In an age of infinite duplication, when what we mean by photography or film or music is (with increasing commonality) a digital file easily reproducible as an exact copy of itself, there is something revolutionary about the very idea of a unique artwork. Limited edition vinyl pressings and packed-in hardcover art books are one thing, but really they are just a means of seeming to rarefy something which can be bought far more cheaply in an unadorned form (or acquired without charge if you are of threadbare moral fibre). Playing entirely improvised pieces of free jazz, the Australian trio The Necks are offering something quite unique: the chance to hear genuinely new music which will not be heard again.
When the lights go down in The Barbican’s theatre they go all the way down: the audience is in complete darkness and only the three musicians are spotlit on stage. Chris Abrahams sits at the piano, hands between his knees, staring intently at no sheet music. Lloyd Swanton cradles his double bass with his eyes closed. Tony Buck sits at the drums without a stick in his hand.
It’s Abrahams that starts the first set, tentatively keying something out on the piano’s upper register. After a couple of cycles Swanton’s bass picks it up and my eyes move to Buck who begins minimally supporting the structure of the rhythm that is taking shape. At first the relative slightness of the music builds a tension in the room; almost everyone here must be aware that The Necks’ modus operandi is repetition and escalation, but there’s something delicate about what’s happening that makes the enterprise seem dangerous. Because this is music being born, being created before us, the idea lingers that it might not survive.
Buck seems to be the primary inventive force in the first set’s development. His percussive colouring is nonpareil: with his right hand he succeeds in producing at least a half-dozen unique tones by striking in various ways different parts of one cymbal; he operates a small set of wind-chime bells with his left hand and gradually builds something on the bass drum. After a while I am aware that the sound now has too many elements for me to hold in my mind at once. It has grown and evolved, still rhythmically consistent with its very first moments but an order of magnitude more complex. Some of The Necks' magic comes from this ability to lull you in the beginning into intense concentration on a small number of sparse musical elements, such that when the music intensifies you find yourself both invested in its skeleton and unable to simultaneously appreciate all of its parts. What results is a kind of semi-hypnotic state.
In the auditorium’s darkness and the performers’ situation in the spotlight there are parallels with Beckett’s Not I. In that play the rhythms of language are used to seduce and then overpower the ear and mind such that sat in the dark watching only an illuminated mouth on stage it is easy to become disorientated and mesmerised. Something similar is happening on stage as The Necks at once construct and are propelled by a wave of sound. The volume builds as the sound evolves, parts become more elaborate as if by mitosis. I shut my eyes at one point and experience this as something entirely different to any live music I have been audience to. There is an incantatory quality to what has arrived in the room: an organic musical structure, the vitality of which is no longer in doubt.
Speaking of the music in such a way has the effect of reducing the agency of the players. There should be no doubt of the level of musicianship on display, but The Necks’ genius is in removing themselves mentally from the process of the music’s creation. By being tremendously gifted at playing their instruments but not allowing ideas of ‘musicality’ to interfere with the directions the sound will take, it seems they are able to create something truly unique.
The second set proves darker than the first, denser and less inviting though no less seductive. Chris Abrahams finds something he likes in prestissimo bursts in the high notes. Swanton at first compliments and then consumes what the piano had started, physically wrestling his double bass, at times grimacing with the strain of playing the note series he’s constructing. Abrahams’ piano relents and he retreats first to soft, closed-fist relays on the extreme low end and then a massage-like fingertip sweep over a whole swathe of keys. Buck relies heavily on cymbals, which he plays with unerring precision even when reaching to the floor for another stick or brush. In the set’s final minutes he places three upturned hand cymbals on the snare and adds to the work he’s doing with his left hand on the ride cymbal a completely different and absolutely complimentary right-handed rhythm. This is how the second piece closes, with the piano coming to a soft rest, Swanton having tamed his rampant bass into something calmer and Buck’s hand mothwinging between bright cymbal tones.
And once it’s done it’s done. Unrepeatable, this is music that has come into being and has passed out of being in our presence. Not without its rough edges, not to the delight of every ear, but enormously impressive, utterly absorbing and entirely singular.