARE TYPICAL OF THE AVANT-GARDE. THESE, HOWEVER, ONLY TOUCH THE SURFACE OF WHAT MIGHT BE CALLED AN ORGANIC MUSICAL WORLD.

The Necks mesmerise their audience with large scale improvisations, insistently repeating musical fragments, placing them under a kind of auditory microscope, drawing attention to the listener’s habitual modes of musical recognition. Once associations start to emerge, there’s a liberal treatment by the musicians of stylistic elements that happen to fall into the stream of musical consciousness, showing no preference or prejudice. This level of observation also draws the ear closely into the quality of timbre, to a pure sonic appreciation, even before any stylistic associations start to take hold.

Never allowing one voice to dominate, the music undergoes an organic growth that gains momentum and direction through the collective, democractic input of the three musicians. Individual contributions reveal subconscious worlds of musical influences, however the growth of cells within the larger musical framework cannot be referenced easily. What emerges is a composition with flavours from a gamut of musical influence, although treated and constructed in a way that then reveals an original musical identity.

So what informs a complete, improvised performance? The musical fragments, interrogated to the point of being beyond recognition, are shaped by the visceral energy created on stage, a musical development that leads to prolonged moments of intensity and ecstasy. The remarkable individual restraint and sympathy amongst the musicians leads to the cultivation of a musical organism that becomes its own creature.

You could feel this democratic principal in action throughout the May 28 concert at the Sydney Opera House’s Studio. Even when Tony Buck began the second improvisation, rubbing a cymbal against the floor tom to create a soft drone, the other two players, although silent, were still ominously present. Original video works by Buck were screened alongside the two improvisations. Projected on three large screens behind and above the trio, these were constructed in a similar way to the music—from an extremely limited set of motifs explored throughout the duration of the work.

The first improvisation established a sense of pulse early on which then diverged into three trajectories. This breaking down of rhythm, with continuing musical momentum and drive might be described by John Coltrane’s term, “multi-directional rhythm”—different tempi occurring simultaneously. What impressed me was that, despite the breaking down of pulse the work still managed to maintain a sense of structural integrity, clearly moving into new sections and phases. The accompanying video, showing a naked woman slowly and repeatedly ascending a wooden staircase at varying speeds, created a mesmeric sense of timelessness.

The similarly spare second video commenced with images of light on water that gradually revealed a woman swimming beneath. The music also began on a different tack, Buck’s cymbal swirling on the floor tom, drawing the ear into subtle nuances of timbre, followed by Lloyd Swanton’s single pitched, high register, arhythmic pizzicato line, sounding more like bubbles rising than a double bass. Buck then began to stir bells with his foot and swirl a shaker, sustaining this fluid, pulse-less sound world while Abrahams explored a motif in the upper register of the piano, right where the break occurs between those notes dampened by the pedal and those that always resonate freely, once again drawing the listener into The Necks’ subtle treatment of sound.

This free time, sonically rich musical world then organically established a sense of pulse, finding its way into a 6/8 groove, gradually shifting emphasis to morph into 4/4 and then back to 6/8, slightly reminiscent of the music of Steve Reich. Throughout the concert, as with multi-directional rhythm, there were fluctuations in tempo resulting in divergence again much like the phasing technique of Reich.

Leaving The Studio, I feel immense satisfaction at having experienced a concert of improvised music that, through intensive exploration of materials, engendered a strong sense of musical identity. It’s a refreshing experience. The Necks concert demonstrates a music making practice that shows no signs of tiring.


The Necks, musicians Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck, Lloyd Swanton, video Tony Buck, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, May 28

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 42

© Simon Charles; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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