Last week I saw Harold Budd and The Necks at the Holywell Music Room in Oxford on their Time Being tour.
The Holywell Music Room is owned by my old college, Wadham. I think I’ve been there twice previously – once to see a Brahms recital when I was a student, and once to hear Mike Parker. Each time I go I wonder why I don’t go more often – it’s in the city, and unlike Reading there’s no lost sleep from camping in a field with people shouting “bollocks” all night, people talking during gigs, or crapping into a tin box.
I first heard of Budd in Q Magazine in a list of top ten ambient albums. These included Selected Ambient Works II, Lifeforms, Ultraworld and The White Arcades by Budd. But as great as The White Arcades is Lovely Thunder is an even better work (especially the opening track, The Gunfighter). Both of them hail from his collaborative period with Brian Eno in the 80s and I think represent his best. I’ve not been as taken with Budd’s recent stuff – like his works with Clive Wright such as Little Windows, which I think have a lot less energy, presence, and menace (I’m a big fan of the Dark Ambient genre).
So I was excited to see Budd perform in the flesh (possibly the first ambient music concert I’ve been to), but on the other hand I was a bit apprehensive of the content. Moreover I’d never even heard of The Necks, and experimental jazz could turn out to be forty minutes of dissonant torture.
Part One: Harold Budd with Russell Mills
The first half was Harold Budd being helped out by Russell Mills, a chap with an impressive CV of association with ambient musicians. Budd proceeded to play an extremely sparse set; meanwhile Mills clambered all over the stage (cluttered with both his instruments and The Necks) fiddling with various boxes to produce echo effects, digital loops, and broad spectrum noises along with some improvised sounds generated by abusing a Neck’s double bass.
A projector screen above showed a slowly transitioning colour space that looked alternately like a blurred landscape, outerspace, and an endoscopy.
Mills was (I assume) taking cues from Budd’s passages and applying effects, and there were flashes of real excitement and interest – like the moment when Mills loosened one of the double bass’s strings and played it so it clattered on the fingerboard, or when a chord echoed against a background of white noise. But there were also times when I wanted a bit more from the performance. It all felt terribly restrained. I wanted the white noise to be louder, become overbearing and really challenge Budd’s piano to push through. Blame my renewed interest in Throbbing Gristle.
I was hoping toward the end Budd would slam the piano’s keylid closed and turn around to Mills saying “will you stop dicking about and settle the fuck down, I’m trying to play some serious fucking piano” but he didn’t. Probably because he’s got better manners than me.
I did not shout “Free Bird!”.
Part Two: The Necks
My companions had insisted on a swift half in the Kings Arms nearby, and when we got back the doors were closed. One of them remarked that this was no bad thing. But we got in and took our seats just in time.
The Necks are a trio of percussion (Tony Buck), piano (Chris Abrahams) and the aforementioned double bass (Lloyd Swanton). The set was a single composition about 40 minutes long; whether it was from their most recent album mindset or something else, I have no idea.
Lloyd Swanton took centre stage and looked severely constipated throughout. From my seat I got the best view of Tony Buck and spent most of the time trying to work out what he was doing with his left hand to make this fantastic washing sound, like many small bells. That was how it started – percussion of scraping sounds and a repeated theme on the bass, and some sparse piano.
Then it gradually built up. Buck introduced a small cymbal and began scraping the edge over the top of a side drum. Swanton persisted with a recurrant theme of plucked notes, then switched to a combination of bow and plucking. Abrahams gradually built up the volume and texture of the piano. They made great use of the ambient lighting, with the spots transitioning between blue and red, giving a sensation of a day-night cycle. The sounds became gradually more complex and I had a strong impression of a busy city waking up and going to sleep over a couple of days – pink dawns, blue and amber days full of noise, and deep red dusk and night that instilled a sense of fear.
Overall I really enjoyed this performace, even if it was extremely demanding on the attention. I guess if I’d been tired or irritable I might not have responded so positively.
I think I was in the minority that liked the second half over the first. But I think most people liked The Necks and by liked I mean tolerated. And by tolerated I mean removed their shoes and socks and gnawed their own toes off during the performance to take the edge off.
I’ve since found that The Necks are on emusic, so I’ll be using up some of this month’s credit with an album or two. As for Harold Budd the next aquisition is likely to be earlier stuff like The Pearl or Abandoned Cities.
p>One of the chaps I was with had previously seen Gorecki’s Already It Is Dusk. It’s a horrible brooding dissonant piece of music that rewards you at the very end by a lightening tone, an assurance that actually it’s alright, you got through. Except when he saw it, someone forgot to turn off their mobile phone and it went off right at the end. Totally ruined the performance.
I’ve been gradually losing patience with Reading Festival and part of that is people thinking they have licence to behave like pricks, but a bigger part of it is said pricks chanting “owah owah” at every fucking set or otherwise making noises when I’m trying to listen. I’d assume it’s because I’m getting old, but the Festival arseholes tend to be the same age as me. I don’t like being talked to by my neighbour during a film, either. I guess I’m in a minority.
Audiophiles lament the death of good music saying the mp3 and radio has made music ubiquitous and disposable, and therefore people see no reason for high quality music (yet will still shell out for Blu-Ray players). You can blame people for being poor listeners, but critical listening is an aquired skill that few people teach – as an adult, I’ve mainly heard about it in management courses.
As a kid though I remember my music teacher making us put our heads down and listen. I remember him being pretty rude actually – implying that no-one taught us, the MTV generation, to really listen to music – a criticism probably aimed at our parents. But even if my parents had played more music when I was a kid, I don’t think it would have drawn my attention away from the television and ray guns and spaceships and after-school cartoons. Still, better late than never.