Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Necks - Through The Looking Glass

The lights dim and the three of them enter stage and take their positions.  Lloyd Swanton and his double bass in the centre, Tony Buck on drums and percussion to his right and Chris Abrahams on piano to his left. 
Lloyd lifts to embrace his bass, finds his balance and stands still. Chris will shuffle and hunch a bit and then sit with his hands gently cradled in his lap. Tony will briefly check that all of the various accoutrements that surround his drum kit are all where he wants them to be. 
Then, with heads slightly bowed and possibly eyes closed, they will wait for the sounds of the audience of coughing, shuffling and slightly embarrassed laughter, to cease.
We eventually settle and wait with them.  During this brief shared moment when you could hear a pin drop, the energy seems to move and ripple around the room. This portentous silence and the life that it holds,  feels like the moment of  conception of all the music that will follow.  As if all that is to come, is generated by this bulging moment of quiet.

And then, one of them will begin to play.

It may be Lloyd with a slow somnambulant plucking, perhaps only one or two notes, or Tony with a crunching, swishing sound, like some creature creeping through a bamboo forest, or Chris poking the piano with one insistent  index finger like an amateur typist.  These first minutes feel like a kind of preliminary search, as if these three men are shaking off the last traces of who they were before they came on stage. Whilst doing this, they also need  to  re- introduce themselves to one another.  Some nights this introduction will be effortless and they will slide back into each-other’s musical company like the old friends that they are.  At other times they may have to work harder, they may contradict each other and circle around like birds or male dogs. 
But whichever way it begins, The Necks will eventually settle into another unique improvised groove that will build and grow like a bushfire that originated from the humble flame of a match stick. 
The time between start and finish of one set is usually somewhere between 40 minutes to an hour.  However, during a Necks gig, time becomes slippery and elastic. It can feel as though you have been listening for a period of years that  flash past in minutes. 
During interval you will hear people talking with excitement.  Describing to each other all the places that they traveled to in their minds whilst listening to this music.  It is like the post-mortem discussions held by friends that have been tripping on mushrooms together.
Somehow it is like this but without any hallucinogens. The music that is generated by The Necks, will hypnotise and transport you to miraculous places and spaces.  Images, feelings and memories will surface and disappear.  Through the prism of their looking glass we travel inwards and outwards.  Effortlessly.

The music builds on a foundation of incrementally changing repetitions of musical motifs that are established early on. Long musical patterns that gradually and imperceptibly get added to, until the room is filled with a riotous cacophony of sound.
The incredible skill, technique and discipline of these musicians is mind blowing by itself.  But it is their ability to experiment and improvise that is even more extraordinary.  Chris can at times play the piano like a drum, beating at it, with hands that move with such speed that they blur like the wings of a hummingbird. At other times he will create these undulating waves of pure poetry and melody that can make tears quietly course down my cheeks.  Tony can set up some extraordinarily complex rhythms on his kit whilst also managing to insert a host of other sounds that feel like they must be generated electronically. It is amazing to watch him keeping it all together. He becomes spider like and it is hard to credit that he has only four limbs that are making all of those sounds and rhythms simultaneously. Lloyd often feels like the keystone of the operation. But he too manages to bounce, soar, pluck and hack at his strings adding his own unique  sounds to the equation.  It is his touch that can take the music into surprisingly funky territory. To watch him play is pure pleasure as his face will often reflect something of his own experience of the process.
But it is not what they do separately.  The true sorcery is how it/they all work together.  How the musical layers and forces weave and entwine.  The unity and cohesion that is formed can (and usually does) enter the territory of the divine.

Participating in a Necks gig can be a transformative experience.  Listening to their slowly unwinding musical journeys can teach us a whole new way of hearing.  The subtle way that the music changes has a potency that is perhaps brought about by anticipation and recognition.  It is both organic and structured.  Somehow, through the portal of the ear, all of the senses will end up being engaged.  But even beyond the senses, this music reveals something of the enormity of our human capacity to experience, imagine, perceive, feel, conceive, remember and love. Two hours of full immersion into a rare atmosphere of pure creativity, inspiration and reverie.
What’s not to love?

Monday, 14 November 2011


A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain.  Its chief activity consists in the endeavour to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with”.
The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

When driving, walking and moving through the world, my eyes are constantly collecting visual information.  This information supposedly goes into a kind of storage system in my brain, the nature of which I am not consciously familiar with.  Yet, when needed in the studio (or when asked by family members as to the  whereabout of wallets, shoes, footballs etc), these visuals usually come freely forward to be used, translated and interpreted.  I notice that my ability to recall visual information is a lot stronger than my ability to recall verbal information. 

This morning I was wondering what this storage facility would look like if it was out in the world.  Would there be labelled boxes in a massive warehouse?  What would the labels say?  I am fairly certain that it would not be a terribly logical labeling system (if my office is anything to go by). 
Although I am not privy to the way that my mind stores information, I have started noticing that my responses are changing to the various things that my eyes collect.  For example as I drove home yesterday, I noticed the white reflective posts by the side of the road as they curved around the green verge of the hill.  This image could be stored in a box with the words Rhythms or Repetitious Patterns written on it.  It could also go into a box called Fences, Barriers and Enclosures or Reflections and Things That Glow In The Dark or another marked Perspective and Distance or simply, Green and White Things.  Perhaps this information would go into all of these boxes as well as one that would be more obviously labelled with: Reflective Road Markers and Traffic Signs.  To my mind it would make sense to store everything in numerous places to make retrieval statistically more likely and faster. But recently my response is to try not to consciously catagorise things.  I am also trying to do  this in the studio.  To allow the work to reveal itself and resist the temptation to label or pigeon hole the work that I do. So what may appear to be a landscape painting could in fact be a painting about dreams, connections, ant tracks, neural pathways or what I had for breakfast.
The next question that comes to mind is: what comes first?  Do the images and forms that interest me come from without or within?  Who creates the symbols?
Then I remember that this definition of boundaries perhaps does not exist at all.  That there is new science that suggests that memory does not  exist within the confines of the cranium.  It exists both inside and outside of the body in an endless field of energy (the Morphic Field*) and all of this information has been swirling around and continually added to since time was a boy in short pants. This science seems to beautifully echo Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious as well as the possibilities suggested by Quantum Physics, Field Theory and the ancient Absolutist philosophies of Advaita Vedanta.
I am no scientist or academic and my research is scant and focussed purely on what interests me or what contributes to the direction of my work.  But these theories somehow ring true for me.  Especially when I think about my own experiences of dreams, death, intuition and  the mysterious way that the creative process unfolds.  So many things.  It also greatly reinforces my belief that what I say and do and put out into the world has widespread ripples so it had better be good and worthwhile (I don’t always succeed but I try).
 So perhaps my brain is not just a glorified filing cabinet but a highly skilled selector.  My own personal editor in chief.  It certainly works in mysterious ways and I love these mysteries.  I hope that it remains eternally so.

*”The morphic fields of mental activity are not confined to the insides of our heads. They extend far beyond our brain though intention and attention. We are already familiar with the idea of fields extending beyond the material objects in which they are rooted: for example magnetic fields extend beyond the surfaces of magnets; the earth’s gravitational field extends far beyond the surface of the earth, keeping the moon in its orbit; and the fields of a cell phone stretch out far beyond the phone itself. Likewise the fields of our minds extend far beyond our brains.”

Morphic Resonance and Morphic Fields- An Introduction
By Rupert Sheldrake


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