Thursday, August 06, 2009


The Necks @ The ICA 2.13.09 Live Review

If I were, for some reason, stranded on a deserted island and had to pick a series of things to entertain me, I would want Ned Rothenberg and Marty Ehrlich to curate that series of... desert island activities. Even if that scenario never happens (big if), their background as accomplished experimentalists in the New York avant-garde community means good curatin' for the ICA's New Music Now series. So far, it hasn't missed a beat (unless it was an intentionally missed beat). This month's program added Craig Taborn, a main NYC ingredient, and his new Ancients and Moderns Ensemble, with Australian super-star free-form trio The Necks, for another unforgettable show.

This show offered a pairing of two divergent styles of improvising and arrangement that amplified each other. The essence of this began even within Taborn's ensemble—Taborn on piano/electronics, Thomas Morgan on guitar, Ben Gerstein on trombone, Dan Weiss on drums and Chris Speed on clarinet and sax—as its five-part conceptual suite unfolded around the questions of the future versus the past, and "centenary hubris, a Dream Memory of the fin de siècle." The program notes say that the inspiration came from the works of Alexander Calder, the artist who invented the mobile, and Conlon Nancarrow, who perfected human-less mechanical music and composed for player pianos.
The Ancients and Moderns flirted as much with names and themes evident in their thesis as with the fringe of jazz. Amid passages of fluctuating connectedness and intensity between the reeds, trombone and guitar, a crank music box and three dusty-looking turntables at Gerstein's feet played ominously vague, detrital noise alongside various electronic blips and manipulation. Taborn's piano playing was prickly, at times blistering, and often used repeated themes played with one finger, like someone just learning to type, obliterated with flourishes of improvising over Weiss' clamoring drums. Taborn goes from playing a burst of staccato notes to spare notes that set the mood of eerie discovery circulating through the hypnotizing drones of the recorded noise.
By the final section of their uninterrupted suite, it sounded like a band coming slowly back to life after an entire yet-to-be-realized new industrial movement, with the rusty sprinkles of things floating on heavy air behind them, into beautifully meditative jazz melody. After that certain commotion, The Necks would pick up with uncertain exploration.

The Necks make the kind of music that forces reviewers to be creative. It is not enough to simply take the easy route and classify a fully improvisational minimalist trio as unclassifiable (even though I just classified them twice), to define them as outside of whatever the box is. That seems, in a way, more a comment on the reviewer than the music because, of course, if I may paraphrase philosopher Keanu Reeves, there is no box (no spoon, either). I'm no more creative than the next guy sloppily taking notes on what an unbound piano trio sounds like in their moment. The band isn't using notes, so there's no use in taking any. At some point, I decided that instead of trying to see outside the moment, I should close my eyes and be in it with them.
The Necks, who fall sufficiently under the description of "improvised music," are not somewhere in between jazz and ambient, this genre or that. They're in between sleeping and waking, in that creative space where your best ideas come and you forget to write them down because you're too enrapt in being aware that you're asleep to move. It's not unlike falling asleep passenger-side on an hour-long road trip and still somewhat catching the scenery. They exist in the same hypnagogic states they put the listener into, and yet, like the driver, they must be there at present to allow the audience not to be.
It started with a deep low note, as bassist Lloyd Swanton pulled the bow across the strings of his upright, and that's as much as it took. Chris Abrahams dabbled about on piano while whistling his tune along in duet, and Tony Buck tumbled softly over the drum. The set began as it ended; they started playing when they were ready and stopped playing when they were done. Fifteen minutes in, the bass lines changed from bellowing to finger plucking, and the music changed with it. The mingling of cymbal scratching into hand drumming in polyrhythmic pace, into Abrahams' repetition of piano notes like they're stuck until he pounds and the sound flutters. Their improvising makes each change come naturally, like the weather. It expands upon itself before your eyes, and yet you can't watch something grow slowly any more than they can watch you listen to them. Your mind wanders, but you're still there.
Most interesting—and potentially puzzling, appearing as if they're doing nothing interesting at all—is they take their time with each minute of music, as if to give each audio idea, however small, proper justice in the time and length. As the cymbals take the queue to step back for the heightening piano, they melt or devolve or return to a similar arrangement of ideas as when it started. It came from silence, a silence that is as improvised as anything, and must necessarily return to it. Sound minimizes to air. Heads down. Lights down. The band waits, the audience with them. The audience finishes the piece with applause. Outside of that, there are just ideas left in the room, as the audience looks around as if to ask, "Are we home?" as the car pulls into the garage.
ON | 2.13.09
(pictures from google, not from the show)

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